When Donald Trump speaks, he sounds — unabashedly, unmistakably — like Donald Trump. But does he sound like a president?
And does sounding like a president even matter anymore?
Now that Trump’s 100th day in the White House is upon us, it’s worth pausing to consider the concept of a “presidential voice” — mainly because, as with so many of the traditions and trappings that have come to define the highest office in the land over the last 228 years, Trump seems to have dispensed with it entirely.
Some presidents strive for loftiness. (Think John F. Kennedy). Others speak more colloquially. (Harry Truman comes to mind.) But prior to Trump, you could pretty much put all of them on the same spectrum. They all tried, in their own way, to sound like presidents.
“There’s a transition that happens when someone is elected president,” says Jeff Shesol, a former speechwriter in the Clinton White House who founded West Wing Writers in 2001. “Usually it starts to happen right away, on election night.
Partly it’s how we hear them: There’s a gravity to their words that wasn’t there 24 hours earlier. But it’s also that they hear themselves differently. They pivot out of campaign mode into a new role.”
Trump is the exception. Unlike his predecessors, he doesn’t seem interested in developing a signature presidential register; neither Trump nor his team has tried to transpose his own personal voice into a more presidential key. For the most part, he’s still speaking like candidate Trump… who still spoke like reality TV Trump… who still spoke like developer Trump… and so on.
The examples are endless.
“I’m a person that very strongly believes in academics,” Trump told CIA employees shortly after his inauguration. “In fact, every time I say I had an uncle who was a great professor at MIT for 35 years, who did a fantastic job in so many different ways, academically — was an academic genius — and then they say, is Donald Trump an intellectual? Trust me, I’m like a smart persona.”
“I can tell you, everybody in this massive … this is a massive hanger,” Trump said during his Feb. 18 rally in Melbourne, Fla. “For the big planes. And by the way, do you think that one media group back there, one network will show this crowd? Not one. Not one. They won’t show the crowd.”
“One of the best chemistries I had was with Merkel,” Trump said last week when the Associated Press asked about his contentious March 17 meeting with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. “We had unbelievable chemistry. And people have given me credit for having great chemistry with all of the leaders.”
Last March, I taxonomized Trump’s particular patois — “Trumpese,” I called it — and argued that it was serving him well on the campaign trail. “It isn’t just consistent,” I wrote, noting Trump’s incessant use of non sequitur, repetition, reversal, slang, intensifiers, the second person and the imperative mood. “It’s perfectly calibrated — and calibrated may not be too strong a word — to serve Trump’s political needs.”
But a candidate’s needs —mobilizing his base; securing just enough votes to win the Electoral College — are not the same as a president’s needs. Trump won 46.1 percent of the vote on Nov. 8; today, his approval rating averages 42.1 percent, according to Five Thirty Eight. This is the lowest 100-day number on record, and it makes Trump the only elected president in the history of public opinion polling to finish his first 100 days with less support than he had on Election Day.
Language isn’t everything. But by ignoring one of the most time-honored tools in the presidential toolkit, Trump is almost certainly making his job harder than it has to be.
Two things to point out before we proceed.
First, Trump’s fans like the way he talks. For them it’s a feature, not a bug. As the Associated Press recently put it, the “rambling, aside-filled bursts of simple but definitive words, laden with self-congratulatory bravado and claims that have fact-checkers working overtime, all dispatched from mind to lips in such record time it seemingly bypasses any internal filter” — all of this only proves that Trump isn’t a typical politician, which, of course, is the last thing Trump supporters want. They would argue the era of presidents sounding presidential —focus-grouped, cautious, inauthentic — is over. And good riddance.
Second, saying that Trump hasn’t tried to develop a presidential voice isn’t the same thing as saying he hasn’t tried to deliver a presidential speech. His Feb. 28 address to a joint session of Congress and his remarks this week at the Holocaust Memorial Museum were both speeches that other presidents could have delivered.
The problem, though, is that they were both speeches that other presidents could have delivered. They didn’t sound anything like Trump. In fact, because Trump’s personal voice is so familiar by now — imprinted on our collective cerebrum by four decades of fame, 11 years on The Apprentice, and the first stream-of-consciousness presidential campaign in American history — and because he impulsively reverts back to it, either in the midst his prepared remarks or immediately afterwards, generic presidential rhetoric rings even more hollow coming from him than it would coming from a more generic president.
“The hallmark of a successful presidential voice is a kind of internal consistency,” says forensic linguist Allan Metcalf, the author of Presidential Voices: Speaking Styles from George Washington to George W. Bush. “The only hallmark of Trump’s presidential voice, so far, is its inconsistency.”
