In the 1970’s, the U.S. Navy decided that they wanted an independent assessment of how difficult it was to read and understand their training manuals. The result was something called “the Flesch-Kincaid scale,” which will take a given piece of text and let you know what grade level of reading proficiency you need to master in order to comprehend it.
Using that scale, a company called Factba.se went and looked at the interviews, speeches, and press conferences from presidents going back all the way to Herbert Hoover. What they discovered is pretty interesting. For example, George W. Bush actually had a modestly larger vocabulary than his father and both he and FDR spoke at a seventh grade reading level. Hoover and Jimmy Carter, by contrast, spoke at an eleventh grade reading level, while Obama was assessed at tenth grade and Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, and Clinton clocked in at ninth grade. Donald Trump’s number was 4.6, so we can generously round that up to fifth grade. Basically, your typical eight year-old can read a transcript of anything Trump says and understand it without difficulty.
Of course, at a 2015 rally in South Carolina, Trump famously boasted, “I know words. I have the best words.” Whether he knows a lot of words or not, he doesn’t use very many of them.
That doesn’t keep him from complaining that he’s not considered an elite or from telling his supporters that they’re the real elite.
“I always hear about the elite. . . . They’re elite? I went to better schools than they did. I was a better student than they were. I live in a bigger, more beautiful apartment, and I live in the White House, too, which is really great. . . . I think we’re the elites. They’re not the elites.”
In fact, he’s taken to calling his fans the “Super-Elite.”
Barry Thompson, a 58-year-old Trump supporter from the Minneapolis suburb of Cottage Grove, said that he hadn’t heard the president’s riff on the “super elite” but that he likes it. A woman standing in line behind him shook her head and disagreed: “He’s not an elite. He’s a billionaire, but he talks on our level. He talks to us.”
There’s some secret elixir in those quotes. How do you say that someone is a billionaire but he’s not an elite?
Well, you can say that if the billionaire talks at your level and your level is not elite. Many people might not realize that Trump is resonating with them in large part because he doesn’t use any hifalutin language that makes them feel inadequate in some way, but at least some of them are aware of this and don’t mind mentioning it as one of things about Trump that they find appealing.
Strangely, it makes them want to have a beer with him even though he doesn’t drink beer and claims to have never touched a drop of alcohol in his life. It makes them think that he understands and cares about their problems even though Trump was a millionaire by the time he was eight years old and has shown no sincere signs of caring about anyone but himself in his entire life.
It might be exasperating for college graduates, but Trump’s mangling of the English language and his fifth grade way of expressing himself has helped him form a strong bond with a lot of people who actually want a president that doesn’t challenge them intellectually.
What’s also frustrating is that another part of Trump’s appeal to these folks, many of whom were lifelong Democrats, is that he wasn’t strongly associated with either party and so became a vehicle for a lot of people who wanted someone to take “a wrecking ball” to Washington D.C. and its elites. That’s an understandable sentiment, but Trump has aligned himself in most things with the far right of the Republican Party. Obviously, his nominations to the federal courts reflect this, but so do his policies on climate, taxation, regulation, race, immigration, and women’s issues.
The main areas where he’s taking a wrecking ball to both sides of the establishment are on trade and tariffs, and on the American postwar global infrastructure and alliances. I’d add in the war on the FBI and the intelligence community, but the GOP seems to be going along with this with considerably less fuss than they are his trade wars and assaults on NATO and our closest foreign friends.
A working class guy from Cottage Grove, Minnesota doesn’t have any obvious reason to want the President to be chummy with North Korea and Russia while alienating Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom, nor would it seem he’d want a president who loads up the judiciary with Federalist Society flunkies. If he wanted corporations to go untaxed and unregulated while rich people drain the treasury of all its revenues for infrastructure, he would have been just as happy with another Bush.
And, yet, these folks are still convinced that Trump speaks to and for them. There’s probably a political lesson worth learning in all of this, and it might begin with going back to the fact that FDR spoke just as plainly as George W. Bush.
In fact, the only president who came remotely close to speaking as simplistically as Trump was Harry Truman who spoke at a 5.9 grade level. It’s probably not coincidental that FDR and Truman earned some real loyalty from the working class. They spoke at something close to their level.