Objects in the rear-view mirror: Lincoln vs. Trump – Public Speaking at its best and worst

At least back when I went to junior high and high school, one of the most important aspects of participating in a political process was a candidate’s capacity for communication, usually manifested through public speaking (speech writing and making). The main way that a person running for office could humanely get his/her ideas across to possible voters was by telling them directly what he/she thought.

No amount of posters or canvassing or “publicity” is as powerful as the moment when that person gets up in front of a group and cleverly, with craft and intelligence, expresses out loud what he/she means to represent to those who finally voted for him/her. For we should not forget that, at least in the United States, the vote we give to any politician is our permission for that person to represent us. Of course, Commander in Chief, Chief Executive, the (drum roll) President of the United States of America, sure sounds like he’s going to be the Big Boss; however, even that office is one of a public servant.

Anyway, coming back to what this short series treats, those people who are meant to serve us through their representation of our ideas must first convince us that they actually do represent what we think. Thinking is silent and private, others can only know what you think if you open your mouth and tell them. (Let’s skip other forms of communication for now.)

I do have an agenda, though I don’t want to say just what it is, no, not just yet. I’m going to jump right in with some observations about speech making (and maybe writing). I’m going to begin with a man whose name has come up several times during the current presidential campaign: Abraham Lincoln. For the purposes of my comments, I will be using a speech he gave when running for president in 1860.

I will contrast that speech with the words of Donald Trump, one of the two persons trying to convince the American people in this election of 2016 that he is worthy of representing the American people through the office of President.

Now, some will read this, think I’m trying to be clever and crude, ready to ridicule Mr Trump by comparing his words with those of Mr Lincoln. While that may be one outcome of this discussion, it is hardly necessary for anyone to put effort into ridiculing Mr Trump, I’m sure he’d admit to being the greatest at doing so for himself. (Am I giving away my agenda?)

No, I just want to take a look at how these two men approached the forum of public speaking with the objective of convincing, swaying people to cast a vote that would allow either of them to land that job. At the time of this writing, we know that Mr Lincoln won his bid (and many believe the speech I am using was instrumental in his having won); Mr Trump is yet to face the vote (little less than a month away). I’m not trying to be timely, though, it doesn’t matter if Lincoln won or if Trump did not, I’m looking at something else. So, this series will bridge the pre-post voting for President 2016.

Wasn’t I going to jump right in? Here goes. Mr Lincoln began his speech in the following manner:

Mr. President and fellow citizens of New York:

The “Mr President” he is referring to is Charles Rodgers, president of the Young Men’s Republican Union, who were the “citizens of New York”. This speech took place in the Cooper Institute in Manhattan, on February 27, 1860.

Mr Trump begins the speech I’ve chosen from his “repertoire” in this way:

Thank you. [Thank you. Thank you very much. And] It’s great to be here in Charlotte. I just met with our many amazing employees right up the road at our [my] property. [I will tell you, they like me very much, I must pay them a little bit too much.]*

Mr Trump thanks supporters. The speech took place at the Charlotte Convention Center, in Charlotte North Carolina, on August 18, 2016.

In both cases, the men giving the speeches are speaking to men and women with what we can assume is a particular interest. In the case of Lincoln, his audience is made up of 1500 members of the Young Men’s Republican Union, while Trump is addressing a “large crowd of supporters”.

Lincoln greets both the host of the event, as well as the members of the audience in a formal, almost letter-writing tone. Trump, on the other hand, thanks the audience (from video of this speech, probably for their welcoming applause as he takes the podium). He then flatters the setting of the speech. He refers to people he has “met with” who are not present to hear his speech, highlighting twice that they somehow belong to him, “our many amazing employees”; “our [my] property.”

So, in the case of Lincoln, we have an educated recognition of both the host and the listeners, with a nod to where the speech takes place “New York” before introducing his theme. In the case of Trump, we have an acknowledgment of the welcome the audience has given to him, two references to place: “Charlotte” and “our [my] property”, and no recognition of those who are actually listening to him speak.

Now, let’s look at the two men introducing what they are going to talk about. First, Lincoln:

The facts with which I shall deal this evening are mainly old and familiar; nor is there anything new in the general use I shall make of them. If there shall be any novelty, it will be in the mode of presenting the facts, and the inferences and observations following that presentation.

And Trump:

Tonight [Together], I’d like to talk about the New American Future [that] we are going to create [as a team] together.

It should be noted that Mr Lincoln gives a general introduction right away. In the case of Mr Trump, the theme of his speech is pushed down over 100 words after his initial greeting. He chooses to make reference to recent events. We will look at those 100 words a bit later; right now, I’ll stick to those introductory comments of each.

Mr Lincoln, in his 52-word / two-sentence intro, tells his audience that he will be dealing with certain facts, facts which are not current (“old”) and will be recognized by the listeners (“familiar”). He also highlights that he does not plan to use the facts in any innovative fashion. He does, though, foreshadow a novel presentation as well as possible novel “inferences and observations” that he will be making concerning those facts. He has, then, specifically promised a set of facts, a novel presentation and some type of interpretation of those facts.