Trump isn’t the first president who has struggled to find his voice, and the reasons “are partly practical,” says Adam Frankel, one of three campaign speechwriters who followed Barack Obama to the West Wing in 2009.
“For one thing, the substance is different; now you’re talking about legislation,” Frankel explains. “But it’s also about setting. As a candidate, you’re basically just doing rallies. As president, you suddenly have all these different settings: a speech in the East Room, a televised address to the nation. Different settings mean different kinds of speeches — yet you still have to sound like yourself.”
Bill Clinton initially leaned a little too hard on John F. Kennedy’s elevated rhetorical style, with its clipped cadence and elegant constructions. “The voice Clinton heard in his head was JFK,” Shesol says. “He didn’t know what Bill Clinton sounded like at the presidential podium. But eventually he found a Clinton idiom that worked in the presidency — that was still himself but not quite what he had been before.”
Before the 2000 Democratic National Convention, Clinton gave his speechwriters some instructions. “Look, I don’t want to deliver a speech,” he said. “I want to talk to people.” Shesol and his colleagues immediately understood what the president meant.
“He obviously didn’t mean ‘depart with the piece of paper,’” Shesol says. “But there was an immediacy he was after — an unforced, relaxed, unscripted quality. Clinton wasn’t interested in applying layers of rhetoric between himself and his audience. He wasn’t looking to ascend to some plane that would put him above and apart from people.”
The final lines of that speech were classic Clinton.
“Fifty-four years ago this week, I was born in a summer storm to a young widow in a small southern town,” the president said. “America gave me the chance to live my dreams. I have tried to give you a better chance to live yours. Now, with hair grayer and wrinkles deeper, but with the same optimism and hope I brought to the work I love eight years ago, my heart is filled with gratitude.”
Early on, George W. Bush had a similar obsession with another president — “You know, Dick, I’m more like Ronald Reagan than my dad,” he told then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey — but he eventually settled on a snappy, plainspoken style that suited both his presidency and his personality. And even Obama, the most polished campaign orator in recent times, endured a few rhetorical growing pains after relocating to the White House. His first inaugural address, for example, is more formal than later speeches — as if his writers were trying to make him sound like a president.
The difference with Trump is that he doesn’t seem to care; he clearly thinks his own voice is good enough. After all, it won him the election. Why change now? And so he continues to call reporters out of the blue and invite them into the Oval Office without warning, confident that his riffing can reshape the narrative. He continues to deliver prepared remarks — from the “American carnage” of his near-apocalyptic Inaugural Address to the sudden sobriety of the Holocaust Museum speech — that represent the rhetorical equivalent of a multiple-personality disorder in which none of the personalities seem to belong to Donald Trump. (The fact that his staff has been consumed by ideological in-fighting doesn’t help.) And he continues to undercut any semblance of consistency by digressing, contradicting himself, and tweeting whenever the mood strikes him.
And yet, if Trump wants to be more effective in his next 100 days than he was in his first, he might consider adopting a presidential voice — and attempting, at least, to stick to it.
“There are reasons that presidents think about the words they’re uttering,” Frankel says. “It’s not just that people just love presidential rhetoric; it’s not just about writing a good speech for the sake of it. It’s about the effect your words can have in the real world. You tailor your speeches to achieve outcomes: to pass legislation; to make an argument to different members of Congress; to target different kinds of voters who can then pressure their members; to make a case to the country. A president’s words matter.”
Shesol, for one, thinks Trump could still find his presidential voice — “if he cared to do it.”
“There is a Trump presidential idiom to be developed,” Shesol insists. “It would have to be pretty close to the guy we know, or it wouldn’t fly at all. You’d have to take the brashness and toughness and swagger and you would have to work with them and render them assets. You can’t reinvent someone. You can’t start writing speeches for Trump that sound like they should have been written for Reagan. But you could make him a better version of himself. In theory. You’d have to find a voice that wouldn’t alienate him from his base, but at the same time wouldn’t be so needlessly alienating to rest of the country.”
That last point is key. Trump’s dilemma, ultimately, is that the campaign allowed him to keep doing what he’s been doing his entire adult life: selling himself. The presidency is different: It requires you to sell your policies. By refusing to leave the campaign behind, Trump is missing an opportunity to appeal to the rest of the country — the 73 percent of eligible American adults who didn’t vote for him — and rally at least some of those citizens around his agenda. For the last two centuries, presidents have addressed the American people — not just their “bases” — a certain way. It’s a language that everybody shares and understands.
“We lose something important when we don’t have a presidential voice,” says Metcalf. “We lose the sense that our president is speaking to us and for us — all of us.”
Read more from Yahoo News’ coverage of Trump’s first 100 days: