How to Listen to Donald Trump Every Day for Years
Donald J. Trump’s Inaugural Address had moments of what we could call rhetoric. The bit about the kid in Detroit and the kid on the “windswept plains of Nebraska” — black and white, get it? — looking up at the same night sky. Overall, though, there was the air of a diligent adolescent trying to put something down on paper but not quite hitting the mark. “America is totally unstoppable” sounds like a schoolyard brag. “We will bring back our borders” — where did they go? The “very sad depletion of our military” — it’s impossible to imagine Barack Obama, or even George W. Bush, phrasing it that way in a written speech.
唐纳德·J·特朗普(Donald J. Trump)的就职演说中有一些我们称为“辞藻华丽”的地方。比如一个底特律的孩子以及在“内布拉斯加狂风肆虐的平原”上的孩子——一黑一白，懂了吧？——仰望着同一片夜空。但是总体来说，有一种勤奋少年努力想写下自己的想法，却并没有切中要害的感觉。“美国绝对是不可阻挡的”听起来像是在校园里吹的大话。“我们要夺回边疆”——我们的边疆去哪儿了？“我们军队非常悲哀的损耗”——无法想像贝拉克·奥巴马，甚至乔治·W·布什，会在书面演讲稿中使用这样的表达。
His audience liked the applause lines, as they always do. But it’s hard to resist laughing at Trumpian syntax. I am given to indulging in it with a finger of bourbon after long days. My favorite so far is this insight from a South Carolina rally in 2015:
“Look, having nuclear — my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at M.I.T.; good genes, very good genes, O.K., very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart — you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, O.K. …”
“你知道，拥有核武器——我叔叔是个大教授、科学家和工程师，麻省理工学院(MIT)的约翰·特朗普博士(John Trump)，基因好，很好的基因，对吧，非常聪明，沃顿金融学院（此处使用了沃顿商学院旧称Wharton School of Finance。——译注），很好，很聪明——你知道，如果你是保守派共和党人，如果我是自由派，如果，好比说，对吧……”
The truth is that President Trump’s choppy, rambling self-expression is not so exotic. A great many thoroughly intelligent people talk more like Donald Trump than they might know. What’s new is that someone who talks like this in public has become the president of the United States. Yet it isn’t surprising, and if we are not to spend the next four to eight years alternating between exasperation and confusion as he sounds off, we need to learn a new way of listening.
The false starts, jumpy inserts and repetition — speech as montage — are all typical of casual speech as opposed to written language. The endless emphasis (“Believe me,” “big league”) is as well. All humans festoon their talk tic-style with assurances of sincerity such as “really” and “totally.”
The issue is talking versus “speaking,” a more crucial distinction than we have reason to think about until someone as linguistically unpolished as President Trump brings talking into an arena usually reserved for at least an attempt at speaking.
One major concern: His barking style lends itself to expressing casual hatred too easily. Also, Mr. Obama had much less room to be “authentic.” Mr. Trump has the privilege of talking as he pleases with no concern for how he sounds. He can string his impressions together as they come, while a black politician who sounds too “street” gets only so far. (Hillary Clinton, too, was boxed in, by gender. If she had used traits associated with the casual speech of women she would have been branded as trivial.)
Mr. Trump’s come-as-you-are speaking style was part of his appeal, making the scion of a wealthy New York family seem relatable to someone in the rural Plains. In its power, it can sound as if he were asserting, “Yes, I can!” However, the truth is more mundane than that. Linguistically, it’s less that Mr. Trump deliberately pulled something off than that he didn’t have to even try to do anything beyond the ordinary.
Mr. Trump talks the way any number of people would over drinks, and many of us might be surprised to see elements of that style in our own downtime speech if transcribed.
Still, we wonder, what is someone with this after-hours baggy way of talking doing in the Oval Office? The reality is it was only a matter of time. America’s relationship to language has become more informal by the decade since the 1960s, just as it has to dress, sexual matters, culinary habits, dance and much else.
We shed the fedora and the white gloves eons ago. What are the chances we would still cherish “whom”-using oratory?
Today, when newscasters announce that we’re “headin’ into some chilly weather” and blogs publish headlines like “An Intriguing, Totally Not Recommended Method for Clearing Your Earwax,” we hear casual speech as “real” — a realness that no one expected of a Franklin D. Roosevelt or even a Lyndon B. Johnson. Mitt Romney, with his perfectly square speaking style complete with “gosh’s,” lost in 2012 partly because he sounded what used to be called “presidential” but now translates to many as stiff. Meanwhile, part of Barack Obama’s visceral appeal was his ability to summon up black preacherly cadence. Imagine Mr. Romney or John McCain trying to get any music out of “Yes, we can!” the way Mr. Obama did.
