How many books do you think Donald Trump reads?

Compare Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump.

Ted Cruz was a champion debater in college, and went on to edit the Harvard Law Review. Alan Dershowitz called him “off-the-charts brilliant”. The New York Times described him as an “intellectual force” who “stood out even among his Ivy League peers as ‘intellectually and morally serious'” and could’ve been a professor. And now he’s that guy who 38% of Floridians think might be the Zodiac Killer.

Hillary Clinton has a relatively well-known intellectual trajectory for a politician: she was a Goldwater conservative, but converted to progressivism in college because of some Christian theological jabberwocky that probably involved Germans with alphabet-soup names and then wrote her thesis on Saul Alinsky. And now she’s a reptilian who’s running for president because her serial rapist husband was one in the ’90s.

Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton are fairly successful. But what about Donald Trump?

Donald Trump is a reality TV star and minor pro wrestling celebrity who got unfathomably rich by, as the kids say, monetizing his personal brand. Then, against all odds, he won the Republican primary. Donald Trump, unlike Cruz and Clinton, does not have an academic pedigree. He has a bachelor’s degree from a business school. Donald Trump, unlike Cruz and Clinton, is not a nerd. How many books do you think he’s read?

The most unusual thing about Trump, aside from the fact that he’s a reality TV star who came out of nowhere to win the Republican primary, is his rhetorical style. Here’s an example. Geoff Pullum, a professional linguist, thinks Trump can’t even form a coherent sentence. Since linguists have known for decades that speech often looks incoherent when written out—and, as a point of historical interest, the main thing that made them realize it was transcripts of the Nixon tapes—something must have happened to confuse Pullum.

Well, the most unusual thing about Trump’s rhetorical style is that you can’t punctuate it. He’s not reading from a text. He’s not composing a text on the fly. Mark Liberman compares Trump to Elmore Leonard’s lower-class characters, who speak perfectly grammatical vernacular American English that looks wrong when it’s written out in a book. To demonstrate the point, I’ll write the rest of this post in the relevant style.

the interesting thing about that is
the way Trump talks comes off as lower-class
he’s from New York, he can deal with high society
he can write letters
we know he can
he writes letters to the New York Times
some of them have been published, they’re in the news
writes letters to the New York Times, has the style down
but he doesn’t do that on the campaign trail
he doesn’t speak like he’s reading
he doesn’t speak like he’s composing a text

and he comes off as lower-class, of course he does
upper-class culture is more literary than lower-class culture
lower-class culture is more oral than upper-class culture
you talk like a book, you sound upper-class
you talk like you’ve never read a book, you sound lower-class
and oral culture works differently from literary culture

so when Trump talks
and this is what sets him apart from other politicians
when they talk, they sound like books
complete sentences
complex syntactic structure
no parentheticals
I remember reading a paper once
I can’t find it now
but there’s a paper somewhere about
one of those Eskimo languages
after writing was introduced
and as writing started to spread
people started using more complex syntactic structures

so when Trump talks
he doesn’t use these complex structures
he has a lot of parentheticals
a lot of false starts
a lot of missing words
well, ‘missing’ compared to written English
and a lot of—
you know
you can’t punctuate it
that’s the interesting thing, that’s what sets it off
you can’t punctuate it
for Obama, Bush, Ted Cruz, whoever, they give a speech, you can punctuate it
they say something, you write it down, it looks fine
Trump gives a speech, you can’t write it down
you can’t punctuate it
it looks like garbage
it looks like he can barely speak English
but that’s how people talk

people talk normally, you can’t punctuate it
you can barely read it
lot of false starts, lot of parentheticals and so on
and it comes off as lower-class
so Trump comes off as lower-class
ultra-rich guy from Manhattan, he comes off as lower class
because he sounds like he’s from an oral culture
and that makes sense
you’re in New York, you have to talk to a lot of people
make a lot of deals
give a lot of speeches, whatever
you’re on reality TV, you have to talk all the time
you have to talk for the cameras
make it sound natural
make it sound unscripted and so on
so Trump
ultra-rich guy from Manhattan
doesn’t sound like a book
comes off as lower-class
and it must be deliberate
he can write letters
all that high society stuff
he doesn’t do it on the campaign trail
and it works

now, nerds
very literary culture
and I was talking to a friend of mine a while back
started talking about nerd speech patterns
the characteristic nerd intonation, nerd voice, whatever
and one of the things she said was
nerds talk in complete sentences
commas, punctuation, all that
and most people don’t do that
but nerds
very literary culture, you know
reading books all the time
reading papers
complete sentences

