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Speaking to Sweeney — Guest Post by Kevin Groenhagen

Earlier this year, Newsweek magazine reported that President Donald Trump speaks at the fourth-grade level. According to the article, “The analysis assessed the first 30,000 words each president spoke in office, and ranked them on the Flesch-Kincaid grade level scale and more than two dozen other common tests analyzing English-language difficulty levels. Trump clocked in around mid-fourth grade, the worst since Harry Truman, who spoke at nearly a sixth-grade level.”

Newsweek noted the analysis was conducted by factba.sem “in response to the president’s claim that he is ‘a genius.'” Newsweek reported:

The website excluded communiques issued by the last two presidents on social media and limited the study to unscripted words uttered at press conferences and other public appearances. The words were run through a variety of lexicological analyses, besides the Flesch-Kincaid, and the results were the same. In every one, Trump came in dead last. Trump also uses the fewest ‘unique words’ (2,605) of any president—Obama was the best at 4,869—and uses words with the fewest average syllables, with 1.33 per word, compared to positively multi-syllabic president Hoover at 1.57.

Interestingly, Newsweek portrayed Trump as having the “worst” vocabulary of the last 15 presidents. But does this mean Trump is not as intelligent as the other presidents? Not necessarily.

For the past 17 years, I have published a monthly magazine for senior citizens in northeast Kansas. For many of those years, a retired journalism professor has written a column for the magazine. His columns typically clock in around the sixth- or seventh-grade levels on the Flesch-Kincaid scale. That would place him at the level of Bush 41 and Bush 43, who scored lower than all the presidents except Trump and Truman. Is this professor a dolt? Far from it. He earned a Ph.D., is fluent in Spanish, and has written extensively, both as a reporter and a professor. So why does he write at the middle-school level? To make his writing accessible to a broad audience.

In 2004, Philip Meyer, then the Knight Chair in Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, published The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age. “Writing for a broad audience is a constant struggle” Meyer wrote in a chapter on readability. “Journalists today are well educated and have broad interests, and their natural inclination, if not checked by self-monitoring and good editing, is to write for each other. The marketplace does not discourage this elitist tendency as efficiently as it used to.”

Meyer’s graduate students collected a total of 2,125 stories from 40 newspapers and analyzed them. Only one in four stories was readable at the eight-grade level or lower. “The case is clear,” Meyer wrote. “Many newspaper stories are too hard to read.” Interestingly, Meyer found the newspapers whose editors were pushing the writing down the grade-level scale were, in general, enjoying higher household penetration rates. Household penetration is calculated by dividing a newspaper’s circulation by the number of households in the market.

Elites point to Trump’s speech and conclude he is uneducated and/or his supporters are uneducated. However, consider veterans and those currently serving in the military. Trump overwhelmingly won the veteran vote and received endorsements from 14 Medal of Honor recipients. Meanwhile, Barack Obama’s approval rating with those in the military was just 15%. Contrary to the stereotype perpetuated in the mainstream media, those in the military tend to be far more educated than the general population. According to the Pew Research Center, “The vast majority of enlisted personnel (92%) have completed high school or some college. This compares with 60% of all U.S. adults ages 18 to 44.” In addition, “More than eight-in-ten DOD active-duty officers have at least a bachelor’s degree, including 42% who hold an advanced degree. They are four times as likely as average adults ages 18 to 44 to have completed a postgraduate degree.”

Those who have served, or are currently serving, in the military are among Trump’s most ardent supporters. If Trump made a conscious effort to “dumb down” his language, it wouldn’t have been for their benefit. It would have been for the benefit of those in the general population he hoped to win over as supporters. As the Associated Press used to tell editors, “Tell it to Sweeney and the Stuyvesants will understand. But tell it to the Stuyvesants and the Sweeneys may not understand.”

