How to become the President of the USA in the 21st Century

A brief overview of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) using the example of the third debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during the Presidential Election 2016 at the University of Nevada, 19th October.

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Do you ever wonder what it takes to become the President of the United States?
Apparently not much with regard to the last US election.

Maybe you are already familiar with the analysis of political rhetoric because you had to interpret speeches of (the former US-Presidents) Barack Obama or George W. Bush in school. If so, you also know that it is important for a politician to express his or her thoughts in an educated and appropriate manner. However, in case you followed the last election, you may have noticed a change of language use in speeches and debates. Because of this, we want to tell you something about a popular concept of linguistics (CDA/PDA) connected to an also popular example: businessman and the 45th President Donald J. Trump.

CAUTION!
The following paragraphs will contain a lot of linguistic information and theoretical approaches. 

CDA looks at the study of relations of inequality, power and dominance as well as the ways how these relations are represented by several social groups through the use of language (cf. Wodak and Meyer 2009a, 3). The concept of power is a central part of CDA. As a consequence, CDA tends to study strategies of manipulation or persuasion by dominant and powerful groups which control the opinions of others and might have effects on their actions too (cf. Van Dijk 1997a, 17).

Due to the fact that we are looking at a former businessman and the current US-President, we will use the sub-discipline of CDA, ‘Political Discourse Analysis’ (PDA) which deals with discourses that take place in the field of politics. The main target of PDA researchers is the investigation of the creation of political power and its abuse or domination through political communication. Through the use of specific language elements and the representation of their own views, these high-ranking politicians are able to persuade the audience or even the (whole) nation. This may be achieved by applying linguistic and rhetorical elements which are getting analyzed by PDA researchers in a precise manner.

One of these linguistic elements is the so-called Ideological Square. By evaluating other figures, actions or policies, speakers draw differences between the own group and several other groups, for example their political opponents. Due to that, evaluations are illustrated by a strict polarization: Us against Them.

Components of the Ideological Square are: 

1. Emphasize Our good things

2. Emphasize Their bad things

3. De-emphasize Our bad things

4. De-emphasize Their good things
(Van Dijk 2006, 734)

The views, strategies, actions or beliefs that are being valued by another group, will be de-emphasized “through positive evaluations of us and negative evaluations of THEM, i.e. our political and ideological competitors, opponents, or even enemies” (Van Dijk 1997b, 28). Important features of the Ideological Square are also the pronoun use and the chosen vocabulary. But what do we mean by talking about “chosen vocabulary?” 
First of all, adjectives play a crucial part in political speeches. Politicians may use negatively connoted adjectives that reflect their personal views or preferences, such as “horrible”, “hostile” or “disrespectful” whilst talking about members of other parties, enemies and so on. On the other hand, politicans may also use positive adjectives, such as “great”, “incredible” or “enormous” when talking about their own strategies, views or party and thus, contributing to the polarity between the own group and several other groups.

We will apply the theoretical framework to the example of the third debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during the last US election:

“TRUMP: She [Hillary Clinton] wants open borders. People are going to pour into our country. People are going to come in from Syria. She wants 550 percent more people than Barack Obama, and he has thousands and thousands of people. They have no idea where they come from.

And you see, we are going to stop radical Islamic terrorism in this country. She won’t even mention the words, and neither will President Obama. So I just want to tell you, she wants open borders.

Now we can talk about Putin. I don’t know Putin. He said nice things about me. If we got along well, that would be good. If Russia and the United States got along well and went after ISIS, that would be good.

He [Putin] has no respect for her. He has no respect for our president. And I’ll tell you what: We’re in very serious trouble, because we have a country with tremendous numbers of nuclear warheads—1,800, by the way—[were] they expanded and we didn’t, 1,800 nuclear warheads. And she’s playing chicken. Look, Putin…

HOST: Wait, but…

TRUMP: … from everything I see, has no respect for this person.

CLINTON: Well, that’s because he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States.

TRUMP: No puppet. No puppet.

CLINTON: And it’s pretty clear…

TRUMP: You’re the puppet!

CLINTON: It’s pretty clear you won’t admit…

TRUMP: No, you’re the puppet.”