you read a lot of books
you know
whatever you take in
you start sounding like that
a lot of people have started sounding like Trump
they watch Trump
they listen to his speeches
they start sounding like Trump
whatever you take in
that’s how you talk
and if Trump—
if the way he talks helped him win
you know
you can’t learn that from books
you can’t learn a lot of things from books
you have to go out into the real world
go out and get practice
if you want to sound like Trump
you can’t learn that from books

and there was a comment over at SSC
asking about what books a god-king would read
a very successful person
imagine that
somebody who rises from obscurity to become the most powerful man on Earth
what books has he read?
and this seems like the wrong question
you can read Hobbes
you can read Machiavelli
you get all this book learning
Ted Cruz had book learning
Hillary Clinton has book learning
and what good did it do them?
they’re robots
you know
social skills
you can’t learn that from books
if you don’t have any social skills
you can get some basic principles
read things, whatever
but you have to go out and apply them
practice in the real world, all that
you can’t just read a book and say
OK, I have social skills now
I read this book
that won’t work
you can only get that from the real world
so you have this god-king
how did he get there?
the most powerful man on Earth
how did he get there?
what books did he read?
this seems like the wrong question
what books—get out
like a proper understanding of fucking Leviathan is going to help you take over the world
you have to go out and do things
so a more productive question—
a more useful question would be
what did this god-king do to get there?
sure, maybe he read books, whatever
you conquer the world
you have to have skills for that
practical skills
you didn’t get them from reading books
you can’t have gotten them from reading books
some of these skills
you have to have gone out into the real world
so it’s—
nerds like books
all this intellectual stuff
nerds love that
but where does it get you?
Donald Trump doesn’t have an intellectual bone in his body
sure, he went to Wharton, whatever
very smart, all that
how many books do you think he’s read?
not many
but he seems to be doing alright

27 responses to “How many books do you think Donald Trump reads?

  1. Dedicating Ruckus June 9, 2016 at 4:04 pm

    I’ll note that, while my natural spoken style is indeed like I’m composing an essay in my head, I could write that (your spoken-styled portion) down and punctuate it just fine. The punctuation would be weird-looking, but it would work.

    • nydwracu June 9, 2016 at 4:20 pm

      The punctuation would be weird-looking, but the prose would also be weird-looking. You’d have to add a lot of conjunctions — they often get dropped in spoken English, but they have to be there in written English.

      • Frog Do June 9, 2016 at 4:44 pm

        That’s what always killed me in French.

      • Dedicating Ruckus June 9, 2016 at 5:31 pm

        Perhaps I’m thinking of the specific style you’d use when writing dialog in a narrative. But I could write that out with only capitalization and punctuation changed, no words added or removed, and it would look natural to me (though it would definitely look like “transcribed spoken English” rather than “written English”).

        It’s also possible that IRC has corrupted my brain, since “transcribed spoken English” is the lingua franca there.

  2. Frog Do June 9, 2016 at 4:47 pm

    So, if there are books about politics that rulers are supposed to read, if mirrors for princes are becoming popular, can you use that as a predictor of societal breakdown? If the ruling class is so damaged they can’t orally transmit proper governing traditions to the next generations, and they have to get nerds to write books about it, surely that’s a problem?

    • nydwracu June 9, 2016 at 7:18 pm

      The classics. You are thinking of the classics.

      I’d expect there to always be books about politics that rulers are supposed to read, because understanding books is a sign of intelligence and high class, and having the time to read books and the money to get good tutors is a sign of wealth.

      • Frog Do June 10, 2016 at 9:42 pm

        I was thinking specifically of these:, analogizing with the relationship between Machiavelli’s The Prince and contemporary Italian turmoil and Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus and the Athenian turmoil in the time of Socrates, but looking it up it seems like there were a lot of them, so my argument is probably garbage.

  3. John June 9, 2016 at 6:30 pm

    Very nice illustration of prose in the Trumpian style. Trump also utilizes the hypnotic quality of genuine spontaneous oration. The other candidates sound wooden, like they are reading from cue cards, or at best like polished news anchors or b-list comedians. Obama took the teleprompter style to it’s apex in 2008, but quickly regressed once the hope and change narrative lost all believability. Trump keeps the listener rapt. Quickly darting from thought to thought. Offering surprises and emotional peaks at just the right moment. His pacing is impeccable.

    The emotional weight of what’s being said, how much the speaker and how much the listeners believe in it, cannot be understated. Trump is a master showman, with elite improv chops, but he was basically the same guy running in 2008 and no one cared. I don’t think he got miraculously better in the past 4 years. It was just that the product-market fit between him and the electorate didn’t snap into place until now.

