Trump’s simple language isn’t what sets him apart from past presidents, researchers find

Lauren Girgis

People across the political spectrum agree that some aspects of Donald Trump’s presidency are unconventional, but his simple speech style isn’t, according to a study conducted by UT psychology researchers.

The study, published Feb. 11 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used automated text analysis methods to find Trump’s informal way of speaking has strong historical roots.

“Mainly what we found was that starting around World War I in the U.S., presidents increasingly became more informal as well as more confident in their speech,” said Kayla Jordan, lead author of the study. “Additionally, we found that this actually extends to other political leaders, both prime ministers of other countries as well as legislative bodies like Congress.”

Government professor emeritus Bruce Buchanan said that while Trump is part of a broad historical trend towards blunt, straightforward language, he believes Trump’s speech is unique in some aspects.

“He’s less familiar with the operations of the presidency and the government than most people who wind up in that job, and so his modes of self-expression tend to reflect that,” Buchanan said. “Trump is … more of a self-promoting spokesperson than many presidents have been. He trumpets himself in a way that a lot of other presidents … would have considered undignified.”

Buchanan said informal language can help politicians as long as they don’t seem like they’re trying to “dumb” their messages down.

Psychology freshman Maggie Clapper said Trump often seems arrogant in his speech, but she said voters may view his rhetoric differently depending on whether they approve of him as president.

“I think that if every president is moving on a scale towards more simple language, Trump is a drastic slide away,” Clapper said. “I think it’s less confidence and more arrogance.”

The researchers speculate one reason for this simplification trend is globalization and the rise of complexity in politics. This causes voters to look for candidates who can communicate solutions in simple, confident ways, said Jordan, a psychology graduate student. 

“It’s important that people understand that how people are communicating might be influencing their perceptions,” Jordan said. “So if a politician is saying something in this confident, simple way, they might be influenced by the style. It’s also important for people to really get into the meat of what politicians are saying and judge that as well.”