Objects in the rear-view mirror: Lincoln vs. Trump – Introducing Their Themes


Continuing from that earlier discussion of the differences between Lincoln-style and Trump-style public speaking, I’d like to take a look at some of the language used by each of these Presidential candidates in their attempts to swoon their listeners.

Before that, though, I would like to briefly talk about the actual writing of the speeches themselves.

Who penned the words?

In the case of Lincoln, it was Abe himself who was responsible for the creation of his speech. This was not unusual in his time, it was expected that a person who was going to speak publicly would also be directly responsible for the words he was going to utter. Lincoln spent months researching and creating this speech, knowing full well that it would be an important moment in his political career. If the surviving examples of the Gettysburg Address are to be any clue, we can imagine that Lincoln actually wrote and rewrote and rewrote the speech several times, even up to moments before he gave it, and perhaps after it was given.

Now, I’ve just done a Google on Mr Trump’s speech. Though it is admitted that, unlike the majority of his public speaking, this speech was scripted, there is no clear reference to who actually wrote the speech. (Not related, but I found it curious that someone called Meredith McIver had her 15 minutes of non-fame, first not existing, then existing….) It is probable that Mr Trump did not write the speech himself (though while giving it, he certainly adorned it). It’s most likely that we will never know just who wrote it. Doesn’t really matter, it was obviously supervised at some point by Mr Trump, as it closely scripts his usual extemporaneous style.

If you remember, Mr Lincoln promised to offer up some facts, elaborate upon them and come to some conclusion about them, while Mr Trump told his listeners that he was going to talk about a particular theme and how all of them were going to make that theme come true. Let’s begin with Lincoln.

What was the context?

The context that Lincoln was working within was a nasty fight over Federal and State sovereignty. Simplifying, certain States felt that the Federal government did not have the constitutional right to dictate the legality or lack of same of the institution of slavery. Other states, as well as some in the Federal government, opined that such legislation had been and, indeed, could be drafted and enforced by that Federal government.

Lincoln introduces his theme in this fashion:

In his speech last autumn, at Columbus, Ohio, as reported in “The New-York Times,” Senator Douglas said:

“Our fathers, when they framed the Government under which we live, understood this question just as well, and even better, than we do now.”

I fully indorse [sic] this, and I adopt it as a text for this discourse. I so adopt it because it furnishes a precise and an agreed starting point for a discussion between Republicans and that wing of the Democracy headed by Senator Douglas. It simply leaves the inquiry: “What was the understanding those fathers had of the question mentioned?”

Quoting a rival, Senator Stephen A Douglas, Lincoln tells us that he is going to address the question of how the “founding fathers” understood the question of Federal vs. State sovereignty on the particular topic presented: legislating slavery.

How does Mr Trump present his theme?

Last week, I laid out my plan to bring jobs back to our country.

On Monday, I laid out my plan to defeat Radical Islamic Terrorism.

On Tuesday, in Wisconsin, I talked about how we are going to restore law and order to this country.

Let me take this opportunity to extend our thanks and our gratitude to the police and law enforcement officers in this country who have sacrificed so greatly in these difficult times.

The chaos and violence on our streets, and the assaults on law enforcement, are an attack against all peaceful citizens. If I am elected President, this chaos and violence will end – and it will end very quickly.

Every single citizen in our land has a right to live in safety.

To be one united nation, we must protect all of our people. But we must also provide opportunities for all of our people.

We cannot make America Great Again if we leave any community behind.

If we were to draw the context from Trump’s speech, we can assume that:

  1. jobs have been taken from the US;
  2. something called “Radical Islamic Terrorism” is an existing threat;
  3. law and order have gone by the wayside;
  4. there is chaos and violence in the public ways;
  5. citizens are not living safely.

That’s a total of five talking points introduced, under the theme of, let’s see, what’s it going to be: “Make America Great Again” or “New American Future”?

What’s the difference?

What stands out between the two theme introductions is conveniently handed over to us by Lincoln himself: a precise and an agreed starting point for a discussion”. This is exactly what Trump does not offer us.

Trump tells us of one plan “laid out”; he follows this with another plan “laid out”; he continues with a digression to thank the police for doing what just happens to be their job; he continues the digression highlighting a situation of chaos and violence which he will bring to an end; he then asserts that citizens deserve safety; he “concludes” by equating that safety with a concept of protecting everyone, then changes mid-phrase to talk about providing opportunities; he finishes up by repeating a slogan, while trying to bring the talk back to community and union.