  4. Just Sayin' June 9, 2016 at 7:44 pm

    You gotta be careful about reading books.

    My dad doesn’t watch any TV, but he reads all sorts of cucky books and has brainwashed himself as surely as if he was watching Fox News.

  5. Dave June 9, 2016 at 10:11 pm

    No parentheticals

  6. Mark Yuray June 9, 2016 at 10:30 pm

    I get what you’re saying, but keep in mind that a bachelor’s degree from an Ivy League school (Penn, specifically Wharton which is potentially even more pedigreed than Penn in general), which Trump has, is nothing to scoff at.

    Furthermore, I’m not sure it’s a fact that Cruz and Hillary are pedigreed literary speakers and Trump is a vernacular genius from an oral culture. He went to Penn. He wrote his share of essays. He read his share of books.

    If you listen to Trump’s rally speeches, he’s very off-the-cuff and conversational. Doesn’t use big words. Lots of false starts. And so on.

    If you listen to Trump’s interviews, he’s still very off-the-cuff, but uses bigger words, longer sentences, and frequently drops in a word so long and obscure (and drops it in so skillfully and naturally), it’s abundantly clear that he has all the literary knowledge he needs in his head. He just doesn’t display it often. Why? He doesn’t need to!

    Basically I’m saying Trump is actually more literary, smarter and has probably read more books than either Cruz or Hillary, he just doesn’t show it because he doesn’t have to. He doesn’t need to signal constantly about how book-smart he is.

    • Anon June 10, 2016 at 12:09 am

      Have you read his books? Tell me what you think of that style, considering that’s probably as high-falutin as he would get

    • Texas June 10, 2016 at 2:55 am

      My relative is high up in the Texas government and regularly dealt with Cruz. I am almost certain that Cruz has read more books and is more “educated” than Trump. Being the national champion debater in one of the big 3 and being a favorite of arguably the most famous law professor in the U.S makes this pretty easy to see as well.

      Penn is considered dirt by the more competitive ivy grads in the big 3. You can see this phenomenon in Cruz himself, who refused to study with anybody who wasn’t part of the “big 3” of Princeton Harvard Yale.

      • Psmith June 10, 2016 at 2:27 pm

        Yeah, I spent a little while on the collegiate debate circuit, and I can agree with this. Cruz is smart as all hell. “Smart” isn’t the same thing as “charismatic” (I’ve seen some comparisons of Cruz to Nixon, which I think is fitting) or “effective”, of course.

      • Mark Yuray June 11, 2016 at 5:43 pm

        I have no doubt that Cruz is book-smart. I am questioning whether his overblown signalling about how book-smart he is is not a way to draw attention away from his total inability to talk like a normal person without dramatic 5-second pauses between each phrase.

        Trump can do what Cruz does, but Cruz cannot do what Trump does. His attempts have ended in embarrassing failure.

        Your line on Penn is frankly retarded. That the clannish neurotic Jews who attend Harvard look down on the clannish neurotic Jews who attend Penn (both of which are in the top 0.1% of schools worldwide) is about as consequential as the fact that the clannish neurotic Jews who attend Princeton look down on the clannish neurotic Jews who attend Yale.

        I’ve attended the top 20 schools, I’ve many friends who attended them, I’ve visited many of them, and I can tell you confidently that, from the outside and in, they are 99.9% identical in every important facet of culture, outlook, lifestyle, IQ, etc. Splitting hairs on this level is equivalent to excoriating normies for daring to claim that Gorgoroth is true grim kvlt black metal, but not Burzum. Hah! Plebs!

    • nydwracu June 10, 2016 at 5:19 pm

      I’d agree with this where it doesn’t disagree with Texas. Trump can handle both literary and colloquial styles. Cruz can’t handle the colloquial style. The point is that the sorts of ‘rationality’ preferred by nerd culture don’t get you as far as nerds think.

      I’ll take it further: the reason rationalists prefer academic instrumental rationality training (calibration, debiasing, and so on — one of the two rationalist meetups I’ve been to was entirely about Fermi estimation practice) is that it’s more comfortable, to their habits and to the mental disorders [depression, anxiety, etc.] common in the community. I can’t say Mormonism is better than rationalism at training instrumental rationality, since the target markets have essentially no overlap, but a version of Mormonism palatable to atheists probably would be.

      I assume that something similar already exists. Maybe I’ll look into ineffective altruism sometime. Or if anyone reading this is hiring for a door-to-door sales job…

  7. pithom June 9, 2016 at 11:42 pm

    Very good. I first noticed this when I tried to transcribe one of Trump’s TV interviews -it sounded like one long sentence without end. Very unpresidential. This is why I found this

    to be very unusual, as it’s more presidential.

