After the fireworks and the balloons of the Republican and Democrat conventions last week, I took a look at the speeches delivered by Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama.
How did these politicians, and their speechwriters, seek to convince the American public that their cause was the one to support? What grammatical, rhetorical, and linguistic devices did they employ, and to what effects?
Below are four lessons that speechwriters might learn from their different approaches and styles.
Positives > negatives
As Obama observed, Trump offered ‘a deeply pessimistic vision’ of contemporary American society. That vision included, for example, the following dystopian image: ‘Our roads and bridges are falling apart, our airports are in Third World conditions, and 43 million Americans are on food stamps.’ These are spurious claims, but they reflect Trump’s strategy: to exacerbate fears, and then to offer quick-fix solutions.
Clinton contended that the US really isn’t so bad. However, she made some crucial concessions—and confessions: ‘we haven’t done a good enough job showing that we get what you’re going through, and that we’re going to do something about it.’ In such moments, Clinton gave up too much ground. She granted Trump an authority that contradicted her other efforts to ridicule his hot-headedness.
Conversely, Obama knows how to make concessions, to admit limitations, and to reassure voters that their anxieties aren’t invalid, while maintaining a positive mood. After announcing his ‘optimism’ for the future, he announced, ‘So, tonight, I’m here to tell you that yes, we still have more work to do.’ That ‘yes’ is great. Not only does Obama refuse to relinquish any authority to his opponents, but also he manages to preface a negative moment with a positive ‘yes’. (The literary scholar in me is reminded of Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses!).
Handle rhetorical devices with care
Barton Swaim, in the Washington Post, points to ‘some pretty hokey instances of wordplay’ in Clinton’s speech. On the American Revolution, for example: ‘Some wanted to stick with the king. Some wanted to stick it to the king’. Clinton’s vocabulary was also flat and underwhelming: she was ‘happy’ at improvements in gender relations, and sought to rouse the audience with the bland ‘let’s keep going’. That said, Jon Favreau, Obama’s former speechwriter, praised this ‘wonkiness’ for how it humanised Clinton.
Clinton was certainly stronger with imagery than with wordplay. She used one of the most poetic images I’ve heard in a political speech in a long while: ‘Way too many dreams die in the parking lots of banks’. That crash from the ideal to the mundane: such a devastating anticlimax.
Clinton also used the withering line, ‘A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.’ Funnily enough, this line echoed the antithetical structure favoured by Trump. His speech included, ‘Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country’ and, ‘Any government that fails [to defend its citizens] is a government unworthy to lead’. However, the humour of Clinton’s example saved it from Trump’s hectoring tone.
Pronouns are important
Although Clinton and Obama both attacked Trump’s egotism, all three speeches were heavy with first-person pronouns, and used singular (‘I’) and plural (‘we’) forms in roughly equal measure. What was less expected, though, was how infrequently Trump used second-person pronouns (‘you’). I would expect him to be all about the flattery of the direct address.
Obama flattered, but in an enjoyable manner. He deployed second-person pronouns with panache. Right at the start of his speech, he remembered his first address to the convention, when ‘you met’ his daughters and ‘you fell for’ his wife. Personal memories became collective memories. That same movement was made within the grammar of a subsequent line: ‘How could I not be [optimistic]—after all we’ve achieved together?’
The effect was compounded at the end of his speech when he referenced the ‘audacity of hope’ line from his 2004 convention keynote. This moment could have seemed arrogant; instead, it served as a call to collective memory.
All’s well that ends well
Spectacular events like convention speeches need dramatic climaxes. Trump’s conclusion wasn’t too bad, but it was formulaic. He ended by repeating ‘We will make America [Strong/Proud/Safe/Great] again.’ All three speeches frequently turned to similar uses of anaphora (which strikes this Englishman as a quintessentially American device). That Trump used four repetitions rather than the golden Rule of Three was another example of his clumsy rhetoric.
Clinton’s speech was also predictable in its closing moments. It suffered from a series of mixed metaphors. It’s worth quoting at length, with my observations in square brackets:
That is the story of America. And we begin a new chapter tonight [writing]. Yes the world is watching what we do [acting]. Yes, America’s destiny is ours to choose [world-historical decision-making]. So let’s be stronger together [the collective body]. Looking to the future with courage and confidence [sight]. Building a better tomorrow for our beloved children and our beloved country [construction]. When we do, America will be greater than ever [personification]. Thank you, and may God bless the United States of America!
The climax should be a moment of affirmation, but Clinton’s was a moment of confusion. Obama got it right: ‘I’m asking you to join me—to reject cynicism, reject fear, to summon what’s best in us’. What I like most about this example is how he switches from ‘reject’ to ‘summon’, which interrupts the repetition and surprises the ear. We are made to listen, properly.