I believe if Trump spoke at the 9.7-grade level, as Barack Obama did, he wouldn’t be where he is today. (And let’s be frank: People didn’t vote for Obama to be president because of what he said or how he said it. He became president because of who he is.) Consider that the Newsweek article about Trump’s speech was written at the 12.5-grade level. The Washington Post Company sold Newsweek to audio pioneer Sidney Harman for one dollar. After 80 years of publication, Newsweek discontinued its print format in 2012, citing the increasing difficulty of maintaining a paper weekly magazine in the face of declining advertising and subscription revenues.

Meanwhile, The Apprentice, Trump’s reality television show, was one of the most-watched programs on NBC in the advertiser-friendly 18–49 age demographic. In 2016, he defeated both the Bush and Clinton machines. Maybe speaking at a fourth-grade level isn’t as dumb as the elitists think.

Kevin Groenhagen is the author of The Tea Party Challenge: Understanding the Threat Posed by the Socialist Coalition.

8 thoughts on “Speaking to Sweeney — Guest Post by Kevin Groenhagen Leave a comment

  1. The hypothesis that Trump speaks like a child in a calculated attempt to appeal to his childish supporters does not square with the evidence. There are plenty of recordings of him speaking, before, during, and after his run for office, including candid episodes. In none of these does he speak as an intelligent man.

  2. Counting words and correlating words with grade level is easy. That’s why it is done. Doing the same with meaning and thought is difficult.

    Obama gets an advance-placement worthy score in word count. When his impenetrable sentences and paragraphs are subjected to grammatical analysis, it turns out he rarely actually said what he and the press would have you believe he said. Trump doesn’t manipulate words and meaning that way, hence the lower score.

  3. Rules of public speaking – Speak to your audience. Speak slowly. Speak clearly. Use short words. Be clear yet concise. Emotion works better than logic.

  4. “The hypothesis that Trump speaks like a child in a calculated attempt to appeal to his childish supporters does not square with the evidence.”

    No such hypothesis was presented above. I don’t believe it’s a calculated attempt on Trump’s part at all. In fact, politicians who engage in a type of code-switching when speaking to different audiences seem to come off as less than authentic and patronizing. Consider Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden when speaking before African-American audiences. Or John Kerry’s “Can I get me a hunting license here?”

    Trump’s language does not change from audianence to audience, whether he’s sppeaking at an African-American church in Detroit or an NRA convention. His speech, calculated or not, is for a general audience, not just his “childish supporters.” (BTW, a case could be made that he could speak at a higher grade level for many of his suppporters. For example, Trump won the veteran vote by a 2-to-1 margin. Veterans in swing states such as Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina probably put him in the White House. As a group, our men and women in the military are far better educated than the general population–and they are far from childish.)

  5. Mr Groenhagen:

    Sorry for misunderstanding your intent. I think I was misled by your mention of the “retired journalism professor” into thinking that, by analogy, you were suggesting that Trump pitched his utterances at a juvenile level as part of a deliberate strategy. So we are in agreement that he invariably speaks the way he does because he is incapable of adult speech.

    I meant “childish supporters” in the sense of those of his supporters, whatever that proportion happens to be, who are childish, not to suggest that they all are, which is obviously not true.

    I also agree with your remarks about Clinton and Kerry; I don’t listen to many political speeches, so haven’t heard examples by the others you mention, although I have no problem in believing that they shamelessly code-switch. If you listen to Kerry’s famous speech before Congress about the Vietnam war, that, I think, launched his political career, you will discover that he changed his accent and entire manner of speaking in order to shed his upper-crust intonations. I would add Obama, whom I like in many ways, but who, after a short while in office, started to effect an artificial down-home manner of speaking during some appearances. Very cringe-inducing.

  6. Just as Obama was loved because he fulfills a certain set of people’s fantasies about what they are like, Trump will be hated because he is the contradiction of every one of those fantasies. All that’s left is to parse out exactly where Trump falls short.

