Over the last two weeks, senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have finally begun attacking frontrunner Donald Trump for his glaring shortcomings, especially in the Republican primary debates. They have demanded that the reality TV star be more specific on policy and challenged him on his record of hiring illegal immigrants. They’ve asked about his taxes and pointed out his spotty business record.
Trump hasn’t had much of a response, other than ad hominem attacks. Yet many Trump supporters appear unaffected by this demonstration of their candidate’s ignorance. Little substance of these criticisms seems to be getting through. How could this be?
A friend of mine overheard a very revealing comment while watching the February 25 debate at a bar. A middle-aged working class man sitting near her said: “Donald talks our language. Cruz and Rubio sound like politicians who think they’re so smart, but they don’t connect with us.”
While many observers thought Cruz and Rubio mopped the floor with Trump that night, his supporters saw it differently. They saw a guy they identify with, who gets them. Those other guys are just snobs. Even if Rubio and Cruz do know what they’re talking about, all that man in the bar thinks is “They don’t know me.” But Trump does. This impression comes not just from what he says but also from the way he says it.
Speaking Style Is Part of Identity
Trump was born and raised in Queens, and although he grew up with money, he never shook his unmistakable New York accent. It’s an accent much of America strongly associates with the working class. We picture an industrious man making his own way in a country of opportunities. We see good, old-fashioned American values: hard work and patriotism. At a time when Americans are clamoring for an outsider and rejecting the “establishment,” a guy who talks like your mechanic is seen as trustworthy and looking out for the working class, despite the fact that he’s a billionaire from a wealthy family.
This isn’t without precedent, and in fact is quite natural. The way people speak broadcasts things about themselves and their background, whether it’s region, socioeconomic level, or ethnicity. Their accent affects how people view them and interact with them.
Think about it. Whether you want to admit it or not, we react differently if we receive a call from someone speaking with an inner-city accent versus someone with an upper-class British accent. We associate each with a certain type of person, and with different levels of prestige.
What’s fascinating about Trump’s accent, however, is that it isn’t considered prestigious in America. It’s not associated with the things that are usually viewed as desirable, like wealth, education, or class. It’s a blue-collar accent.
Then again, this isn’t a typical election year. As the fellow at the bar made clear, priorities have shifted for voters, and they want a “regular” guy who understands them. While it leaves heads spinning as to how anyone could think a billionaire reality TV star knows anything about working-class life, he speaks their language. And they are listening.
The Appeal of Covert Prestige
Trump’s accent and manner of speech tap into is what is known as “covert” prestige. Whereas “overt” prestige is associated with standardized speech and usually used by people in positions of power, covert prestige is associated with non-standard accents. Styles and accents that have covert prestige can act as powerful bonding agents for group identity, are seen as socially attractive, and evoke integrity and friendliness. People who speak with covert prestige see others who speak it with a sense of solidarity—and those who don’t with suspicion.
Take for example Fishtown, a white, blue-collar neighborhood in Philadelphia where I spent some time in my twenties, and which Charles Murray used as an archetype in his book about class in America, “Coming Apart.” People from Fishtown speak in a way that could be described as inner city meets West Virginia. They have notable accents and particular slang vocabulary, like using the word “john” as a substitute for “thing,” pronouncing it, “jaawn.”
While the middle and upper class would say that variety of English is in no way prestigious, for the people of Fishtown, it is. It’s the code, if you will, of their society. It bonds them together. If one of them started speaking with a standard accent, that person would be viewed with distrust and seen as disloyal. He’d be accused of talking “fancy,” and thinking he’s better than you.
Trump’s speech style and accent has covert prestige for working-class people throughout America. So when it comes to fielding tough criticism in the debates, his fans don’t really care that he’s unable to answer basic policy questions, because his accent resonates more deeply than his content. It evokes a sense of camaraderie and loyalty.
Content Has Nothing to Do With It
While Trump is cashing in on the covert prestige of his own linguistic style, Rubio and Cruz are signaling their overt prestige. Their accent and speech style demonstrate how very different they are from the people watching them at bars and in living rooms across the country. Unlike Trump, they speak with standard accents (although Cruz does have a somewhat affected twang), and they use complete, complex, and grammatical sentences to make fully fleshed-out points. But rather than convincing many working-class people with their content, they alienate them with the way they talk, because their language itself represents the “establishment” in the ears of Trump supporters.
To the guy in the bar, they sound like politicians, full of lies and false promises. Trump supporters think his opponents are speaking down to them and acting like they know better than them, that by explaining the faults in Trump’s “policies” Rubio and Cruz are rubbing in their faces how smart they are. But, like the man watching the debate said, “They don’t connect with us.” Even if what they said was true, they’re not one of “us.”
Therein lies the rub: Trump supporters are demanding an everyday man, and Cruz and Rubio just don’t fit the bill. While Trump shouldn’t either, given his background, his accent says he does.
This isn’t to say that Rubio and Cruz should start dropping their “G’s” and trying to sound folksier, the way Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama sometimes do. This will only come off as affected and fake. The truth is, they can’t really help the fact that they are well educated and polished and that the way they speak reflects this. Unfortunately for them, this election year the way one speaks matters. And it turns out that language is an incredible tool for triggering loyalty.