While Lincoln has made it clear exactly what he plans to expose, Trump seems to be jumping from theme to theme, while gravitating around a nebulous concept of union. Why didn’t Trump just say that? If we go for the math, Lincoln introduces in 101 words and just four sentences. It takes Trump 162 words and ten sentences. Just who is saving saliva for the actual development and explanation of his ideas?

If each of these introductions were to serve (as they should) as an indication of the structure of the following arguments, we find that Lincoln sets us up with a common, agreed-upon starting point, assuring us that starting from that point he may well be able to unite the ideas of two opposing points of view. He offers us a simple question which we can assume he will attempt to answer through discussing the agreed-upon point. He will use the question / answer format again throughout his speech.

Trump, on the other hand, basically tells us what he has done or will see done, (“I laid out my plan” twice; “I talked about”; “If I am elected President”). He implies through these statements that there are a series of problems that he has made plans to deal with; however, he leaves the listener in a state of confusion, skipping from theme to theme, only using first person throughout, “I”, “we”,“my” and “our”. Despite this pot-puree of themes, we at least can expect he will explain how he will bring about the union he asserts is necessary.

Who gets down to brass tacks first?

Lincoln proceeds to give the heart of his speech. He follows a basic pattern in doing so, which can be seen in this small excerpt: (34)

What is the frame of government under which we live? (Question is posed.)

The answer must be: “The Constitution of the United States.” That Constitution consists of the original, framed in 1787, (and under which the present government first went into operation,) and twelve subsequently framed amendments, the first ten of which were framed in 1789. (Precise answer is given)

Who were our fathers that framed the Constitution? (Question is posed.) I suppose the “thirty-nine” who signed the original instrument may be fairly called our fathers who framed that part of the present Government. It is almost exactly true to say they framed it, and it is altogether true to say they fairly represented the opinion and sentiment of the whole nation at that time. Their names, being familiar to nearly all, and accessible to quite all, need not now be repeated. (Precise answer is given)

Throughout the speech, Lincoln poses 34 questions. Questions make up 10.7% of his speech. Of those 34 questions, he answers 31, some of those questions actually answering themselves. The three remaining are rhetorical reflections upon information he had previously given. In any case, the structure is clear, Lincoln poses a question and then answers it.

Trump continues his speech in the following manner:

Nearly Four in ten African-American children are living in poverty. (Statement of fact) I will not rest until children of every color in this country are fully included in the American Dream.(Promise of action)

Jobs, safety, opportunity. Fair and equal representation. This is what I promise to African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and all Americans.(Promise of action)

But to achieve this New American Future we must break from the failures of the past. (Imperative assertion)

Here, Trump does seems to concentrate somewhat on one point, the situation of African-American citizens. He gives us a statistic; he makes a promise concerning his future action; he follows with two sentence fragments that seem to list benefits of that promise if kept; he promises to extend these benefits to two minority groups, then includes everyone else. He repeats his slogan, while making an imperative statement of what “we” must do. Again, the only structure we seem to see is the rapid movement from idea or theme to theme with no transitional device and no logical order.

Trump also poses questions, 13, or 5.1% of his speech, an he only answers one of those questions, most of the other twelve being provocative questions concerning the performance of his opponent in the presidential race.

In both cases, the speech’s thematic introduction clearly presents the structure that the content will follow. Lincoln’s will be a series of questions followed by answers full of numbers, dates, names and actions. Trump’s will be a disconnected series of statements with little transitional material and questions meant to cast doubt upon his opponent.

What has the opponent to do with it?

Lincoln had an opponent in his race; however, he does not directly attack the person who runs against him, actually begins by agreeing with him, though not necessarily in the interpretation of the words quoted from Douglas. He does comment to the opposing view on sovereignty in his conclusions, taking up 51% of the text in trying to speak directly to those who share that view. Lincoln’s speech is an issue-centered discourse. The entire theme is the sovereignty issue already mentioned, with a complete, fact-based argument in favor of his party’s take on the issue with an attempt to sway the opinion of those who disagree.

Trump spends 11.6% of his speech talking opponents in general. He spends 24.3% speaking about his opponent in the race. That’s a total 35.9%, over a third of his speech, dedicated to talking about the opponent to the office he is running for. How Trump deals with his opponents will be more closely looked at in the next installment on content, suffice it to say that he makes absolutely no effort to sway those opponents to his point of view. That should leave us with 64% to talk about and support what seems to be his theme, union, as presented in the introduction. Following Lincoln’s example, I pose the question: Does Trump use that 64% effectively?

Going into the body of these two speeches means taking a good look at their content. The next two installments will concentrate on the speeches separately.


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