The contextlessness of Trump

Donald Trump’s speech is a deck of cards, shuffled randomly and dealt until he gets bored.

Note that this is a post about Donald Trump’s contemporary style of speaking, about the uniquely incoherent nature of his political speech, all the other enormous and galling problems with his election and administration left aside for the moment.

And what it’s about specifically is the way in which Trump’s speech exists as sentences and sentence fragments unmoored from context.  And I’ve done a simple experiment to demonstrate that.  See the files and excerpts at bottom.

So, most public speakers speak in paragraphs, pages, essays.  They have some sort of thesis and they develop it step by step over the course of a minute or five minutes or twenty minutes.  Politicians and pastors and poets, wedding speakers and teachers and barfly joke-tellers: they start at the start and work through the middle and come to the end.  Each step of the story or speech or joke happens in context of the rest of it, depends on that context.  The speaker strings it all together in a way that flows.

Trump doesn’t do that.  He wanders.  He lurches.  He free-associates.

He changes topic the way a person might change TV channels when they don’t know what they want to watch.  Click, click, click, rapid and restless, an overriding impatience constantly interrupting the flow of any particular narrative.

If you’ve listened to him speak, you already know this at some level, but I wanted to test out an illustration of the idea, and so I did a very simple text-manipulation experiment:

I took a transcript of his recent press conference — the one nominally about Alex Acosta’s nomination as Secretary of Labor but in which he spent all of five sentences on that before swerving wildly — and I broke it down into individual sentences and sentence fragments, each one on its own line in a text file.

And then I shuffled the order of all those lines randomly, several times.  I’m including the output of that shuffling process below.

The question here — a question you shouldn’t be able to ask with a straight face about any normal example of coherent public speaking — is this:

Are the randomized versions notably less coherent?  Do they sound any less plausibly like an actual transcript of a Trump speech?

I wouldn’t be writing this up if the answer was “yes”, but it’s still gobsmacking to look at on paper.  If he delivered any of these random speeches in public, no one would be shocked at this point.

From anyone else in a similar position, it’d be cause for immediate alarm.  If Obama, or a Bush, or a Clinton, or any member of congress stood up and spoke sentences from a speech at random and at length without seeming to notice, they’d be diverted from the public eye and examined for signs of neurological trauma.

From Trump, it’s expected.

The person in charge of the United States exists in a state of rhetorical contextlessness, spending his unscripted moments dipping randomly into a bucket of slogans and grudges and half-finished thoughts until the well or his tolerance runs dry.  This is the oratory of the nation, in 2017.  This is our face to the world, for now and for who knows how long.

Here are links to three text files, each a randomized set of lines from the above-linked transcript, along with quotes of the first few lines of each to give a sample of the resulting output.

Trump Shuffle 1

We’ve undertaken the most substantial border security measures in a generation to keep our nation and our tax dollars safe.
Unfortunately, much of the media in Washington, D.C., along with New York, Los Angeles in particular, speaks not for the people, but for the special interests and for those profiting off a very, very obviously broken system.
And also as you probably heard just a little while ago, Mick Mulvaney, former congressman, has just been approved weeks late, I have to say that, weeks, weeks late, Office of Management and Budget.
We are not going to let it happen any longer.
You may not see that.

Trump Shuffle 2

We’re waiting for approval.
Not going to take years.
No more release.
I turn on the T.V., open the newspapers and I see stories of chaos.
We’ve issued a game-changing new rule that says for each one new regulation, two old regulations must be eliminated.
That circuit is in chaos and that circuit is frankly in turmoil.
But we’re not going to let it happen, because I’m here again, to take my message straight to the people.
And I appreciate that.

Trump Shuffle 3

I ran for president to present the citizens of our country.
And the wall is going to be a great wall and it’s going to be a wall negotiated by me.
That’s all I’m doing.
I’m making this presentation directly to the American people, with the media present, which is an honor to have you.
I will not back down from defending our country.
Beginning on day one, our administration went to work to tackle these challenges.
I got elected on defense of our country.
It’s very important to me.

Author: Josh Millard

I manage and help moderate the community website MetaFilter, where I go by "cortex"; in my spare time I get up to all sorts of creative nerdery on the internet and in Portland, Oregon.

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