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.