Political Speech as Improv

October 3, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Donald Trump’s speaking style must infuriate the teachers of communications and public speaking, the professional speechwriters, the instructors in the required composition course, and anyone else who values logic and coherence, not to mention factual accuracy. Trump, unless he  sticks to a script someone has written for him, jumps from one topic to another, sometimes leaving sentences unfinished and interjecting irrelevancies that seem to be the product of the free association of a disordered mind.

But obviously, Trump is doing something right. It’s not exactly “method in his madness”  — “Trump is not crazy, nor is he methodical. But he is using a strategy, a technique for connecting with his audience.

Gabriel Rossman summarized it perfectly in a tweet yesterday responding to the question, “Who is our Alcibiades?”

“A lot of people tell me I could have seduced Socrates, who by the way was a very 
famous philosopher I studied with. [begins to lose the crowd] Hey, who here likes 
Aristophanes? There's gonna be so much winning in Sicily you’ll get tired of it.”

Aside from the resemblances between Trump and Alcibiades, aside from the rhetorical style (“people say,” “by the way”) and egotism, there’s the quick change of topic when the crowd fails to respond. Reporters who followed Trump during the campaign and now in his presidency note the same thing. Trump is like a stand-up comedian with a variety of bits. When one routine isn’t working, he shifts topics until he finds some material that the audience responds to.

Martin Luther King did something similar in the early years, as Taylor Branch writes in Parting the Waters. He describes King in 1955, twenty-six years old, not yet sure of what will ignite a crowd, speaking at a YMCA on the eve of the Montgomery bus boycott.

“We are here this evening — for serious business,” he siad, in even pulses, rising and then falling in pitch. When he paused, only one or two “yes” responses came up from the crowd, and they were quiet ones. It was a throng of shouters he could see, but they were waiting to see where he would take them.

“And I think I speak with — with legal authority — not that I have any legal authority . . . that the law has never been totally clarified.” This sentence marked King as a speaker who took care with distinctions, but it took the crowd nowhere. “Nobody can doubt the height of her character, no one can doubt the depth of her Christian commitment.”

“That’s right,” a soft chorus answered.

“And just because she refused to get up, she was arrested,” King repeated. The crowd was stirring now, following King at the speed of a medium walk.
   
He paused slightly longer.

“And you know, my friends, there comes a time,” he cried, “when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.”

A flock of “Yeses” was coming back at him when suddenly the individual responses dissolved into a rising cheer and applause exploded beneath that cheer — all withing the space of a second. The startling noise rolled on and on, like a wave that refused to break, and just when it seemed that thr oar must finally weaken, a wall of sound came in from the enormous crowd outdoors to push the volume still higher. Thunder seemed to added to the lower register — the sound of feet stomping on the wooden floor — until the loudness became something that was not so much hears as sensed by vibrations in the lungs. The giant cloud of noise shook the building and refused to go away. One sentence had set it loose somehow, pushing the call-and-response of the Negro church past the din of a political rally and on to something else that King had never known before.

King had tried giving the crowd the legal angle. He had tried giving them the nobility of Rosa Parks. The crowd merely waited. He had called, and there was no response. But “there comes a time when people get tired,” had opened the floodgates, and the crowd let him know. He used the phrase at least twice more.” “There comes a time when people get tired of being thrown across the abyss of humiliation,” and “There comes a time when people get tired of being people get tired of getting pushed out the glittering sunlight of life’s July and left standing amidst the piercing chill of an Alpine November.”

Maybe there’s a lesson here for teachers – sensing when you’re losing the class and figuring out a way to get them back.

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