Donald Trump’s knack for keeping his message simple — some would say dumbing it down — will likely be on display this week when he addresses the nation as its 45th president. If so, he’ll fit right in with his predecessors.
Since the days of George Washington, the inaugural address has provided an opportunity for presidents to set a tone and lay out goals for the coming term. In its use of language, it can also indicate the level at which the speaker is trying to connect with the electorate.
To get a sense of the linguistic precedent that Trump’s predecessors have set, I ran more than two centuries of inaugural speeches through an online evaluator, which considers such variables as vocabulary and sentence length and spits out the estimated grade level required to comprehend the text. Anything above 12 indicates college-level complexity. Above 18 or so the reader would need a graduate degree.
While some presidents stand out — George Washington and John Adams had the highest scores, George H.W. Bush had the lowest — the long-term trend was by far the most striking. From the late 18th century, the estimated grade level required to understand inaugural addresses declined more or less steadily, from far beyond graduate school to about 10th grade.
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To be sure, the trend might have something to do with the ability of 21st-century algorithms to deal with 18th-century turns of phrase. That said, it’s also consistent with the way presidential communication has changed in the ages of radio, television and Twitter. Although this undoubtedly indicates some dumbing down, it also suggests that the country’s leaders have gotten better at reaching a population that, for the most part, lacks a college degree.
Judging from Trump’s past speeches, his inaugural address probably won’t score too differently from those of recent presidents. The evaluator assessed his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, for example, as accessible to a 10th-grader.
Factually and ethically challenged as Trump may be, he knows how to connect.
Mark Whitehouse writes editorials on global economics and finance for Bloomberg View.
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