In this excerpt of the third Presidential Debate several linguistic elements that belong to the investigation of PDA can be found:
“People are going to pour into our country. People are going to come in from Syria […] They have no idea where they come from” is an example for Trump’s typical choice of words, he tries to persuade the audience of his point of view by causing them to be afraid of immigrants. In Donald Trump’s opinion, the immigrant’s unkown origin and unclear future plans classify them as dangerous for the USA. 

“And you see, we are going to stop radical Islamic terrorism in this country. She [Hillary Clinton] won’t even mention the words, and neither will President Obama.” This sentence shows a connection between Trump’s dislike of immigrants and the use of the Ideological Square (Trump vs. Clinton/ Obama). Trump bashes the current government and his opponent Hillary Clinton while claiming that he will do a better job being the President of the United States.

“He [Putin] has no respect for her. He has no respect for our president.” Through the repetition of “he has no respect”, Donald Trump is eager to make clear that in his opinion Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are no figures of authority and because of that are not taken seriously abroad.

“We’re in very serious trouble […]” illustrates Trump’s attempt to build a relationship with the audience via the use of the pronoun “we”. This helps Trump to create a fundament of trust and sense of togetherness between the American people and himself. As you may know, this strategy actually worked.

TRUMP: And she’s playing chicken.

TRUMP: … from everything I see, has no respect for this person.

CLINTON: Well, that’s because he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States.

TRUMP: No puppet. No puppet.

CLINTON: And it’s pretty clear…

TRUMP: You’re the puppet!

CLINTON: It’s pretty clear you won’t admit…

TRUMP: No, you’re the puppet.”

This interaction shows that Trump’s vocabulary is small and not appropriate at all in a political context. This argument seems to be more accurate in a different environment.
Just imagine two kids, who dislike each other, fighting without objectivity:

“Tom: Chris, that’s my shovel!

Chris: You’re a liar!

Tom: No liar. No liar.

Chris: It was a birthday pres…

Tom: No, you’re the liar!!”

One can summarize Donald Trump’s language use as colloquial, disrespectful and limited. Nevertheless, he managed to persuade most of the Americans of his views and became the next President of the United States. Comparing this to former politicians around the world, it’s obvious that his election is a crushing sensation also through the eyes of linguists to-be.

For your tremendous enjoyment:


Works Cited:

Charteris-Black, Jonathan. 2014. Analysing Political Speeches: Rhetoric, Discourse and Metaphor. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.


Van Dijk, Teun A. 1997a. “Discourse as Interaction in Society.” In Discourse as Social Interaction: Discourse Studies: A Multidisciplinary Introduction Volume 2, edited by Teun A. van Dijk, 1 – 37.

Van Dijk, Teun A. 1997b. “What is Political Discourse Analysis?” In Political Linguistics, edited by Jan Blommaert, and Chris Bulcaen, 11 – 52.

Van Dijk, Teun A. 2006. “Politics, Ideology, and Discourse.” In Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics, edited by Keith Brown, 2nd ed., Amsterdam: Elsevier, 728–740.

Wodak, Ruth, and Michael Meyer. 2009. Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis, 2nd ed., London: SAGE.

Wodak and Meyer 2009a. “Theory and Methodology.” In Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis, edited by Ruth Wodak, and Michael Meyer, 2nd ed., 1 – 33.

Internet Sources:

Peters, Gerhard, and John T. Woolley. 2016. “The American Presidency Project. Presidential Debates. 1960 and 1976 – 2016: Republican Candidates Debate in Miami, Florida.” Last accessed 19.11.2016, 3:33pm. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=119039.

The picture by Rich Girard at the beginning of our blog post (the same one as the Featured Image) is taken from the image database Flickr and released under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0.

The video “Donald Trump’s Phone Call with Hillary Clinton” with Jimmy Fallon and Hillary Clinton is taken from the official The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon YouTube Channel.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONRQZshyrPI


miriam&theresa

Miriam (22) and Theresa (22) are both students of Applied Linguistics in Bonn. Before moving to Bonn for their Master, they did their Bachelor in Literature and Language in Aachen. Their main linguistic interests are Pragmatics and Semantics.

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