Trump’s Flat Speech: Populism and Richness of Language

Last Friday night—20 January 2017—I got into a discussion with a Facebook Friend of a Facebook Friend regarding Trump’s inauguration speech. In coming up with a way to articulate my contentions, I unwittingly recreated Bakhtin’s idea of heteroglossia; although this is unsurprisingly, since I engaged with Bakhtin more than once in both of my English Lit degrees and have likely internalized some portion of his thought, it was somewhat disappointing, as I was pleased with what I had come up with and would have liked to have taken credit for it. Nonetheless, if I share a version of that argument here, I can at least save you the trouble of reading Discourse and the Novel or, if you choose to tackle it, give you something to get started with. Moreover, I think Bakhtin may be the right thinker to bring to this conversation at this moment anyway, and I haven’t seen that happen yet.


Source: Geoff Livingstone at

In response to a friend’s observation that there was little dissection of Donald Trump’s US Presidential Inauguration Address, one of his Friends (who has chosen not to go by his name here) claimed that if such a speech required experts to parse it, then it was not a very good speech. Although he did not invoke populism, I assumed he made this claim on populist grounds: he’s made this sort of claim before and much defense of Trump is made in populism’s name—although, as we’ll see, neither Trump nor Trump supporters are really populist. The idea, however, is this: the US Presidential Inauguration Address is a speech for all Americans and, as such, should be as totally accessible to all Americans as is possible; to the extent that experts—that is, journalists, politically correspondents, and so on—are able to uncover some meaning that Joe the Plumber is unable to uncover, the speech fails.

When I responded that it is in fact impossible for everyone to 100% of the meaning of a speech, he said that media must be dropping the ball: if analysis is necessary, then analysis must be necessary in the case of Trump’s speech too.

This is a very good point. I have to concede that my friend’s observation—there is comparatively less analysis of Trump’s speech compared to Obama’s and Bush’s speeches—remains unexplained. However, I felt like there was nonetheless a qualitative difference between Trump’s speech and previous US Presidential Inauguration Addresses, that this difference did at least address my friend’s observation, and that total universal semantic accessibility was not a valuable end-goal in such speeches or in almost any text object.

There are two problems conflated here which need to be addressed separately. One is descriptive: is there or is there not a qualitative difference between Trump’s speech and Obama’s and Bush’s speeches, and not merely their contexts, which explains the difference in journalists’ response to these speeches? One is normative: Is it better for a US Presidential Inauguration Address’s semantic content to be more readily accessible and exhaustible to more people? The normative question also has two parts. The first part is, again, descriptive: Is it possible for a speech to be totally accessible to all people at the same time? The second part is truly normative: If it were possible, is it something we should want? Although I tackled both parts on Facebook, here I will only go into the normative part in any detail.

Is there a qualitative between Trump’s speech and other speeches?

Trump’s speech is weird in a lot of ways. His more poetic language strains credulity; when he says, “the factories shuttered and left our shores with not even a thought about the millions and millions of American workers that were left behind,” he suggests that the factories, not the companies, do not give a thought about American workers. That’s a discordant image, especially since elsewhere in the speech he memorably implies the factories themselves have been abandoned: “rusted-out factories, scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation…” (That one is actually a good touch.) Are they mouldering at home or carelessly abroad?

The sentence which follows is also startling in its confusion: “The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world.” Ripped and redistributed by whom? And why ripped from their homes? That’s awfully specific. I realize Trump started in real estate development and I realize lots of people invest equity in their property and I realize the collapse of the real-estate market contributed to the current economic crisis in the United States, but home equity can’t be “redistributed all across the world.” Or is he suggesting that, burglar-like, some force has taken American families’ possessions out of their houses and fenced them internationally? It is confusing.

As we’ll talk about later, his use of religious imagery, sideways references to Founding Fathers talk, and talk of soldiers and flags all feel like they’ve been installed incorrectly, like they are at the wrong angle or not fully screwed in. All throughout it seems like his speech writers were trying to hit the right notes—in my two examples we have “factories,” “without a thought,” “American workers left behind,” and then, “wealth of the middle class,” “homes,” “redistributed” as a bogeyman, “all across the world” as anti-American—but didn’t really know how to assemble them plausibly. That weirdness, or (to call it what it is) lack of skill, definitely ought to give people something to talk about. I don’t know, however, that inexpert speech-writing is going to give political journalists much to say except, “Huh. This is poorly written.” There’s a lot to work with, but it mostly yields the same thing.

