Trump’s rhetoric: A 'good news' style


Ronald Reagan, the "Great Communicator" was a self-made orator.  With or without a script, his words were sparse, and those selected were decisive.  His most memorable lines barely contained a half-dozen words: "I'm paying for this microphone"; "As government expands, liberty contracts"; and "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

Donald Trump's lines plumb a bubble's brevity.  His speeches, usually staccato-styled acute exhortations, rarely exceed more than three lines for each topic, and each line often contains only two or three words.

While Reagan used subjects and verbs, Trump predominantly uses adjectives and nouns.  Reagan described a manner of knowing and making.  Trump judges people, things, and situations using a super-saturated shorthand, leaving the action of what to do about it to your imagination.

Contrast Reagan's "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" to Trump's "crooked Hillary" and "fake news."  This is not to say Trump is less fond of verbs.  "Lock her up," "drain the swamp," and "build the wall" are actions for sure – but primarily droll rhetorical semaphores describing the scene.

Reagan's efficacy of language derived from an Anglo-Saxon elegant simplicity that found its apex in the King James Bible, Authorized Version, 1611, the Bible most commonly associated with colonial America and the frontier, although the Plymouth Pilgrims and Salem Puritans preferred the more Calvinist Geneva Bible.

It is easy to visualize Reagan as a daily Bible reader.  Whether he read it cover-to-cover once a year, a noble habit among former presidents such as John Adams, is not so clear.

Yet Reagan easily navigated the KJAV, not only for its inspiration as the word of God, its sweeping history of the chosen Jewish people, its revealed spiritual mystery of salvation through belief in the incarnation, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as witnessed through His apostles.  Reagan keenly studied its sublime and graceful, yet distinctive language.

One of Reagan's most fascinating radio commentaries – among more than 1,000 addresses he made from 1975 to 1979, after having been governor of California, and before becoming president – was delivered in September 1977, where he discussed the enduring beauty of the KJAV while decrying the "Good News Bible," a more vernacular translation issued in 1976.

Reagan's radio commentary relied on a short article authored by Richard Hanser, chiding the Good News Bible.  Hanser was a well established newspaperman, writer, and historical screenplay scriptwriter (the magnificent Victory at Sea narration script belongs to Hanser).

Reagan's quarrel with the Good News Bible was about not its content, but its style.  Essentially, Reagan argued that the writing style in the "Bible for dummies" abandoned the majesty of expression so deserving for the sacred Book.  Here is a YouTube recording of Reagan's address, which also contains his text.

Two things are noteworthy: Reagan's effortless prose is delivered with a declaratory voice, yet affable, suggesting just a hint of derision, with a twinkle.  Second is Reagan's piercing sense of how, and why, words matter.  And for the Great Communicator, word choice, and phrase structure, preceded delivery.

Says Reagan, "I can't help feeling we should be taking the people to religion and lifting them with the beauty of language that has outlived the centuries."

Further, "Mr. Hanser has quoted from both the King James Version & the Good News Bible some well known passages for us to compare. A few thousand years ago Job said "How forcible are right words!" (Job 6:25) The new translators have him saying "Honest words are convincing."

Ronald Reagan would be the last president to rely upon the KJAV for wisdom and model his own speaking rhythm after its now uncommon usage.  And so Reagan could also suggest Donald Trump's stump and press conference mode, more akin to the tabloid style of the Good News Bible, preceded by Bill Clinton's accelerated presidential downslide to common speak ("I know it hurts...I feel your pain").

The Great Migration to tabloid speech, coincidentally joined by the waves of the progressive secular administrative state, was also foretold by Reagan:

"There is the passage [Eccl. 1:18], "For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow". Is it really an improvement to say instead, "The wiser you are, the more worries you have; the more you know the more it hurts."

And per Reagan, "In the New Testament, in Matthew, we read 'The voice of the one crying in the wilderness. Prepare ye the way.' [Matthew 3:3] The Good News version translates that, "Someone is shouting in the desert. Get the road ready." It sounds like a straw boss announcing lunch hour is over."

To be fair, Donald Trump doesn't pretend to think about literary things.  Few presidents have – except for Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and James Garfield.  Perhaps President Trump is a daily reader of his mother's Bible, the Revised Standard Version, not as lissome as the KJAV, still not as pedestrian as the Good News Bible.

Yet for its monochromatic, vanilla style, the Good News Bible can communicate to a vast audience.  Devoid of literary grace, telling a story in a language that can be processed quickly, and speaking truths instantly.  Artless?  So what?  Incomplete and disposable?  Doesn't matter.

The drift and direction matter.

Functional, and authentic, just like the Good News Bible, are attributes enough for President Trump.

Ronald Reagan was a lifelong reader, a man of ideas.  Donald Trump is a lifetime practitioner of transactions, a man of practical pursuits.  If Reagan was our John Trumbull (The Declaration of Independence, 1817)...

...then Trump is our Thomas Hart Benton (Boomtown, 1928).