    I don’t like Trump. But I can seperate that from judgements of his intelligence and effectiveness. But let’s view this the other way around: who hasn’t heard that Obama is a genius? I suggest there’s exactly the same amount of hard evidence for Trump’s assumed stupidity as there is for Obama’s supposed genius. The difference: Obama is the teacher’s pet all those people who think him a genius admired and envied and aspired to be. He is a very flattering mirror: he thinks and believes as I do! Look at how successful he is! Trump would be the blustering bully who didn’t care what the teacher or her pets thought, because he had the Lamborghini out front with the “2.4 GPA” license plates on it and the prettiest girl in school in the passenger’s seat. The kids with acne and good grades whose personal achievement highpoint was getting patted on the head by the teacher hold a visceral hatred for that guy.

    Lawyer? Professor? Anyone who thinks either of those achievements marks one a genius needs to meet some more lawyers and professors. They are no more likely to be geniuses than the guy who fixes your car. But they are much more likely to react defensively to the slightest, even the most innocent, challenge. As the scion of a blue-collar worker with a couple of degrees, I learned this first hand when I innocently imagined professors would want to expand on their ideas or explain difficulties – 9 out of 10 only like this if you’re in worship mode. Act like an adult human being – you know, their equal – and they don’t take it so well. They feel compelled to put you in your place. Perhaps your mileage varies.

    When the dust settles, Trump can jump in that Lamborghini, arm around the beautiful girl, and smirk at you as he drives off into the glorious sunset. How much this drives you crazy says a lot more about you than him, and says, frankly, nothing about his intelligence.

  7. Hell, I was taught that the most effective speaking (and writing) avoids long, convoluted paragraphs, and doesn’t use long, obscure words when simpler, more common ones will suffice.

    By any reasonable standards, a politician writing and speaking at an elevated “grade level” means that he is failing to communicate with much of his audience. Politics has almost always valued the person who can express himself to the great majority. Think of FDR’s fireside chats, or “Give ’em Hell” Truman against Dewey. And, you can go back much earlier for more examples.

    Characterizing Trump as “dead last” or “worst,” and Obama as “best” just speaks to the ignorance and agenda of the author. “Lowest score” and “highest score” would be more correct, but if we are to make the leap to evaluate and compare the effectiveness of political communications, they have it backwards.

    This is a liberal trope that goes back to Ike vs. Stevenson, at least. It was also deployed, unsuccessfully, against Reagan and Bush-43.

  8. The author didn’t establish that President Trump actually calculates his vocabulary to broaden its audience.

    The President seems to be a “stream of consciousness” speaker who says the next thing that pops into his head. For example, recall his commentary during the 2016 campaign as he responded to a question about whether he would retain Fed Chairman Janet Yellen. He starts off complaining about her support for low interest rates, then seems to realize that as a developer he loved low interest rates, and switches to that thought. Moreover, his spoken vocabulary seems very limited endlessly repeating the same words and phrases usually punctuated with superlatives ( the “biggest”, the “best”, the “greatest”, etc) or their opposites (the “the worst”, the “most unfair”, and so on). We don’t know about the vocabulary of his writing because there seems to be so little on the public record that he was solely, or even substantially, responsible for.

    His bombast seems designed to mask that he does not have a grasp for, or interest in, the details or nuance of what are very complex issues. Most recently he defended his lack of comprehension for the history and detail of our negotiations with the North Koreans by claiming that preparation for his meeting with Kim Jong Un was not necessary. President Trump’s concept seems to be that, to borrow an unfortunate assessment from President George W. Bush: I’ll look Kim in the eye and determine whether he is serious or not.

    There is a crucial difference between clear and informed thinking
    about public policy problems and the vocabulary chosen to express one’s comprehension of those problems. The President has amply demonstrated the grade school level of his spoken vocabulary. He has yet to demonstrate that he has sufficient comprehension of those problems to raise his discourse to the high school level, assuming he is able to do so.