If you close your eyes and listen to a Donald Trump speech at a support rally, you could easily mistake it for a fourth grade classroom—and that is no accident. Back when Trump announced his candidacy in June, he utilized a combination of harsh and straightforward diction to decry the corruption of Washington politics, and its failure to deliver on its promises.
“How stupid are our leaders?” Trump said. “How stupid are they?” Seeming to lack the capacity to understand what qualifiers are, he launched into a comedic tirade, lambasting the current system with a lack of nuance. He called it “huge.” He called it “terrible.” He called it “big, fat, and stupid.”
But while this extremity may make the job of political satirists way too easy, what is often ignored is its unique appeal among both white and blue-collar voters. Making up a majority of Trump’s support base, it seems that they are being swayed specifically by this unprecedented manner of speech.
According to a recent study of political rhetoric by the Boston Globe, the language within Trump’s speeches closely models that of a fourth grader, the lowest level of speech among all Republican candidates. The review, which used an algorithm dubbed the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, condenses word choice and sentence syntax to categorize paragraphs into grade levels. While it seems logical that America would pick the most educated speaker, Trump’s language and straight talking points can defeat the flowery rhetoric of even the most talented speechwriters.
The simple fact is much of the electorate is fed up with politicians that are “all talk, no action.” Trump is being rewarded for his refreshingly straightforward rhetoric that appeals to an emotional and angry audience. Unfortunately, while US-Mexico foreign policy should boil down to a lot more than “building a wall,” and while tough talk doesn’t move unpredictable dictators, people inherently gravitate toward simple solutions rather than complex policy points. Furthermore, while Republicans are combatting this rhetoric with their own complicated speeches, Trump’s simple solutions are inherently validated, not harmed, by the evasive arguments of established politicians against him.
Such a phenomenon was most accurately demonstrated by a recent Bloomberg survey, in which respondents were polled and re-polled after presented with arguments for and against Trump’s plan to temporarily ban all Muslims. After being read a statement from the establishment’s discontent over Trump’s proposition, the percentage of supporters in favor of Trump’s statement only dropped by a measly one percent. The establishment’s rebuttals go as follows:
“Leaders from across the political spectrum have condemned this policy, saying that banning members of an entire religion from entering the country goes against everything we believe in as Americans. And it will make our country less safe by alienating the allies we need to fight ISIS.”
It is not surprising that this statement did little to dent Trump’s support. It is much easier to believe that terrorism can be eradicated by a blanket ban, rather than understand the deeper nuances of radicalization and what drives the desire to terrorize.
This argument, also known as the Overkill Backfire Effect, explains that arguments like Trump’s are persuasive because processing a multitude of arguments takes much more work than considering only a few. In other words, a simple fantasy is much more believable in the face of a complex, nuanced reality.
When Washington politicians with their fancy law degrees and limousines use sophisticated language and never deliver on promised change, anger is inevitable and to an extent, understandable. But anger is a dangerous emotion. In order to combat the uncomplicated mating call of Trump, the Republican establishment must develop its own simple and clear message, rather than count on its usual flowery rhetoric. Rhetoric as usual ended the moment Trump won by 20 points in New Hampshire.