There’s another difference, though, which more directly explains a lack of material to discuss: Trump’s speech lacks richness. To explain what I mean by richness, we need to talk about how words, phrases, symbols, and logical turns gain meaning.

As I think most of us know, if in different terms, language accrues meaning through careers of use. A word means something to someone, to anyone, as it occurs in contexts and gains a history of use. Each person, then, has a particular career or history with each word. That word means what it means to them as they have seen it used, and used it, in different contexts, with greater and less success. This is rarely a conscious process but, nonetheless, that is how we build up a word’s meaning—not dictionary definitions, but histories of use. Since for the most part we use language together rather than alone, our linguistic careers are all tangled up. The history of a word—or phrase, or image, or turn of logic, or any other semantic unit—means something to me partly because it means something to someone else, and so my history with a word leans on that word’s total history. Nonetheless, my own history with a word is unique; what a word means to me is not separable from what it means to the people I have successfully used it with, but it does not mean completely the same thing to me as it does to them.

Because different histories with words are tangled differently, communities develop in which words tend to mean very similar things to the people within those communities. In a very sloppy sense, a community of word-using is called a “discourse,” which is the word I’ll be using here on out. People who take part in the same discourse will typically use words in much the same way. At least, this is somewhat the case: since the people in those discourses usually participate in other communities as well, there will still be some divergence in what a word could mean for each of them. A person who is active both in rights-based social philosophy discourses and in astrology discourses might use the phrase “essential dignity” very differently depending on whether they are giving a lecture on pacifism or giving a planetary reading.

To simplify, all meaning in language is allusive: all words, symbols, phrases gain meaning by drawing on their histories. Different people, depending on the discourses they take part in, are aware of different parts of these histories.

A person will try to use a word according to what it means to them. Therefore the way a person uses a word will correspond with the discourses they are most familiar with. This changes the way a person structures their paragraphs, their sentences, their arguments. Words (or symbols, images, phrases, logical turns) can be used in ways that draw on more or less of their histories and different parts of their histories. An example: in the somewhat conceited Introduction I wrote for this blog, I used the words “accidental” and “essential” in ways that deliberately drew on their Platonic, Aristotelian, and Borgesian histories but, in the manner of in-jokes and hidden puns, did not rely on those histories for meaning. If you are aware of those histories, you’ll notice how they influence and modify the overall “plot” of the introduction:  I position myself as a nominalist. If you aren’t aware of these histories, you won’t see that I’m positioning myself as a nominalist (I did not expect anyone who didn’t know what a nominalist was to care if I was or wasn’t one). However, if “accidental” and “essential” have histories in some discourse that I know nothing about—I can’t give you examples because the very feature which makes them examples is my ignorance of them—I highly doubt that part of their histories will inform the introduction in any way. People with access with those histories won’t find the words drawing on those histories. If they do, it will probably be in incongruous, unintentionally comic or ironic ways.

To simplify once more, all words, phrases, and so forth gain meaning by drawing on their histories. Different people, depending on the discourses they take part in, use words in ways that draw on different parts of those histories.

Broadly, there are two ways to go about drawing on these histories. You can draw mostly from one discourse’s history or you can draw from a variety of discourses’ histories. Bakhtin calls the first unitary language and the second heteroglossia.2 I will not be using these terms, so you don’t need to remember them for my sake. Instead, I will call writing and speaking that typically relies on a single discourse’s histories flat and I will call writing and speaking that typically relies on multiple discourses’ histories rich.

The upshot of all this is that the more discourses a person is familiar with, the richer their language can and probably will be. The fewer discourses a person is familiar with, the flatter their language can and certainly will be. And with that said, let’s turn, at last, to Trump’s speech. (I think you can fill in the rest of this section yourself, but just in case I’ll write it out.)

There are some places where Trump—or his speech-writer—draws on more than the bare minimum of a symbol’s history. The following is a good example:

We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example. We will shine for everyone to follow.

The word “shine” and its use here evoke Reagan’s “shining city on the hill,” which itself invoked America’s founding. Trump could have done a lot more with this reference and I would argue that a lot of such references are slipshod and isolated; ideally, you would string these references together into a developing theme. But regardless of forced and implausible use, Trump does draw on a discourse with his talk of soldiers, flags, Providence, and shining cities. That discourse is the American civil religion, particularly its contemporary conservative-libertarian manifestation.

