Trump speaks to his supporters in the language they understand best: social media

Hail to the chief.
Hail to the chief.
Image: Lucas Jackson / Reuters
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President-elect Donald Trump and his non-stop Twitter stream has ushered in the era of the social-media election, and there’s no going back. Every election from here on in will play by the rules that he—and candidates like him—have set.

“Face it: Political language is dead,” writes veteran political reporter Andy Kroll in The Atlantic. “Trump, in his own twisted way, has put in stark relief the vacuousness of this campaignspeak.”

In this new era, politicians are now free to act more like their “real” unvarnished selves, mirroring a public they purport to represent. The slippery political platitudes that roll off candidates’ tongues—such as stump speeches praising “real Americans” who favor “common sense” over “politics as usual”—will be eclipsed by a far more casual, more direct, and more aggressive style of communication that voters have come to use between themselves on Twitter and Facebook. The substance may differ in future elections, but the style almost certainly won’t.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, the candidates who resonated most with voters this bitter campaign season, are exemplars of this style. They are the first to understand the new landscape of campaigning and exploit it to the hilt. Barack Obama may have made 2008 the year of digital campaigning, but Trump won voters over by doubling down on even the most outrageous ideas and insults, initiating whole news cycles with a single tweet. By comparison, Hillary was cautious and digitally out-of-touch, making lame appeals to emoji culture (despite the occasional zinger).

Researchers are now zeroing in on the contours of this new style. Since the 20th century, the primary medium of public political communication has morphed from newspapers, to broadcast media, to today’s digital media. Each time the medium shifts, political speakers are forced to adopt new rhetorical patterns to address voters in the language of that new media, says Jukka Tyrkkö, a Finish linguist and researcher at the University of Helsinki.

As a result, politicians are now in the midst of replacing a media-mediated discourse with one in which they address the electorate directly, often in 140 characters or less. Tyrkkö says (pdf) researchers have watched the dominant style of public political rhetoric shift from the written word of print to the spoken style and abbreviated language used in social media: “Words and sentences are now shorter, difficult words and complex sentence structures have all but disappeared, and the language used is more simplistic, colloquial, and juvenile,” she says.

That trend is already clear in the US Congress. The average American reads at an 8th- or 9th-grade level, and US politicians are swiftly lowering their language standards to meet them. In 2012, the Sunlight Foundation found Congress spoke a full grade level lower (just above 10th grade on the Fleischer-Kincaid readability scale) compared to seven years earlier, according to an analysis of statements in the House and Senate. This year’s presidential candidates sank even lower: An analysis of candidates’ campaign announcement speeches by the Boston Globe showed an average grade level of 7.8. Trump spoke at the lowest level of any candidate, using fewer characters per word, fewer syllables per word, and shorter sentences than all other candidates.

But is this a bad thing?  Lovers of good oratory have nothing to cheer about, but for many voters, politicians beginning to use simple, direct language may not just mean dumbing down. There’s a time for soaring Obama-style speeches, but while his rhetoric played well on the coasts, it fared far less well in rural US.

Trump exploited this gap ruthlessly. His rhetoric repeated simple, eminently tweetable phrases over and over again until they become part of America’s collective consciousness. Truth wasn’t important; they just had to feel true for his base. If they stoked resentment of “the other” in American society—blacks, Mexicans, immigrants, women, and Jews, bigotry that is hallmark of authoritarians—then it was all the more effective at tapping into existing feelings.

Trump’s words are powered by emotion, not reason. Trump connected with his mainly white, rural voters by speaking their language, not policy prescriptions. He exhorted his followers to “believe me,” promised “so much winning,” and dismissed the “rigged system” and “dishonest media.” Details were superfluous. One of the election’s most telling tropes came when a mystified journalist asked supporters to explain Trump’s appeal to them. Voters often replied that the candidate just “says what I’m thinking.”

While vastly different in tone and substance, Bernie Sanders used a simple, direct, and unsparing manner as well. His ”tell-it-like-it-is” style listed the problems that needed fixing in America. Among his most common phrases on the campaign trail were “health care to all,” “corrupt campaign finance system,” and “a political revolution.” In many ways, this simpler, populist style even repudiates the evils George Orwell once ascribed to political speech in a 1946 essay: ”largely the defense of the indefensible… designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Orwell’s remedy? Clarity, honesty, and simplicity.

The shift in tone and style of politics, in many ways, resembles the internet’s upset of traditional media. Press outlets once claimed journalistic certitude—a Walter Cronkite voice of authoirty. This fell apart in spectacular fashion as the web and then social media dismantled their monopoly on fashioning and distributing information. It proved impossible to maintain a consensus, or even a veneer of authority, when the number of voices in the national conversation approached the number of people in the audience itself.

If there are any lessons to be learned in the rise of social media, it’s that politics is poised to assume many of the same anarchic, caustic, snarky, and terrifyingly dark aspects of online discourse. The most retweeted comment of this past election, a epically digital insult tweeted by Clinton, stands out for its sheer contrast with her standard rhetoric.

That’s the future. As Donald J. Trump ascends to the presidency, the echo chambers of Facebook’s 1.8 billion internees will grow more intense. The influence on the electorate will grow as well. Pew reports that 1 in 5 people admitted to changing their stances on a political issue or candidate based on social media in this election—most of those opinions turned negative. Social media promises to amplify our politicians’ worse, and best, instincts. So they should choose their words wisely.