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OpEdge: Donald Trump as Stand-Up Comic

Marc Jampole
August 31, 2015

by Marc Jampole

alg-donald-trump-jpgMOST CANDIDATES use the same speaking style, starting with the organization of their speeches into distinct sections in which they talk about one or a few related issues. Each section will handle the issues using similar rhetorical and syntactical devices: employing more words than are necessary; using anecdotes instead of statistics; hedging bets with such weaselly phrases as “anticipate,” “start to address,” and “return to American traditions”; reducing issues into slogans and one-liners; using repetition to drive home points (almost always in imitation of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” style); taking a humble approach except in the constant use of the royal “we.” To all current Republicans and a goodly share of Democrats, we can add using misinformation and disproved assumptions to the mix.

Except for the arguing by anecdote and the use of misinformation, Donald Trump’s speaking style is none of that, which may be why he continues to build a lead in Republican polls.

First and most importantly, there is no formal structure to the Trump stump speech. He seems to meander from one subject to another, and he is never comprehensive the way Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush is. He talks only about the hot-button issues that have seemed to enliven his supporters: immigration, getting tough with the rest of the world, and his personal feuds with various news media personalities. He will occasionally add an extremist version of standard Republican cant, such as the condemnation of Planned Parenthood. Far from humble, he goes out of his way to remind the audience that he’s right, even when he’s wrong. He rarely completes a thought before a new topic pops into his head or he skips back to something he mentioned earlier. Many candidates such as both Bush presidents have cultivated changing the grammatical subject of a sentence in mid-sentence, but Trump takes this dislocated style a step further, changing not only the grammatical subject, but the topic of the entire sentence as well.

But if his style seems alien to political arenas, it is familiar and perhaps soothing to the majority of Americans who watch a lot of TV, for his characteristic performance resembles that of a contemporary (post-Dangerfield) comedian.

The contemporary comic for the most part doesn’t tell jokes, but rambles from topic to topic, free form, occasionally saying something funny or zinging a sacred cow or well-known human foible. You never have the feeling that the contemporary comic is scripted, but rather speaking a spontaneous stream of conscious rap. Doesn’t that sound like Trump?

The contemporary comic, be it Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock, or Ron White, often trades in stereotypes, and assumes that we do, too. Doesn’t that sound like Trump?

The contemporary comic is self-referential, ether drawing from her or his own life or interrupting a thought process to refer to her or himself—how the performance is going, the personal effect of the story on the comic or something else just as extraneous. Doesn’t that sound like Trump?

The contemporary comic relies on slang as opposed to speaking in a formal language. Doesn’t that sound like Trump?

The contemporary comic will take a complex social issue, reduce it to one or two points which will be inflammatory but not necessarily salient, and then melts away our anxiety about the complex issue with simplistic, often aggressive and senseless exhortations. Doesn’t that sound like Trump?

And while there are some comics who specialize in insults, virtually all comics will insult someone. Now we know that sounds just like Trump.

In short, Trump’s speaking style and its easy distillation into outrageous one-liners for the news media are something that many voters are more used to than the more organized, if equally duplicitous, style of other Republican candidates.

ANOTHER SIMILARITY between Trump and a standup is that Trump’s public character is a laughable cliché. Some comics pretend to be hicks, some pretend to be promiscuous, some affect a rage at the world, some are “mama’s boys.” In Trump’s case, he’s a puffed-up and vain buffoon — a wealthy fool, someone with a lot of money but no taste. The properties he built were garish. His private life exemplified what used to be called the “nouveau riche,” those who have money but spend it tastelessly and foolishly. His Apprentice TV show was a parody version of the business world, his gruff and insulting style a parody of a type of executive who is not all that prevalent nowadays. I thought he embarrassed himself with his intimations that Barack Obama was not an American citizen. His “birther” pronouncements also added racism to Trump’s reputation, already sullied by frequent misogynistic comments.

At least Reagan played heroes and good guys, or a genial executive for General Electric. And at least, when Al Franken went into politics, he shed his comic persona (which in some ways parodied the parody that is Trump) and became a policy expert.

I’m certain that some people don’t realize that Trump started as a buffoon, or are enamored of the gaudy, materialistic, self-aggrandizing life that was and is his public persona. While many people share my disdain for celebrity culture, I’m sure at least 7 percent of American voters buy into it — and that’s what Trump’s Republican supporters add up to right now: 28 percent of a party with which 25 percent of all voters affiliate, or 7 percent of all voters. Of course, that’s still a heck of a lot more than Jeb Bush, John Kasich, or Marco Rubio.

Marc Jampole, a member of our editorial board, is a poet and writer who runs Jampole Communications, a public relations and communications firm in Pittsburgh. He blogs several times a week at OpEdge.