It’s not hard to see how President Donald Trump differs from previous presidents. He has never held political office or served as a military general, he’s a former reality TV star, and he’s declared bankruptcy six times. When the 2016 election began, his seemingly different speaking style, confident and simple, also stood out. Psychologists point out, however, that beneath the racist and sexist rhetoric, President Trump is not so unlike the presidents who came before him.
Instead, the paper published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explains, Trump is the culmination of a long-brewing trend in presidential communication style. Analysis of communication styles used by American presidents from 1789 to 2018 revealed a consistent decline in “analytical thinking” and a concurrent rise in confidence. In speech, analytical thinking refers to the use of more articles and prepositions to convey relationship between concepts. The paper’s authors write that their results “strongly suggest that the recipe that likely helped President Trump to become a successful presidential candidate was set in motion almost 100 years before he took office.”
Kayla Jordan, a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at Austin and the study’s first author, began analyzing presidential linguistic trends during the 2016 debates. As she did so with co-author James Pennebaker, Ph.D., a psychology professor, they questioned whether Trump’s unique communication style made him an outlier among political leaders. But when they began to analyze past presidents and politicians from around the world, they found strong linear trends.
“All political leaders, not just Trump, have been increasingly communicating in more informal, confident ways,” Jordan tells Inverse. “The only exception was in the election debates, where he was even lower on analytic thinking than what would have been predicted.”
Example #1: Announcing ‘Space Force’
To examine this trend, they analyzed all presidential States of the Union and inaugural addresses from the past 229 years and US, Australian, British, and Canadian legislative texts from 1994 to 2016. They also analyzed speeches and interviews of Australian, British, and Canadian political leaders from 1895 to 2017.
They specifically examined all these texts for instances of analytic thinking and clout. Clout refers essentially to confidence: Previous studies showed that “higher-status” people use words like “you” and “we” at higher rates. When someone uses a lot of personal pronouns, they are demonstrating clout.
Jordan and her colleagues determined that analytic thinking was very high and stable throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in the US, then began a general decline in 1900. Around the same time, presidential linguistics began to have more examples of clout. A more consistent decline in analytic communication styles began around 1980 — a decline that includes leaders of other large English-speaking democracies. The researchers note that these trends are especially strong for Canadian and Australian leaders.
Example #2: Talking about Trump’s “big brain”
When the team extended the analysis to speeches made by American legislators in general, they saw the same trend. There were also no systematic differences between Republicans and Democrats.
“Also, it may be of interest that Obama is the president most similar to Trump,” Jordan says. “While Trump is generally lowest on analytic and highest in confidence, Obama is generally second lowest in analytic and second highest in confidence.”
Sweeping changes in communication technologies and cultural shifts could explain why this trend has taken root. The team notes that voters increasingly shun seemingly elitist or aristocratic politicians, a shift that may have inspired success-seeking politicians to speak more informally. The rise of radio, and then television, also prompted presidents to take on a new role: Someone who can speak directly to their constituents.
Early presidents typically communicated through in-person speeches to small audiences or by writing in the newspaper. There’s a reason that the televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon is said to have changed the presidential game: The way candidates said something and how they looked while saying it became powerful tools. Before the debate, Nixon led by six percentage points. But afterward — when Nixon appeared ill and Kennedy wore stage makeup — Kennedy won the election.
But Does It Affect the Voters?
It’s difficult to say how these changes in communication style impact the presidency, says Jordan, who plans to investigate how voters react to these linguistic trends and which rhetoric techniques they find most likable. It’s possible that social media platforms — with their emphasis on short, informal messages — may have their own influence on how future presidents communicate.
But it’s also possible that because President Trump’s speaking style is the lowest in analytic thinking and highest in confidence in American history, other politicians may actively try to sever this long-term linear trend.
“While I think it is likely that these trends will continue,” Jordan explains, “it is also possible that Trump may represent an inflection point whereby future leaders try to distinguish their style from his and go back to a more traditional communication style.”
From many perspectives, the election of Donald Trump was seen as a departure from long-standing political norms. An analysis of Trump’s word use in the presidential debates and speeches indicated that he was exceptionally informal but at the same time, spoke with a sense of certainty. Indeed, he is lower in analytic thinking and higher in confidence than almost any previous American president. Closer analyses of linguistic trends of presidential language indicate that Trump’s language is consistent with long-term linear trends, demonstrating that he is not as much an outlier as he initially seems. Across multiple corpora from the American presidents, non-US leaders, and legislative bodies spanning decades, there has been a general decline in analytic thinking and a rise in confidence in most political contexts, with the largest and most consistent changes found in the American presidency. The results suggest that certain aspects of the language style of Donald Trump and other recent leaders reflect long-evolving political trends. Implications of the changing nature of popular elections and the role of media are discussed.