Mr Trump, in his 16-word, single-sentence intro, tells the audience what he’d “like to talk about”, something he has chosen to title the “New American Future”. He also uses a future tense to somehow affirm that “we are going to create [it] together.”

A main difference lies in that Mr Lincoln announces what he plans to do in his speech: “I shall deal [with the facts]”; “I shall make [use of them]”. In neither case is he going beyond what he plans to do in the speech itself. He goes further to explain that though there may be innovation in the conclusion, he is not going to assume that his audience is going to share that innovation of interpretation.

Mr Trump presents a talking point, a point he is going to talk about, with an ambiguous name “New American Future” and implies that everyone is going to create this together (whether they like it or not!). While Lincoln promises to only speak about the facts of his theme, Trump seems to be insisting that all will not only jump onto the bandwagon of his theme, but that they will be participants in making the theme come about.

To be fair, both Lincoln and Trump are trying to sway their audiences to their positions. That is one of the objectives of this type of speech making. They differ, though, in that Lincoln will be presenting first a series of “facts” and then offering his interpretation of them, asking the audience to evaluate such interpretation and decide for themselves if they accept it or not. Trump seems, again, to be imperatively suggesting that all who hear him will join in the creation of what, up to now, sounds more like a slogan than a tangible reality.

Now, let’s try to get down to brass tacks.

Times have changed. The United States in the mid-19th century was admittedly quite different from the United States in the early 21st century. In Lincoln’s time, there was a nasty division among Americans over the question of slavery, and in this particular case, if the Federal Government had the power to prohibit State-level government from deciding the legality or not of slavery. In the early 21st century, there is a nasty division among Americans, or better put, there are several nasty divisions among Americans, some of them related to modern-day slavery (low-wages, unemployment, economic gaps, destruction of the middle class, etc.), some even related to what differentiated slaves from free men (racial issues, immigration, etc.). Perhaps in terms of division, little has changed except the actual details over the past century and a half.

In Lincoln’s time, though there were probably local disasters as that referred to by Trump in his opening comments, they would have been local, of little import or interest to the country as a whole, maybe even unknown to anyone outside of a horse-ride of the location of the disaster. Trump referring to the Louisiana situation is not that strange, as today such matters are known across the country, indeed, become talking points, symbols of larger issues for all of us. So, let’s take a look at those 100 or so words Trump actually began his speech with:

I’d like to take a moment to talk about the heartbreak and devastation in Louisiana, a state that is very [very] special to me

We are one nation. When one state hurts, we all hurt – and we must all work together to lift each other up. Working, building, restoring together.

Our prayers are with the families who have lost loved ones, and we send them our deepest condolences. Though [Through] words cannot express the sadness one feels at times like this, I hope everyone in Louisiana knows that our country is praying for them and standing with them to help them in these difficult hours. [They are very, very difficult. Thank you.]

We are one country, one people, and we will have together one great [fantastic] future.

Trump is being uncharacteristically “humble” in these 100 words, only referring to himself three times: “I’d like to take a moment”; “is very special to me”; “I hope”. The majority of his comment about the event is framed in first person plural. “We” is used six times. “Our” three times. References to inclusive groups “together” “one country” etc, occur seven times.

Here, Trump is openly pulling on hear-strings. He has chosen a particularly emotional current event and framed it as a group suffering, a group togetherness, and the need for group confronting of the problem in order to fortify the group. His message is obviously union of the people to make union of the country, a traditional political message in the U.S. Even Lincoln was much more concerned about keeping the Union than about the actual slavery question.

However, using those 100 words to remind the listeners of a “tragic” event and leaping from that bringing together through shared tragedy seems merely a tactic to slip in his “New American Future” and the necessity of “creat[ing it] together”. While what he has to say about Louisiana (and I will admit that, living outside of the USA, at this moment that I am writing this, I have absolutely no idea what event he is talking about, and won’t Google it until I have finished the text, so the event itself is not coloring my observations here) may well be heartfelt and appropriate, it is also being used to emphasize the “we will” aspect of his introductory sentence:

Tonight, I’d like to talk about the New American Future we are going to create together.

That’s certainly enough for a start. In the next, I will delve into some of the actual language each of the two presidential contenders uses to sway their audiences.

End note: so, I did check out just what that Louisiana disaster was (it has been linked). Imagine my surprise to find that in the months following Lincoln’s speech, the Atlantic Hurricane Season had devastated the same area. Yes, they may well appear closer than they are.

In the quotes from Mr Trump’s speech, words [in brackets] are those that he added to the scripted speech; words that are crossed out are those that were replaced from the script with the words [in brackets] that follow.

Photo credits:
Lincoln Mathew Brady [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Trump By Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0


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