Trump’s incoherence?

Over on Language Log, Geoff Pullum has posted, under the heading “Trump’s aphasia”,  about a Donald Trump speech:

The following word-stream (it cannot be called a sentence) was uttered by Republican presidential contender Donald Trump on July 21 in Sun City, South Carolina. As far as I can detect it has no structure at all: the numerous conditional adjuncts never arrive at consequents, we never encounter a main verb or even an approximation to a claim. The topic seems to be related to nuclear engineering, Trump’s uncle, the Wharton School, Trump’s intelligence, politics, prisoners, women’s intelligence, and Iran. But it’s hard to be sure

In a follow-up, “Trump’s eloquence”, Mark Liberman offered explanations for Trump’s apparent incoherence. By that point, I had realized what sounded so familiar in Trump’s speech: it sounded an awful lot like what psychiatrists refer to as “the flight of ideas”, sometimes associated (somewhat inaccurately) with schizophrenia, but more characteristic of bipolar disorder.

Mark’s commentary. Two observations:

… in my opinion, [Geoff has] been misled by a notorious problem: [(1)] the apparent incoherence of much transcribed extemporized speech, even when the same material is completely comprehensible and even eloquent in audio or audio-visual form.

This apparent incoherence has two main causes: false starts and parentheticals. Both are effectively signaled in speaking — by prosody along with gesture, posture, and gaze — and therefore largely factored out by listeners. But in textual form, the cues are gone, and we lose the thread.

There’s another issue in this case as well. [(2)] The segment in question takes place about 35 minutes into Trump’s speech, and the earlier parts of the speech have featured repeated assertions and implications that recent American leaders are bad negotiators, and have therefore made bad deals with other countries, including Mexico, China, and Saudi Arabia.

There’s merit in both proposals, but I’m not sure that taking them into account will bring Trump’s performance into line with the practices of normal conversation. Point (1) would require an analysis of the actual speech, preferably from film with good audio — something I don’t have the training or the resources to do, though I can usually recognize false starts (and restarts) and parenthetical interruptions.

Mark’s second point — essentially, that earlier parts of Trump’s speech introduced a number of topics and referents that he was merely harking back to the material Geoff quoted — is, I think, weaker. It seems to me that Trump was leaping aimlessly about from topic to topic and referent to referent, the mark of the flight of ideas.

Thought disorder. From Wikipedia:

Thought disorder (TD) or formal thought disorder (FTD) refers to disorganized thinking as evidenced by disorganized speech. Specific thought disorders include derailment, poverty of speech, tangentiality, illogicality, perseveration, neologism, and thought blocking.

[among the recognized derangements is the …]”Flight of ideas” – a form of formal thought disorder marked by abrupt leaps from one topic to another, albeit with discernable links between successive ideas, perhaps governed by similarities between subjects or, in somewhat higher grades, by rhyming, puns, and word plays (clang associations), or innocuous environmental stimuli – e.g., the sound of birds chirping. It is most characteristic of the manic phase of bipolar illness.

Now I’ve written here about “associative thinking”, in which someone moves through a chain of ideas, each one latching naturally to the one before, but easily capable of carrying someone far from a starting point. We all think this way, and everyday conversation tends to follow such paths, only for a group as a whole rather than for just one speaker. There is nothing disordered in any of that.

I’ve observed the flight of ideas up close in people in the manic phase of bipolar illness, and somewhat similar associations in classic schizophrenics, and indeed related disordered associations in people with dementia, including my partner Jacques (who was especially subject to intrusions of sounds and sights from the environment into his train of thought). Donald Trump looks distressingly familiar to me.

3 Responses to “Trump’s incoherence?”

  1. AntC Says:

    Is Trump equally ‘incoherent’ on his TV Reality shows? Is he equally rambling when executing the ‘Art of the Deal’? He must be able to focus somehow on some things some of the time (actually a large number of things a significant part of the time) to have achieved such wealth; even if he’s just smart/intuitive at picking the right people to work for him. Or has he arrived where he is purely by random chance? (Or is all this incoherence out of character, and some sort of deliberate ploy to appeal to a wide spread of voters, but with pronouncements that are subsequently deniable?)

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Bipolar illness varies in its severity from person to person, and the manic phase is only one part of its course. And it can often be controlled by drugs, in which case its symptoms manifest themselves only if you go off the drugs (which people sometimes do to recapture the feelings of power and intensity of the manic phase).
      In any case, I’m only suggesting a possibility here; I’m not competent to judge.
      Meanwhile, as you suggest, Trump is wily, and could be deliberately manipulating the situation.
      Add to this Trump’s grandiosity, truculence, and intransigence — unpleasant aspects of his personality that sometimes seem to come close to a disorder of their own — and it’s not easy to interpret his actions.

  2. Tuesday Reads: Is Donald Trump Cognitively Impaired? | Sky Dancing Says:

    […] Here’s a response from another language blogger, Arnold Zwicky: […]

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