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President Donald Trump mounted a vigorous defense of his presidency and accused America’s news media of being ‘out of control’ at a White House news conference Thursday, vowing to bypass the media and take his message ‘straight to the people.’
Time

President Trump, at a Thursday news conference, repeatedly declared he inherited a “mess” when becoming president.

“To be honest, I inherited a mess,” he said. “It’s a mess. At home and abroad, a mess.” He then explained how jobs and companies are leaving the U.S. and the instability of foreign countries before adding, again, for emphasis, “I inherited a mess.”

The president’s rhythm of speaking, in which he echoes the same phrases and descriptors, has been on display since he entered the presidential race. The examples have penetrated the zeitgeist. Bad deals are “terrible,” the media is “dishonest,” and the system, “broken.”

The style of repetition isn’t lost on linguists, who say his speech is similar to what advertisers use to get people to buy products. And it’s working, thanks to the makeup of our brain.

George Lakoff, a graduate professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California – Berkeley, explains the brain is made of interconnected neurons that form circuits, which carry out every word or thought we have. When circuits are activated by words or sights, they become stronger, and if repeatedly activated, can become permanent. Put simply, if someone repeats something, a person can be trained to think a certain way.

“It’s effective when people hear things over and over, it sticks in their minds,” said Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University who has written a lot on the topic of repetition.

“Where did people come away with this idea that Hillary can’t be trusted?” she asked, then answered, “We heard it over and over.”

Lakoff gives the example of former President George W. Bush’s promise of “tax relief,” a term, Lakoff said, portrayed taxes as something that needed to be remedied. The then-president, Lakoff said, reiterated the term early in his administration and soon reporters and opposing Democrats were using it.

Trump’s speech, Lakoff suggests, is an extension of his businessman persona – and done purposefully.

“This is something taught in every marketing class,” he said. “He knows how to use your brain for his advantage… Trump is always selling. He’s selling himself.”

To Tannen, Trump’s speech is just that.

“My guess is that it’s automatic and that it’s just the way he talks, that he doesn’t think things through in great detail,” she said. “It’s something in between an idea and an emotion.”

Repeating words, she added, also can be used as a stall tactic.

“It allows you to keep speaking when you don’t have anything new to say,” she said.

Tannen also pointed out Trump’s “one-word emotional ways of wrapping things up,” such as ending Tweets with the word “sad.”

“They’re emotional wrap-ups, they’re not substantive,” she said. “It tells you how he feels about it, it doesn’t tell you what he thinks about it.”

But Trump’s draw, Tannen explained, is tied to his ability not to sound like a politician or an expert. People feel he’s talking to them, she said, which makes people feel comfortable.

“It’s part of our increasing tendency to value the conversation and the everyday over the experts and the formal,” she said.

Follow Sean Rossman on Twitter: @SeanRossman

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