American civil religion is a very narrow and specific discourse. It is jarring and alienating to anyone who does not participate in it. (Indeed, this is a fundamental feature of the American civil religion: it does not allow any space between total disavowal and undying support.) Therefore, much of the meaning in Trump’s speech—for instance, the emotional valences suggested by “saluting the same flag”—are dependent on knowledge of that discourse.

My contention is that other Presidential Inaugural Addresses are richer than Trump’s. I do not have the time to examine them as closely, nor do I really have the knowledge of American discourse to do it well. However, something I noticed reading Obama’s and Bush’s Addresses is that they all use direct quotation. They deliberately and explicitly introduce another person’s language into their own speech and then reflect back on that language. This does not in itself mean that they dip into other discourses, but it does make the allusiveness of those speeches far more dramatic. Furthermore, they seem to use key words that reach across political divides: In 2009 Obama said, “Our celebration of initiative and enterprise, our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, these are constants in our character.” This is not the language of Democrats; given how clearly this speech outlined Democratic and often non-Republican concerns (global warning, racial and gender equality), it was important to make this reach to conservative individualism. And in 2001 Bush said, “Americans in need are not strangers; they are citizens—not problems but priorities,” a language that not only means something important to Democrats, but also in “strangers” connects meaningfully with the genuine religious cadences that inflect his words. And although Bush’s religious practice was mostly in line with the American civil religion, it did nonetheless exceed that discourse and added a dimension of richness to it which Trump, with his cynical pretense to religiosity, lacks.

So Trump’s speech has this qualitative difference: it is flat. A richer speech would require more explication because it would require translators. People who had access to one or more of the discourses that speech draws upon could explain those allusions and how they affect the overall meaning of the speech. By pooling knowledge of these various discourses, journalists can help bring meaning out of speeches that other people—even other journalists—might not have access to. Richer speeches, therefore, require more explication. My claim is that this is why journalists have less to say about Trump: drawing on only one discourse, it requires far fewer interpreters.

Is it better for a US Presidential Inauguration Address to be more accessible and exhaustible to more people?

As I wrote in the introduction, there are two parts to the normative question: is it possible, and is it desirable. I think many of you will already anticipate my first answer.

i. Is it possible for a speech to be totally accessible to all people at the same time?


My answer relies on a contention: there is no discourse with which all members of the United States of America are familiar. Or perhaps more modestly, there is no discourse with which all members of the United States of America have the same relationship. What the language of American civil religion—that of Trump, that which seems to market itself as being uniquely, totally, and universally American—means to white conservative Protestant Americans is different from what it means to Muslim Americans or Native Americans or Japanese Americans. (I once read a fascinating article about Japanese American inculturation of the American civil religion.)

A flat speech is perhaps exhaustible in meaning to those people familiar with the discourses it draws on—or at least familiar with those discourses to the same extent that the speech draws on them. Therefore, for people in that discourse, the speech seems easy to understand. If those people are not aware that they are operating in a specific, narrow discourse, it would be easy for them to believe that the speech was easy to understand in itself and not just for them. However, to anyone who was unfamiliar with those discourses, it would be alienating and perhaps impenetrable, depending on how distinct and insular that discourse is.

A rich speech, drawing on many discourses, is only exhaustible in meaning to those people familiar with all of the discourses it draws on. That will be very few people. (Moreover, it may not be exhaustible to them; they more internal connections that allusiveness creates, the more nuance there is to tease out.) Hardly anyone will feel as though they understand the speech perfectly. But it will be somewhat accessible, and it will yield some meaning, to anyone who understands a few of those discourses. Therefore the more discourses a speech draws from, the more likely it is that any given person will be able to appreciate some of its nuance.

There is a conflict, then, between “totally accessible” and “to all people”: the more accessible a speech is to some set of people, the smaller that set of people is likely to be; the more people there are who have access to the speech, the less accessible it is likely to be to any one of them. The counter-intuitive result, then, is that populist speeches—speeches with the broadest range—reward more explication.

Of course not all discourses are equal; some discourses are familiar to more people than others. A president who wants to give a populist speech is well-advised to draw from a few of the most common discourses, trying to find the best balance of depth and breadth of access. And of course some people are familiar with more discourses than other people are. Those people will have an advantage over people who know of fewer discourses. As a consequence, the better educated, the better read, and the better traveled will get more from a speech than the less educated, the less read, the less traveled. This smacks of elitism—but one must remember that that elitism is a function of inequality of opportunity, whereas the elitism that comes from a flat speech is a function of narrow demographic focus. If all people were fluent in the same discourse, then of course it would only be fair to keep to that discourse. However, it is not the case that all people are fluent in the same discourse. It is no more populist to give a flat speech than it is to give a rich one; arguably, it is less so.

ii. If it were possible, is it something we should want?