    Also, according to a Trump biographer, there isn’t a single book in Trump’s house, and none of his family look like they’ve recently read one.

  8. vanderede June 10, 2016 at 12:27 am

    Random thing this reminds me of is how the antebellum South was largely an oral culture, like the North, and the problems and effects of that wrt Confederate nationalism
    Relevant link:
    (Yes, I just replied to a post about the limits of book-learning with a book link, xaxaxaxaxaxaxaxa)

  9. Psmith June 10, 2016 at 2:22 pm

    I didn’t know OP wrote slam poetry.

  10. Well... June 10, 2016 at 5:19 pm

    Robert E. Lee was mentored by General Winfield Scott so that shouldn’t be discounted, but his biographers seem to agree that he got a lot of his mastery of warfare from reading books about Napoleon. When the Civil War started, Lee had never commanded an army in war. 150+ years later, Lee is still regarded as one of the greatest military leaders this country’s ever seen.

    Of course, Lee may be the exception that proves the rule. He had a lot of innate characteristics going for him that others lack.

    • Texas June 10, 2016 at 8:26 pm

      Lee served in the Mexican-American war and fought in it. He also moved troops and artillery and engineers etc. As a captain, than Major, then Lieutentant Coloniel, then Coloniel.

      In addition, at the start of the Civil War he did poorly and he was perceived as second-rate. Even in his prime he was great at tactical warfare but not so good at strategic warfare.

      Lee benefits from the post civil war mythologization of the South during the civil war, and his great leadership/charisma, much like Washington benefits from the mythologization and leadership/charisma while his actual military abilities were questionable.

      There were greater general’s and leaders, many in the south, and some in the north. Not to diminish him, he was a great man, but your characterization of him seems wrong to me.

      • Well... June 11, 2016 at 1:52 am

        Fair enough–I’m not an expert on Lee by any means. My point was that Lee seems to have been able to read books and then turn that knowledge into practical skill.

        (FWIW my main source on Lee is the pretty even-handed “Clouds of Glory” by Michael Korda, which includes criticism of other biographies of Lee.)

      • Tarl June 21, 2016 at 2:47 pm

        Even in his prime he was great at tactical warfare but not so good at strategic warfare.

        What does that even mean? What was “strategic warfare” in the Civil War?

    • ivvenalis June 11, 2016 at 2:54 am

      From Grant’s memoirs about the Mexican War, it sounds like Lee was something of a golden boy in the small pre-Civil War Regular Army who was entrusted by Winfield Scott with special, demanding tasks beyond what was expected of run-of-the-mill officers. Granted, that might have been colored by post-Civil War pedestalization of Lee, but he obviously had a lot going on, and was recognized as such in the American military community, long before the Civil War.

      That he had never commanded a large army is interesting but probably irrelevant, because most other Civil War commanders had even less experience in command of anything than he did, and those who did have more experience had never held such commands during wartime–McClellan being the archetypal example. Many of the latter were initially ahead of Lee in the pecking order, on both sides, but were eventually superseded.

  11. TipTipTopKek June 12, 2016 at 3:29 am

    I’m certain that Trump could be as erudite and esoteric in private conversation as anybody would ever ask him to be, but why do that if he’ll just sound “pompous and faggy” to his target audience? He’s talking to his voters, not to “nydwracu.”

    “Ted Cruz was a champion debater in college” [citation needed]

    “Donald Trump is a reality TV star and minor pro wrestling celebrity who got unfathomably rich by, as the kids say, monetizing his personal brand.” No, he got rich by building shit. Lots of shit.

    “How many books do you think he’s read?” More than I have. More than “nydwracu” has. Trump is incredibly well-read.

    “The most unusual thing about Trump, aside from the fact that he’s a reality TV star who came out of nowhere” Not quite. I remember reading the full-page ads he took on USA Today in the late 80s or early 90s arguing for almost exactly the same kind of foreign policy he argues for today, and coming out in favor of the “death penalty” being reinstated. Larry Fucking King interviewed Trump at the 88 GOP convention for goodness’ sakes, he’s been around conservative politics longer than most NEETs have been alive.

    Wow just wow. I can’t even, not in this year.

  12. Ryan McGrath June 13, 2016 at 1:35 pm

    Two quick replies:

    1) Scott Adams has a list of books that Trump might have read… or at least a list of books that might help us understand Trump better:

    2) I’ve heard anecdotally (from someone on the professional speaking circuit) that Trump is constantly reading and reads 3 books at a time.

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