LAWRENCE – The next time President Donald Trump says or tweets something many Americans find outrageous – and you know he will – a University of Kansas expert in presidential rhetoric is available to help place things in historical context.
Robert Rowland, professor of communication studies, has written books about the rhetorical styles and abilities of former presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, and he says President Trump is a clear break from their eloquence and unifying ethos.
“At one level, you’d say this is obviously a weakness, and he does not meet the standards of presidential eloquence that we hope for,” Rowland said. “Our presidents who used words most effectively – the Reagans and Obamas, John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt – have well-crafted rhetoric. They are stylists. They often work on the writing themselves. President Trump works on it himself, but with a very different style — at least the tweets.
“One consequence is that he has had difficulty in talking about our shared values and what unifies us, except in highly scripted settings such as second of the three major statements after Charlottesville.”
Rowland was referring to the Aug. 11 parade through the University of Virginia campus by white supremacists and the subsequent terror attack by one of them that killed a counter-protester.
“But the advantage he has in his vernacular style is that, clearly, to his core supporters he seems authentic,” Rowland said. “He talks in a way they might talk. To many others, it makes him seem like a boor. … He is unscripted in an entirely different sense than any president I’ve ever seen.”
For instance, Rowland said, Trump’s tweets and off-the-cuff remarks “are clearly not fact-checked in the way that presidents of both parties would have had things fact-checked in the past.”
“President Trump is willing to say things that come from the gut that other presidents wouldn’t have said. The claim that Obama was wiretapping him is a good illustration of that. Rather than calling his own attorney general and asking if there was any record of this in the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court, or his own director of Central Intelligence, he just said it. That’s now been debunked. He is constantly distracting us with an outrageous comment.”
Rowland said that while past presidents have sought to go around the news media directly to the American public through radio and television addresses, Trump’s Twitter feed has succeeded in this to a new level. And while this style got Trump elected, Rowland said it “remains to be seen” whether it will make him an effective leader.
Rowland said the president sets himself apart from predecessors in that “all political relationships become personal.”
“I think one of the reasons this has worn as well as it has for his core supporters is that our politics has become so tribal, and it’s a matter of ‘he’s on our team.’ And he has definitely made it an us-versus-them mindset for his core supporters — working-class white voters."
Rowland is available for interviews in person, by phone or via the radio and television studios on the KU campus. To set up an interview, or for technical details on the radio and TV side, please contact KU News Service Public Affairs Officer Rick Hellman, 785-864-8852, or email@example.com.