Again, the focus of the post has been on the difference between rich and flat discourses and how to apply them in a populist manner. Since the normative aspect—how do our options reflect, frustrate, or support our values—departs from this conversation, I won’t spend much time on it. It does strike me as disappointing that a US President’s Inaugural Address should be so weak in a country that has, perhaps uniquely in the Western world, so elevated public oratory as a form of art. It also strikes me as strange that an Address which draws so exclusively from the discourse of American civil religion would fail, in this way, to satisfy that civil religion’s rituals, of which political oratory must surely be one.

No, what I will end with is this: if, for whatever reason, you value populism for its own sake, you should value a rich speech over the sort that Trump gave. Trump’s speech was not truly populist, but instead privileged one set of Americans to the detriment of all others. This tells us nothing new; perhaps that is why the journalists had so little to say. All you could learn about Trump from his speech is what we all already know; I hope, though, it has given us a chance to think about language, oratory, and populism.

1. To allow you to double-check my explication of my friend’s friend’s claims, I’ll type them out here, removing my friend’s responses and mine:

Arguably if a sentence in a speech needs a bunch of experts to understand it’s not a good speech.

Again, if you require experts to get 100% of the meaning out of your speech then arguably it’s a bad speech.

Or perhaps to rephrase a speech that everyone fully understands without parsing is probably a better speech.

Then maybe a lack of analysis of the speech is more a failure of media than of the speech.

Either analysis of the speech is futile or it isn’t. If fewer people disagree about what the speech means and less debate is required about the nuance, then as a speech it is doing a better job of clearly getting ideas across to everybody.

As I said, he never mentions populism directly; however, his use of “everyone,” “everybody,” “a bunch of experts,” strongly suggest an interest and grounding in populist values and I expect most readers, and my interlocutor himself, will agree. If you’re using a simplistic, naïve idea of language and meaning, these seem like reasonable claims. Alas, they aren’t.

2. Bakhtin elaborates by speaking of centripetal and centrifugal forces in language. Unitary language attempts to codify a word’s meaning and strip it of all other meanings, and so is part of centripetal or homogenizing attempts in society. These correspond, often, with institutions with significant cultural or material power: the government, the scientific establishment, the church, the fashion magazine, the art critics. Heteroglossia uses words in new ways, fills words up with meanings from the periphery, and so is part of centrifugal or diversifying attempts in society. These correspond with institutions and groups that defy those with power: grass-roots movements, punk, revolutionary societies, the artistic avant garde, heretics/reformers. From what I’ve read, although Bakhtin acknowledges that what was once heteroglossia can become unitary discourse, he does not acknowledge that what appears as heteroglossia to current power structures might have always attempted strip a word of all meanings but their own. Maybe he does and I missed that writing. But as an example, the alt-right’s discourse is peripheral but their approach is strictly homogenizing. The same could be said, at least in a certain sense, for the social justice movement. This is not at all irrelevant to the current topic but I’m not going to get into it. Feel free to work at the problem yourself.

Bakhtin also uses the terms authoritative language and internally persuasive language, which are somewhat similar to but nonetheless clearly distinct from unitary discourse and heteroglossia, respectively. These are very interesting and useful ideas but they are less relevant here, so I will not go into them.


2 thoughts on “Trump’s Flat Speech: Populism and Richness of Language

  1. Could one argue that Trump’s singular narrative (the “flatness” as you call it) is actually a heteroglossia narrative because it does not escape its own singular discourse to directly quote (as Obama and others have done) but rather consumes a heterogeneous array of communal discourses (and related histories)? It seems to me that Trump’s speeches lack a cohesive paradigmatic brand, unlike the speeches of Obama, Clinton, etc, preferring instead to use a medley of multiple discourses (a Bakhtinian intertextuality) framed as a singular discourse


    • Hmmm. I can see an argument for this, but I wonder if the heteroglossic assemblage occurs mostly upstream from him, for instance in Bretibart or Fox News. It would take a much closer look at his speech and its sources than I have given it before I’d be comfortable judging. It’s a good thought.


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