How Donald Trump, George Orwell and J.D. Salinger use bad writing to make themselves look good

May 23, 2018

Donald Trump, George Orwell, and Holden Caulfield walk into a bar. Stick with me.

The bartender says “What’ll y'all have?” Although the joke has no punchline, the quote identifies the bartender as a person of the people, a speaker of the common tongue. 

Trump, Orwell and Caulfield will serve as my dramatis personae (my gang of three) to help me make this case to journalists and all public writers: The concept of "levels of language" is crucial to understanding of our politics, culture and common experience. Is a speaker’s use of language highbrow, lowbrow, or somewhere in the middle, and why does it matter?  


In a useful report from the Boston Globe, Annie Linskey describes how the president’s tweets are written — and by whom.

She reveals, for example, that staff members at the White House can offer potential tweets to the president for his consideration. Trump can choose among samples or use them to write his own version. Technology has been developed to scan tweets to detect language traits that indicate whether something was written by the president – or for him.

The most interesting detail comes from two unnamed sources who reveal that the ghost-tweeters may have included language mistakes, such as typos, on purpose. This is not done to make the president look bad, but to make him look good, a man of his people.

To his critics, mistakes such as grammatical errors or misspellings become evidence that POTUS — in the words of Rex Tillerson — is a “moron.” But guess what? Such concerns about language misuse become evidence for the president’s supporters that the intellectual elites are out of touch with the common voter. In other words, President Trump is not trying to make America great again for copy editors.   

Annie Linskey’s reporting is instructive: 

The hallmark of President Trump’s Twitter feed is that it sounds like him — grammatical miscues and all.

But it’s not always Trump tapping out a Tweet, even when it sounds like his voice. West Wing employees who draft proposed tweets intentionally employ suspect grammar and staccato syntax in order to mimic the president’s style, according to two people familiar with the process.

They overuse the exclamation point! They Capitalize random words for emphasis. Fragments.  Loosely connected ideas. All part of a process that is not as spontaneous as Trump’s Twitter feed often appears.

President Trump has worked with ghostwriters for decades, producing best-selling books. Such writers have the ability to capture the language habits, tendencies and preferences of their source. We all get this: autobiographies of, say, Donald Trump, Sophia Loren and Mickey Mantle, should sound different off the page, just as they would sound different in our ears.

Each person, I would argue, has at least two voices. There's the one that we hear when someone is speaking in front of a cheering crowd, and another that comes off the screen or page.

“Voice,” argues my colleague Don Fry, “is the sum of all the strategies used by the writer to create the illusion that he or she is speaking directly to the reader." In other words, voice is a made-up thing, a contraption designed to have a certain effect.

Holden Caulfield

Fiction writers do this all the time. They create characters, and those characters usually speak, and from their speech we make value judgments about them. J.D. Salinger was very good at this, suppressing his own voice so that his story could be revealed by an alienated teenage boy, Holden Caulfield, in the idiom of his time and place: New York City in the early 1950s.

Let’s examine the first sentence of "The Catcher in the Rye:"

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

Here’s my take on this sentence, as described in "The Art of X-ray Reading."  

J.D. Salinger sacrifices his own language and mature insights (sort of) to turn his narration over to a prep-school student, Holden Caulfield, who came to represent the alienation of the post-World War II generation. This is a carefully constructed text, but it doesn’t sound that way. It sounds like someone talking. How do you do that? You use the second person (“you”), contractions (“you’ll”; “don’t”), slang (“lousy”), intensifiers (“really”), verbal punctuation (“and all”), and mild profanity (“crap”). The cumulative effect is informal and conversational.

Salinger creates a beautiful illusion, influenced perhaps by models such as "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," in which Mark Twain turns his story over to a white 14-year old boy who speaks in a distinctive Southern dialect at a moment in American history before the Civil War.

George Orwell

So, yes, you can make this stuff up. Ghost-tweeters can write in the voice of a billionaire from Queens, New York, who, whatever you think of him, appeals to more than 50 million Twitter followers. They like him in spite of his errors — perhaps because of them.

When it comes to speech, propaganda, and politics, no one is more often quoted than the dystopian British author George Orwell. In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell makes the case that language corruption can lead to political corruption and vice versa. In “Why I Write,” he argues that a political sensibility — related to ideals such as freedom, justice and democracy — motivate him to write in the first place. But it is in a third essay, “Propaganda and Demotic Speech,” that Orwell leads us to a possible understanding of the language strategies of the Trump team.

I first read “demotic” as a misprint for “demonic.” But, no, “demotic” comes from the same root as democracy and means "of the people."

Writing in 1944, Orwell worried about the ability of British people to sustain a war effort against Nazi Germany, one that required great sacrifices over several years. Orwell wondered who could “speak” to the people and persuade them to hold the line. Surely not British aristocrats, politicians or scholars. Not those pointy heads speaking for the BBC.

It would have to be someone who could deliver plain speech. Vocabulary was important — but so was accent or dialect. Demotic speech, Orwell argued, is not just a matter of using plain words, but also involves dialect, what he calls "the question of accent."

He expressed certainty "that in modern England the 'educated' upper-class accent is deadly to any speaker who is aiming at a large audience. All effective speakers in recent times have had either cockney or provincial accents."

So what is the problem? Annie Linskey holds the mic for Langdon Hammer, chair of Yale’s English Department. “The president’s use of language, like his White House, is chaotic. But that is not necessarily a problem in itself. It’s what he uses language for — the strategic interests served by his sloppiness.”

In distinctly un-demotic language, Hammer argues that Trump’s style allows him “to speak vaguely, equivocate, insinuate, inflame, and intimidate. He doesn’t treat speech as something to stand by and take responsibility for. He ends with a Trumpian exclamation: 'Sad!'”

What does this mean for journalists and public writers?

  • Voice is a made-up thing, whether you are writing for yourself or others.
  • When you read a tweet or a column or a blog post, ask yourself:  “Who or what does this sound like, and what does it say about the speaker?”
  • Be productively skeptical when you read political speech. Don’t assume the mistakes were unintentional.
  • Do your best to discover the actual author of a book or tweet. If it matters, try to obtain the working methods of the ghostwriter. Is the writer working from interviews, or is the text composed by the writer and given to the source for approval?
  • Ask yourself what Orwell would think of your speech and writing. Would he characterize it as above the people, or of the people? 

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