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Rhetorical analysis of Trump's 2018 State of the Union Address, Part 1

This is the first in a series of short analyses of Donald Trump’s 2018 State of the Union Address and Joe Kennedy’s Democratic response. I will discuss Trump’s clever (though heavy-handed) use of Clap Traps, as well as the laziness he and his writers display in the stylistically uninteresting language throughout the speech. In the next installments, you can expect a critique of Trump's cynical use of grief-stricken people of color, and a deep dive on Joe Kennedy’s use of metaphors and cadence.

If you’re looking for a policy analysis or a fact-check of the SOTU, I suggest this WaPo article and this piece. It is not what my current analysis concerns itself with. Rather than look at the inflated numbers and terrible policies in the speech, I will address the elements of public speaking: delivery, structure, and style. Let’s start with the ridiculous (and undeserved) number of standing ovations the president received despite his record low approval ratings and his stylistically uninteresting speech.


Clap traps

I used to call language and cadence specifically designed to elicit applause “clap traps”, because they trap people in a situation where it is nearly impossible not to clap. As it turns out, to most people claptrap means "absurd or nonsensical talk or ideas" (how relevant!), so I considered Applause Ambush and Ovation Ploy, but they don’t quite represent the trappy nature of the clap trap, nor do they roll off the tongue as nicely, so I decided to just stick with "Clap Trap", but capitalize it and separate it out. President Trump deploys his Clap Traps throughout the address.

Predictably, as any speech addressed to The American People should, Trump’s first State of the Union starts off attempting to establish a liking for the president with flattery of his listeners. That’s the clear intention behind such lines as “We have seen the beauty of America's soul, and the steel in America's spine” and “no people on Earth are so fearless, or daring, or determined as Americans. If there is a mountain, we climb it. If there is a frontier, we cross it. If there is a challenge, we tame it. If there is an opportunity, we seize it."  "Yes!" The audience thinks, "I'm fearless! I climb mountains! I should clap for this."

Highlighting “new American heroes” like the “Cajun Navy” and the “strangers who shielded strangers in Las Vegas”, as well as the hand-selected individuals like Coast Guard Officer Leppert and firefighter Dahlberg serves the same purpose: inviting standing ovations right from the start (for it is impossible [or at least it would be in bad taste] not to applaud these everyday heroes). Calling out Steve Scalise, the senator who was shot in the hip last June but came back to the Senate a few months later, inevitably leads to another standing ovation. It is reminiscent of George Bush’s very first sentence of his 2007 SOTU, when Nancy Pelosi had just started her tenure of speaker of the House: “Tonight, I have a high privilege and distinct honor of my own - as the first President to begin the State of the Union message with these words: Madam Speaker.” Such inescapable Clap Traps result in long standing ovations interspersed with full-throated cheers of approval, setting the tone for the rest of the speech.

Trump deploys another set of Clap Trap tools throughout the address: his tone and cadence. Note how just about every time right before an ovation, you can detect this pattern: Trump spaces out the end of the sentence up with short breaks, drops his voice a bit, leans in to the microphone, stretches out his last two words, and then pauses and steps back from the microphone for applause. He does this every… single… time. Here are just a few random examples:

  • (11:40)  “slashing… their tax bill… in half (... step back, long pause....).”
  • (13:25)  “so American companies… can compete and win… against anyone else… anywhere… in the world (... step back, long pause....).”
  • (18:15)  “We all share the same home, the same heart, the same destiny, and the same… great… American… flag (... step back, long pause....).”
  • (42:40)  “to protect our citizens of every background, color, religion, (extra deep lean into the microphone) and creed (... step back, long pause....).”
  • (46:30)  “one where nobody gets everything they want, but where our country… gets the critical… reforms… it needs and must have (... step back, long pause....).”

You can tell from the lack of a pause between “needs” and “must have” that Trump ad-libbed that last part. In fact, when you check the transcript, you will notice “and must have” was not supposed to be there (of course it wasn’t, it’s completely redundant).  

The clearest example of people applauding for no apparent reason other than cadence happens around the 33:10 mark. When talking about infrastructure, Trump says two things, one that doesn’t really deserve applause: “isn’t it a disgrace that it can now take 10 years just to get a permit approved for a simple road?”, and one that does deserve it: “I am calling on Congress to produce [...] at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment we need.” The audience applauds the disgrace statement, but not the $1.5 trillion investment statement. Why? Again, because of the cadence, the tone, the lean in, and the lean back.

Trump expects applause so much that not only does he applaud himself after every Clap Trap, but at certain points in the speech he even conspicuously points at the Democrats, tilts his head and raises his eyebrows as if to say “you all ought to be standing and clapping for me right now.” Take for example the moment around 30:20, when he explains that “one of my main priorities… is to reduce… the price… of prescription drugs.” He points and looks at the Democrats almost surprised that they’re not standing for him. He does it again when he mentions paid family leave, a policy Democrats care about.

