Melania Trump (L) and former president Barack Obama watch as President Donald J. Trump delivers his inaugural address. (EPA/Shawn Thew)

As many have noted, when President Donald J. Trump speaks publicly, his rhetorical style is quite different from that of previous presidents. From the inauguration to his National Prayer Breakfast address to his provocative tweets, the president seems to speak just to his supporters. He regularly wields the language of violence and destruction against those who oppose his actions.

Ordinarily, presidents use democratic rhetoric with the goal of unifying Americans who have different private beliefs behind the same set of democratic ideals. This president’s rhetoric is significantly different.

Here’s how we compared Trump’s commitment to democratic ideals with the commitment of his predecessors

The central norms of liberal democratic societies are liberty, justice, truth, public goods and tolerance. To our knowledge, no one has proposed a metric by which to judge a politician’s commitment to these democratic ideals.

A direct way suggested itself to us: Why not simply add up the number of times those words and their synonyms are deployed? If the database is large enough, this should provide a rough measure of a politician’s commitment to these ideals. How does Trump’s use of these words compare to that of his presidential predecessors?

At Language Log, the linguist Mark Liberman graphed how unusual Trump’s inaugural speech was, graphing the frequency of critical words used in each of the past 50 years’ inaugural speeches — and showing how much more nationalist language, and how much less democratic language Trump used than did his predecessors.

We expanded this project, looking at the language in Trump’s inaugural address as well as in 61 campaign speeches since 2015. We compared that to the language used in all 57 prior inaugural speeches, from George Washington’s on. The comparison gives us a picture of Trump’s rhetorical emphases since his campaign began, and hence of his most deeply held political ideals.

We focused on words that either Trump or earlier presidents used frequently.

Consider, for instance, these commonly used inaugural words: “freedom,” “liberty,” “rights” and “public.” In the nation’s first 57 inaugural addresses, each of these four words occurs, on average, once in every 72 words. This is to be expected, as our founding documents make clear that liberty, justice, public welfare, and human rights are the notions that constitute the U.S. political system.

Trump’s inaugural usage of these words was quite different, using freedom-related words (e.g. “freedom,” “freedoms,” “liberty”) only once. The president also used “public” only once, and did not make any reference to democratic rights.

His inaugural address was consistent with his previous political speech. We analyzed 62 transcripts of Trump’s speeches, from 2015 to 2017, for a total database of about 75,000 words. The president generally uses “freedom,” “liberty,” “public” and “rights” in his speeches at only one-fifth of the rate that presidents usually do in their inauguration addresses.

We have also begun comparing Trump’s speeches to the wide sampling of previous presidents’ speeches contained on the Miller Center Presidential Speech Archive. He uses democratic vocabulary at a significantly lower rate than previous presidents, according to this large database, as you can see below.


Figure: Christopher Brown

In Trump’s speeches, none of “freedom,” “liberty” or “rights” shows up among the top 1000 most commonly used. “Public” makes it into Trump’s top 1000 words, but barely, clocking in as his 938th most commonly used word. Further, and unlike prior presidents, his uses of “public” tend to have more to do with media and publicity than with the rights of the public or the public good — as when he accused Hillary Clinton of deviously working “to keep her corrupt dealings out of the public record.”

Similarly, though Trump used “right” five times in his inaugural address, it was only as an adverb, as when he said: “That all changes — starting right here, and right now, because this moment is your moment.”

“Justice” is another word that comes up often in presidential inauguration speech, typically invoking a valued democratic ideal. For instance, in President George W. Bush’s first inaugural address in January 2001, he promised “to work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity,” and to “speak for greater justice and compassion.” In his second, he declared, “in the long run, there is no justice without freedom, and there can be no human rights without human liberty.”

Similarly, in President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address, said that “peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice.”

“Justice” is not among Trump’s most commonly used 1000 words. Trump used “just” or “justice” twice in his inaugural speech. One use expressed the democratic ideal (“just and reasonable demands”). The other use was purely descriptive, addressed to John Roberts as “Chief Justice.” In his speeches, the president’s use of “justice” is either descriptive or punitive, as when he said, “We need to make sure every single person involved in this plan, including anyone who knew something, but didn’t tell us, is brought to justice.”

The stark difference in the use of democratic vocabulary between Trump and prior presidents can be seen in the following chart, generated using counts from prior inaugural addresses, our collection of Trump campaign speeches, and his inaugural address.


Figure: Christopher Brown

Measuring Trump’s use of the rhetoric of tyranny

In contrast to stereotypical democratic language, with its norm of liberty, the primary norm of tyranny is power. In The Republic, Plato argues that democracy descends inevitably into tyranny, because “the people [are] always in the habit of setting up one man as their special champion, nurturing him and making him great.” According to Socrates, “the first thing [the tyrant] does is to stir up a war, so that the people will continue to feel the need of a leader.”

Plato’s description of the rhetoric of tyranny is echoed in Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, in the work of Carl Schmitt, and in Victor Klemperer’s The Language of the Third Reich. These authors maintain that authoritarians use the language of crisis and disintegration to sow fear and stoke a desire for revenge for that fear their rhetoric generates. Therefore, authoritarians speak of enemies real and imagined whom they will overpower and destroy.

Trump’s speeches use this style of speech. Among the most common words he uses are “China,” “Mexico,” “Iran” (in contexts where it is clear they are to be seen as enemies), “border(s),” “military,” “hell,” “tough,” “disaster,” “horrible,” “worst” and “strong,” with “ISIS” and “immigration” not too far behind.

These words alone account for more than 1 in 70 of Trump’s words.

In previous inaugural speeches, “liberty” is the 27th most common content word used in previous inaugural speeches. “Trump” appears to play a similar rhetorical role for the president; in the 62 of his speeches we analyzed, it was the 10th most common content word (after removing “the,” “and,” and similar common so-called “stop words”). “Donald” was 53rd.

Does rhetoric matter?

Some observers have argued that Trump uses authoritarian instead of democratic rhetoric in order to win elections, and not because he is voicing his actual beliefs.

But a joint public commitment to liberty, justice, rights, and public goods has been the central tool Americans have employed in the service of moral progress. Failing to pay even lip service to that commitment is a notable departure.

David Beaver is a professor of linguistics, philosophy and human dimensions of organization at the University of Texas at Austin. 

Jason Stanley is the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. 

Note: This post has been updated to correct an editing error regarding the rate at which President Trump used words related to democratic values in his inaugural address. We regret the error. –TMC