如今，新闻广播员会说我们正“进入一些寒冷天气”，博客会打出“一种有趣的、完全不推荐的清理耳垢的方法”这种标题，所以我们认为随意的发言是“真实”的——没人可以想像富兰克林·D·罗斯福(Franklin D. Roosevelt)或者甚至林登·B·约翰逊(Lyndon B. Johnson)会流露出这种真实。米特·罗姆尼(Mitt Romney)带着他非常标准的发言风格（用委婉语gosh代替God）在2012年竞选中败北，一个原因是这种风格在过去被认为是“总统样”，而现在被很多人理解为僵化。与此同时，贝拉克·奥巴马的一个内在吸引力是他能够掌握黑人牧师般的语调。想像一下要是罗姆尼或约翰·麦凯恩(John McCain)试着像奥巴马那样把“是的，我们可以！”(Yes, we can!)编成歌曲会是什么样子。
We could have seen it coming that a president would be unabashedly semi-articulate. George W. Bush’s election despite his prolific malapropisms was a first indication that being well spoken was a much lower priority for Americans in choosing a president than it once was. Mr. Bush, however, always gave the impression of at least trying to “speak” rather than “talk,” with a deer-caught-in-the-headlights quality so perfectly captured by Will Ferrell on “Saturday Night Live.” Sarah Palin was a kind of next step, blithely unconcerned with her swivel-tongued syntax and yet revered by millions.
我们本就可以预见到，总统将不再为自己不善言辞而感到羞愧。乔治·W·布什尽管经常误用词语却依然当选，这是首次表明，善于辞令在美国人选总统时的重要性已显著降低。不过，布什至少总是给人一种努力“发言”而非“说话”的印象，这种“看着汽车头灯发呆的小鹿”的特质被《周六夜现场》(Saturday Night Live)的威尔·法瑞尔(Will Ferrell)完美地演绎了出来。萨拉·佩林(Sarah Palin)则是更进一步，毫不在意自己混乱的句法，却依然受到成百上千万人尊敬。
It wasn’t going to be long before someone came along as unembarrassed to orate while inarticulate as Ms. Palin, while also getting higher in office than her. With President Trump, the saloon-style speech is baked in. His career has never given him a reason to even pretend to speak rather than talk; he reportedly doesn’t read, and he lacks introspection — none of this bodes well for carefully considered self-expression. It would be surprising if this president weren’t a Twitter addict: The 140-character limit creates a way of writing that, like texting, diverges as little as possible from talking.
Because it is novel that someone in the Oval Office can’t be bothered with trying to be articulate, President Trump’s speaking style is throwing off the news media. All understand that his speech is structurally ungraceful. It may be harder to grasp that Mr. Trump, as someone just talking rather than artfully communicating ideas, has no sense of the tacit understanding that a politician’s utterances are more signals than statements, vehicles meant to convey larger messages.
Anthropologists have documented a tribe, the Kuna of Panama, whose chief gives a long speech in elevated terms and is followed by an assistant who explains what the chief said. This sounds exotic to us until we realize that commentaries after the State of the Union speeches are all but the same thing.
This is why Keegan-Michael Key’s “anger translator” routine with President Obama at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in 2015 worked so well. We essentially never heard Mr. Obama “talk” as president. He always had to be performing, to some extent. And trained to hear politicians this way, the reporter and the pundit assume that Mr. Trump is “speaking” rather than talking. “What did Trump mean by that?” they say, scratching their heads. A Trump aide retorts, “The tweet speaks for itself.” That sounds trivial or deflective, until we understand that it makes perfect sense for someone who is just talking.
这就是为什么在2015年的白宫记者协会(White House Correspondents Association)晚宴上，纪甘-迈克尔·吉(Keegan-Michael Key)扮演的奥巴马总统的“愤怒翻译官”收获了很好的反响。我们实际上从未听过奥巴马作为总统“说话”。他总是不得不在一定程度上表演。记者和专家们已经习惯了政治家的这种讲话方式，所以他们以为，特朗普是在“发言”，而非说话。“特朗普那样说到底是什么意思呢？”他们抓耳挠腮地问。特朗普的一名助手反驳说，“就是Twitter上那个意思啊。”那听起来有些浅薄或者有失偏颇，直到我们明白，对一个只是在说话的人来说，这完全合理。
So how should we listen to this man daily for years? First, we have to realize that his talking style isn’t as exotically barbaric as it looks on the page — the oddness is that it winds up on the page at all. And second, we have to understand that his fans’ not minding how he talks is symptomatic of how all of us relate to formality nowadays. Language has just come along with it.
I think of Theodore Roosevelt. While he was quite articulate on all levels, he was an ebullient, ever-curious person, about whom an observer once said, with affection, “You must always remember that the president is about 6.” Linguistically, I listen to the man who is now president as if he were roughly 12 years old. That way, he is always perfectly understandable.