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Darryl Konynenbelt Headshot

Donald Trump, The Pronoun Politician

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Next time you hear Donald Trump speak, count how many pronouns he uses in his political spiel.

I just used six when you also consider the ones in this sentence: you, he, his, I, you and this.

Pronouns replace nouns, and are used to avoid cumbersome language in a sentence. In public speaking, these shorter words can wield power. They are inclusive and draw the audience or listener into feeling like they matter.

As someone who for a living advises business executives on body language and media fluency, I am intrigued by how Donald Trump and/or his writers have mastered this.

The use of pronouns in political speeches is obviously not new.

There are people who analyze this stuff. I found experts at Sweden's Linnaeus School of Language and Literature.

A school white paper by Jessica Hakansson, entitled "Use of Personal Pronouns in Political Speeches" looked at a number of statements including President Barack Obama's speech in 2009 to the Joint Session of Congress:

"Because of this plan, there are teachers who can now keep their jobs and educate our kids, health care professionals can continue caring for our sick." (Obama 2009).

The clip is located around the seven- to eight-minute mark.

Anyway, Linnaeus's analysis is as follows:

"Obama uses the pronoun 'our' deliberately to make the people feel obliged to help the sick people in America. If he had said 'the sick,' he would not have created a sense of institutional identity and togetherness and the wish to work together to help fellow citizens."

Now, in 2016, we have a much different presidential race and far more charismatic politicians.

When Trump first entered the race, I noticed the excessive use of pronouns in his speech.

"Our country needs a truly great leader. We need a leader to bring back our jobs, our military, our manufacturing, to take of our vets," said Trump. You get the picture.

I thought it was a one-off, but then saw a pattern of personal pronouns in future rants like I, you and we, along with the possessive use of his, hers, our and yours.

Even in Trump's most recent attack speech on Hillary Clinton--his well-scripted, teleprompter parlay--I tallied more than 100 pronouns and then simply stopped counting to pay more attention to how he was using pronouns.

Here are a few examples:

"I'm with you."

"We can come back better."

"I want trade deals, but they have to be great for our country."

His slogan, "Make America Great Again," sounded less like a campaign pitch because he added just a few simple words: "We have to make America great again."

I wanted to make sure I wasn't reading too much into this, so I emailed Toronto psychiatrist Dr. Mark Berber to ask him if I was on to something.

Here is his response:

Hi Darryl:
You are correct when you identify "the power of the pronoun"!
People are basically self-centered and self-focused and love it when they are the focus of attention.
We live in a world where we have lost the art of caring for one another in a genuine, interested and loving way.
So, when we hear the words "we, you, us, and ours" it gives us that warm fuzzy feeling of belonging and of being cared for and included.
One of the key steps to finding/achieving happiness is nurturing relationships and of course the key words describing relationships include "us, ours and we".

Maybe that's Trump's appeal. Is he giving a warm and fuzzy feeling to a part of the American electorate that has felt ignored? Is that why they just can't turn him off?

Add the pronoun-laden prose to Trump's animated body language, and it creates a very convincing narrative.

Trump never speaks in a closed position. His arms are either outstretched or oddly perched at his side, yet he emphasizes his points with open hands and sometimes curls his index finger to his thumb completing a full circle.

Love him or loathe him, Trump is charismatic and entertaining to watch.

Despite his disregard for journalists, they flock to cover him because he is different, sometimes bizarre, but always new. That makes for great television, which in turn changes how reporters are covering politics. Presentation and media matter in campaigns.

During the Brexit vote, he was in Scotland, yet reporters still swarmed him and once again churned out whatever he pronounced. "I love to see people take their country back."

The great Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan once stated: "One of the peculiar things about the effects of media on politics is that parties and policies become very unimportant, and the image of the politician takes on a tremendous new importance."

In the digi-sphere, Trump is not only seen, but heard everywhere, and is just a click away.

Trump is an easy study on how politicians with media fluency simply garner more media attention, and his speech scribblers understand the public power of a pronoun politician.

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