Rebirth of Brand
Myth of Politics

Trump: The Master of Oral Storytelling

Written by
Sandy Dunlop

What 20th-century classical scholarship draws attention to is the characteristics of pre-literate oral cultures. What scholars like Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong have suggested is that we might see modernity as an oral culture, or rather a secondary oral culture.

So much about the style and behaviour of Trump reveals a leader who acts as if we are in a post-literate society. Some indications are his constant recourse to underlying mythic structures (see Trump's 5 Cultural Myths). Pre-literate cultures had a huge call on foundational myths. They were, after all, stories everyone knew. They were easy to remember.

In a literate culture, the distinction between fact and fiction is always to be explicit. If it is not made clear the viewers will always ask – fact or fiction? Not so in a pre-literate culture. Fiction (or myth) was seen as speaking to deeper truths, the facts of daily life often seen as a fiction (the Buddhist illusion).

As we all know, Trump has made the blurring of this distinction one of his signature achievements (or failings for others). There was a classic moment in the TV series Mad Men, where Don Draper and his team are struggling in a pitch to the Lucky Strike Brand Team. He enquires about the production process. His genius was to pick up a tiny detail, that “Lucky Strike's tobacco is toasted”. Basically saying to not get defensive about the health issues that were becoming foreground, just use a nice family association, making toast. He is saying you can say whatever you want.

Yes, you can, but what you say must speak to what people want to believe. Then the listeners have no problem with the fact/fiction distinction. Speak to their longing. Don Draper (well Matthew Weiner) totally got the distinction. So does Trump. He acts as if we are in a post-literate world.

There are many other oral techniques used by the President. Here are just a few examples. The epithet is frequently used by Homer – wine dark sea, wily Odysseus. It gives the teller of the story a split second to remember what is next. Trump had an epithet for every one of his opponents – crooked Hilary, lying Ted. He always looks for a memorable label. His use of the epithet is closely connected to another characteristic of oral storytelling. It is what Ong calls ‘agonistically toned’.

Crooked Hilary and Lying Ted

The way meaning-making works is via opposition. There is ‘no meaning without difference’ the structuralists (which we will learn in Thunder 6) tells us. Trump continually uses powerful colloquial and for his many enemies, derogatory descriptors. The implication being, of course, is that he is the other side of the descriptor – see the table.

Trump - Oppositions
Trump - Oppositions

He is setting up the classic opposition so characteristic of the traditional story, good guy/bad guy and in the western white hat/black hat. Because he gets in first he has established the narrative structure within which the conversation takes place. It’s masterly oral storytelling!

Oral storytelling is also additive and repetitive. The repetition then aggregates into a bigger picture. The additive, repetitive and aggregative style are all critical in helping the listeners memory. The frequent repetition of ‘lock her up’ and ‘build the wall’ ensure no one was in any doubt as to the key messages. The individually repeated phrases aggregated into a consistent picture of dystopian America that only the strong man could address.

Trump - Build the Wall

Also vital to the oral teller was consistent recourse to very familiar stories. The tellers did not literally remember huge tranches of text. What they did know were the familiar plot structures. Know these and it was possible to improvise around the core. We have already seen how this master of ‘red rhetoric’ had recourse to very familiar plots.

January 21, 2020
January 21, 2020

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