Once you see the Clap Traps patterns, you can’t unsee them, and they become a transparent rhetorical tool. Take a look at a few minutes of the address and see if you can spot some of these Clap Traps yourself.

One of the reasons that the number of (standing) ovations Trump received (Don Jr. said he "got a leg workout from standing up every 5 seconds") is so undeserved has to do with the lack of stylistically interesting language - in particular, a lack of figures of speech and figures of style.

Figures of speech and style:

Donald Trump is known for his limited vocabulary and a poor grasp on grammar and syntax. Take for example this little gem: “There is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign, but I can always speak for myself, and the Russians, zero”. Though I’m certain that he ad-libbed a few words here and there (the occasional “beautiful”, “totally”, and “and must have” (see above)), it appears that Trump mainly stuck to his script. If that’s the case, it teaches us that his speechwriters are a lazy bunch.

Look at any of popular political speech, and you’ll find it rich with symbolism and metaphors, and figures of style like chiasmi (“ask not what your country etc”), epistrophes (“government of the people, by the people, for the people”), anaphoras, anadiplosis (“Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution”; “Suffering breeds character; character breeds faith”), you name it. In Trump’s 2018 SOTU, the only creative phrases were: “Get motor City revving its engine again”, “Americans are dreamers too”, and “from welfare to work, from dependence to independence, and from poverty to prosperity.”

Let alone for a moment the simplistic, almost childish nature of the engine revving metaphor, and let alone the problematic implications of the phrase “Americans are dreamers too”, which pits immigrant children against American-born children in a cynical zero-sum view of American prosperity, the rest of the speech is just plain lazy.

Practically the entire speech is built up of so-called tricolons: saying things in threes (like the welfare to work phrase above, or “veni, vidi, vici,” for example). It’s a remarkably lazy style. Witness just a *one minute* slice from the first half of the speech:

  • All of us, together, as one team, one people, and one American family (3x).
  • We all share the same home, the same heart, the same destiny (3x, then pause…) and the same great American flag.
  • If you work hard, if you believe in yourself, if you believe in America (3x), then you can dream anything, you can be anything, and together, we can achieve anything (3x).
  • we celebrate our police, our military, and our amazing veterans (3x).
  • Preston's reverence for those who have served our Nation reminds us why we salute our flag,  why we put our hands on our hearts for the pledge of allegiance, and why we proudly stand for the national anthem (3x).


A 30 second slice from the middle of the speech:

  • So let us come together, set politics aside, and finally get the job done (3x).
  • Around the world, we face rogue regimes, terrorist groups, and rivals (3x) like China and Russia that challenge our interests, our economy, and our values (3x).


And of course, the *entire final five minutes*, a veritable feast of lazy tricolons:

  • It was that same yearning for freedom that nearly 250 years ago gave birth to a special place called America. It was a small cluster of colonies caught between a great ocean and a vast wilderness. But it was home to an incredible people with a revolutionary idea: that they could rule themselves. That they could chart their own destiny. And that, together, they could light up the world (3x they could).
  • That is what our country has always been about. That is what Americans have always stood for, always strived for, and always done (3x).
  • Atop the dome of this Capitol stands the Statue of Freedom. She stands tall and dignified among the monuments to our ancestors who fought and lived and died to protect her (3x [fought and lived and died]).
  • Memorials to the heroes of Yorktown and Saratoga -- to young Americans who shed their blood on the shores of Normandy, and the fields beyond. And others, who went down in the waters of the Pacific and the skies over Asia (3x [the heroes, young Americans, and others])
  • And freedom stands tall over one more monument: this one. This Capitol. This living monument to the American people (3x [this one, this capitol, this living monument]).
  • A people whose heroes live not only in the past, but all around us -- defending hope, pride, and the American way (3x).
  • But above all else, they are Americans. And this Capitol, this city, and this Nation (3x), belong to them.
  • Americans fill the world with art and music. They push the bounds of science and discovery. And they forever remind us (3x [they fill, they push, they remind]) of what we should never forget: The people dreamed this country. The people built this country. And it is the people who are making America great again (3x [people dreamed, people built, people are making]).
  • As long as we have confidence in our values, faith in our citizens, and trust in our God (3x), we will not fail.
  • Our families will thrive. Our people will prosper. And our Nation will forever be safe and strong and proud and mighty and free (3x our nation will).


I imagine some of Trump's speech writers were debaters in high school and college, but as you can see, it certainly doesn't show. Let me know what else jumped out at you from the 2018 SOTU in the comments below, and feel free to let me know what other analyses you'd love to see on this blog!

Yoav Magid1 Comment