Midway through President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address, I wrote in my notes, “This is an excellent speech. Even if you don’t like Trump, this is his finest public speech to date.” Apparently, I jinxed him. Because after that, a different Donald Trump stood at the podium and trudged his way through the final thirty minutes. He was like Andy Reid coaching the Chiefs in the playoffs: Great start, dreadful finish.
My analysis won’t focus on the content of Trump’s speech (it was both unifying and dividing) because emotions, not content or policy, are his primary appeal. Last night, at least initially, Trump was energetic and proud. These might seem like normal traits for our sitting president, but Trump’s teleprompter speeches—his scripted speeches—tend to lose the large persona of the 45th president. Indeed, MIT’s Ed Schiappa notes Trump’s scripted speeches are often pedestrian, and Peggy Noonan remarks that Trump treats his prepared speeches “like a straightjacket from which he cannot escape.”
But that was not the case last night. I give his writers credit for finding the president’s voice in their writing. I’ve always thought it wasn’t Trump’s failure for poor performances during teleprompter speeches. Rather, it was the fault of his speech writers. For him to be persuasive, Trump needs to be Trump. And I thought his State of the Union speech contained all the best Trumpisms that made him so popular in the first place.
Repetition is a key element of any good Trump speech. This repetition is part of Trump’s rhythm, and he’s been successfully deploying it for more than 50 years. Last night, Trump used the word “always” at the end of a sentence near the beginning of his speech and then several times later. Other examples (and there were plenty) were the phrases “completely tax free,” “win,” “a lot of money,” “good feeling,” and “great people.” One of my favorite teaching techniques—that is proven to be persuasive—is getting my students to restate the same idea over again, and Trump’s mastery of the rephrase was on full display.
Trump also employed specific expressions masterfully early in the speech. Other politicians may gain credibility through their facts or research, but Trump’s credibility has always stemmed from his everyday talk and his average Joe style. His language is part of his brand, and Trump needs to appear conversational for it to work. Last night, he did just that. He used casual humor when he said “I think they like you, Steve” during his comment about wounded representative Steve Scalise. He used “tremendous”—a word difficult to image Barack Obama saying—several times. He also finished one thought with “and he’s a great welder” when referring to an audience member and gestured toward the Democrats as he mentioned the issues he thought they favored. With his ability to make an event as formal as the State of the Union feel casual and welcoming, Trump was on his A game stylistically.
Unfortunately, Trump’s momentum didn’t last. I can point to the exact moment President Trump lost his luster last night. He fumbled a word. Specifically, it sounded like he said “queed” when he intended to say the word “creed.” Normally, I don’t mind a couple of these bobbles in a speech; they’re fairly common. Unfortunately, for Trump, it was a sign that he was tired, and his speech quickly lost all its momentum right near the 45-minute mark. I almost saw the lights go out in his eyes as he misspoke again by slurring “fers,” instead of saying his intended word, “fears.”
When Trump called out an audience member for recognition, Celestino Martinez, he not only got his nickname wrong, calling him “DJ,” but instead of simply correcting himself, Trump actually said in the State of the Union, “He goes by DJ and CJ, he told me either one, so I said CJ.” While it’s slightly insulting to mess up a name, lying about it makes it so much worse. Like at so many other times during his presidency, Trump couldn’t simply admit he made a mistake and continue the speech. No. He impulsively lied about his mistake and invented a fictitious conversation with his guest that obviously never happened. And it’s not the first time. Trump has done this repeatedly.
Finishing on a sour tonal note, the topics began running together like a defense sequester (I’m not sure Trump understood the point of that section of his speech). He also used awkwardly slow pauses when referring to the tragedy of Otto Warmbier and his family. Trump’s words had no rhythm. Unfortunately for him, his vocal quality also waned when he talked about the recent victories over ISIS. He should have been able to hammer this topic as he has so many times. Instead, his words lacked any emphasis or engagement. Trump’s speaking style mandates energy. His emotional appeal, the core of his presidency, is lost without it. By the end of the speech, our president was gassed.
While Trump critics might want to blame Trump for a poor effort, his lackluster last forty minutes were not necessarily a Trump thing. The speech was long—clocking in at 1:20—and it’s difficult to maintain one’s energy when speaking for that long. I can’t get my students to deliver an 8-minute speech with continual emphasis, so to imagine holding an audience’s attention for ten times that long is probably too much to ask anyone. It appears to me that 45 minutes is the maximum we can expect from Trump if we want a strong speech start to finish. His writers should adjust accordingly.
Dr. Todd Graham is the Director of Debate at Southern Illinois University. His debate teams have won five national championships and Todd has most recently won the 2016 “Debate Coach of the Year” award, his record-setting third such honor. Dr. Graham also serves as the CNN.com debate expert for the presidential debates. You can follow him on Facebook.