When I was in college and grad school George W. Bush was president. Bush was, by all accounts, a terrible speaker. He had okay speech-writers (sometimes) but when left to his own devices he could not string words together. This led a certain portion of the population to think of him as kind of dumb and be pretty judgmental about his platform as a whole. His supporters were quick to label those folks as elitists who just couldn’t appreciate his folksy, everyperson kind of charm and the dividing lines were drawn.
Fast forward twenty years.
Donald Trump is easily the worst speaker who has ever held the office of the President of the United States. His syntax and vocabulary is juvenile, he can’t keep a train of thought going, and when he DOES rely on a pre-written speech they are generally hyperbolic and terrible. He is, quite simply, a terrible speaker.
The question is, does it matter?
Donald Trump got elected by doing everything your communication prof told you NOT to do. Whatever makes for effective and healthy communication, Trump ran in the opposite direction of that at full tilt. So the 2016 election left a lot of comm scholars with some pretty big questions on our hands. Have we been wrong for literally THOUSANDS of years (that’s how long people have been studying rhetoric – comm studies evolved out of that in the mid-20th century)? Is everything we said incorrect? Trump, and a lot of people who parroted him, rode in on a wave of populism that COMPLETELY ran afoul of everything communication theory and studies have every said about how to be a good communicator and about 20% of the population ate it up (that’s about how many Americans ended up voting for him). He lost the popular vote but won the electoral college. Clearly there were enough people who liked what he had to say and how he had to say it
Supporters of Trump tend to excuse his coarse speaking with homespun support like, “yeah, but he MEANS what he says” and “it matters WHAT he says now HOW he says it.” The issue here is that WHAT Trump says is as problematic as how he says it. It flies in the face of ideas about effective communication as much as any techne. But it may be that Trump is ahead of us as scholars, here. He may understand his audience better than we do. His appeals to white supremacy and misogyny may seem wildly inappropriate for a broad audience like what your communication professor is thinking of, but may be just what the doctor ordered for the small slice of America that Trump is trying to appeal to. And if that is the case then it could be that he is doing exactly what he is supposed to be doing – appealing to pathos and ethos in real and effective ways.
But 2016 was a long time ago and we have learned some things since then.
Those that rode in on that populist wave have largely been shown to be ineffective leaders. Trump and his supporters have, by just about any metric, failed as leaders. They may have been able to bluster their way through an election season but that could not carry them through governing. It appears as if those things which are necessary for good communication are also necessary for good governing. And in the absence of those things there has been a crisis of leadership.
And the country has had four years of Trump’s message and his messaging style. We have seen how he communicates with us and with others. We have had time to assess him as a leader and a communicator. And he is coming up short. His is more politically unstable than he has ever been and his messaging consists of the occasional twitter rant that is often just some rambling and some references to Nixon.
The nation is, at this point, unimpressed.
In the last two weeks the nation has been reeling from tragedy and the explosive response to that tragedy. We looked to the president to respond to our circumstances, as the job of the president is to guide us through crisis, and he literally told us he had nothing to say. After much cajoling he agreed to do a speech on race, which was met with some anxiety because he has a history of not handling that issue well, and when he announced he would do it on Juneteenth in Tulsa the outcry was swift, and, to be honest, predictable. He has since recanted and decided to move the speech by one day.
But the results are the same. The President came in under the auspices of “I don’t have to be a good speaker I can say whatever the hell I want” and after four years of that the nation is tired. The nation is looking for someone who has a message we can get behind and who can give it to us in a real, honest, and impressive way. We are looking for a leader, and part of American leadership is being the Orator in Chief.
Trump has from now until November to convince America that he can communicate our ideas effectively.
But his speech, in this, an hour of crisis, will most definitely matter.