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Is Donald Trump So Popular Because of How He Talks? A Linguistics Explainer

Logical or not, Trump uses linguistic strategy to make you to believe what he says.
Screencap from George Lakoff/YouTube

Donald Trump's fourth grade level of speech could be manipulating your unconscious.

No offense to the absurdly popular reality-TV-star-turned-Republican nominee; it's a simple fact of cognitive linguistics.

Experts did a linguistic analysis of the way Trump talks and found that his speech corresponds to a fourth grade reading level (the lowest of all presidential candidates, with Bernie Sanders on top at a high school level). And it turns out, that's what people like. This video by writer/producer Evan Puschak, better known as the Nerdwriter, explains that Trump's manner of speech might be responsible for his popularity.


"As a lifelong salesman, Trump has a huckster's knack for selling a feeling," Puschak pointed out in the video. The candidate ends his sentences on buzzwords like "problem," "harm," and "service"—all of which are no longer than two syllables. In fact, a whopping 78 percent of the words that Trump uses are monosyllabic, according to the video.

Those short, simple words go a long way. Strategically, those words conclude Trump's sentences, being the last words to resonate with the audience. The effect is compounded when he incessantly repeats those words. ("We have a real problem," "We have to get down to the problem," etc.) Especially when the rest of Trump's speech is generally incoherent, Puschak said, those words stick out.

Repetition is one of Trump's strategies and it has an enormous effect, George Lakoff, professor of cognitive linguistics at UC Berkeley, told Motherboard. The accuracy or legitimacy of repeated statements like "We're going to win, win, win" or "Crooked Hillary, crooked Hillary" is secondary to the repetition in and of itself. When something is said over and over again in the news or elsewhere, Lakoff told Motherboard, the neural circuitry gets stronger and stronger.

"Everything you understand is in neural circuitry in your brain," said Lakoff. The meaning of language rests in neural circuitry, and activating neural circuitry through language (or word repetition) strengthens it. Stronger neural circuits more easily fire in the future.


The stronger the neural circuitry becomes, the more likely certain buzzwords will evoke certain neural circuits and the more probable certain ideas will seem to a person, whether or not they are logical or true. "If you say 'radical Islamic terrorists' over and over, raising in people the fear that these well-known examples of someone who's a Muslim killing people will have higher probability," said Lakoff, then people will become more afraid of Muslims. "The normal neural functioning of the brain is used and exploited by Trump."

Moreover, "cognitive metaphors" frame Trump's speech and political morality. "We tend to understand the nation metaphorically in family terms," Lakoff wrote. Think phrases like founding fathers, homeland security, and sending our children to war. Lakoff wrote that the progressive worldview of family life follows the overarching metaphor of the "Nurturant Parent," while conservatives follow the "Strict Father."

According to "Nurturant Parent" morality, people are taken care of through communal help (welfare, higher minimum wage, etc.), while "Strict Father" morality holds that through self-discipline and hard work, people can take care of themselves. With the latter comes a respect for authority and a social hierarchy (father above children because father is always right, Lakoff wrote, and in many scenarios the idea is extended to any authority over a non-authority).

Trump's conservative politics fit into "Strict Father" morality, according to Lakoff, and that appeals to conservatives. Anyone who disagrees with the authority father figure is wrong, or immoral. So if immorality is illegality in political terms, then Trump's repetition of "crooked Hillary" paints her as a law-breaking enemy of the state—he frames Clinton as a crook, igniting and strengthening the neural circuitry connecting the concepts of "Clinton" and "crook." That's called cognitive framing.

He does the same thing with Muslims. By exaggerating something based in truth, such as repeating the threat of "radical Islamic terrorists," he strengthens the neural connections between "Islam" and "terrorism"—"Muslims" and "terrorists" become part of the same conceptual frame, all logic aside.

About 98 percent of thought is unconscious. "Trump is using what's going on in your unconscious framed brain, he's using it against you for his purposes," Lakoff said. "Using language that activates unconscious neural processes [get you to] unconsciously believe what he says. You believe it because it's repeated and it becomes part of your understanding. That's why this is so dangerous."