Is President Trump Using Ronald Reagan’s Rules for Communication?

“‘Help me, Dad!’  Those were the last words spoken by Kate Steinle, as she lay dying on a San Francisco pier.”  —President Donald Trump, as he thrusts his audience into the middle of an emotional scene of America’s recent past, in an effort to communicate the importance of protecting American citizens from criminal aliens


Working as a Docent for the Reagan Library

Trending: The Supreme Court Difference: Liberals want a Liberal, Conservatives want a Constitutionalist

I used to volunteer my Sundays to work as a docent at what we referred to, in docent parlance, as the RRPLM—the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum.  Part of being a docent is an intensive training program requiring one to become a subject matter expert (or SME) on every exhibit and a proficient guide capable of leading a tour group throughout the entire museum.  Necessarily, this means many assigned readings (including, but not limited to, Ronald Reagan’s and Nancy Reagan’s biographies and a voluminous amount of supplementary materials provided by NARA, the National Archives and Records Administration) as well as a host of history lessons and research-based updates shared with the docents at weekly one-hour meetings, held immediately before each weekly four-hour shift begins.


Reagan’s Rules for Communication

The lessons I was privy to, while volunteering for the Reagan Library, were invaluable learning.  And I have retained notes related to matters I have not found well-documented elsewhere.  While there are articles about Reagan’s communication style that are quite perceptive, some of which collect together many of his more insightful quips and quotes on the subject, I have never actually found Reagan’s five simple rules collected anywhere, in accordance with the RRPLM or NARA.  So, here they are: 1) Never talk more than two minutes without mentioning a real person and addressing a problem that he or she is having; 2) Describe the situation, using easy-to-understand language that puts the listener in the middle of the problem; 3) Ask rhetorical questions about whether it is better to tie people down with one-size-fits-all government solutions or to empower them to work things out for themselves through the removal of a rule or rules; 4) Ask the audience, “What would you want, if it were your problem?” 5) In answer to the question, identify with the situation and the audience: “Well, I know what I would have wanted, and we tried to help by making sure Joe/Jane got that kind of help.  So, today the problem is solved.”


Why Reagan’s Approach Works

Most Americans actually desire freedom from, not dependence on, the government for themselves and their family members.  Progressives tend to win on messaging only when they are appealing to people’s feelings and emotions while Conservatives are failing to do so.  The losing candidates, on both sides, are too often trying to reason with people by quoting facts and statistics to back up their arguments.  While facts are important, they must be used in conjunction with feelings in order to message effectively.  This is what Ronald Reagan did and what President Trump has done, to a large extent, as well.


A Textbook Example of Effective Messaging: Trump’s Kate Steinle Address

President Donald Trump, as reported in The Los Angeles Times, recently said this in his weekly address: “No American should be separated from their loved ones because of preventable crime committed by those illegally in our country.  Our cities should be sanctuaries for Americans—not for criminal aliens!”  This appeal to his fellow Americans—while factual in its legal basis rejecting the legitimacy of sanctuary cities—evokes the emotional idea in the minds of listeners that the lives of their loved ones could be lost for no good reason, at the hands of a criminal alien being protected by a pro-criminal state.  If you will listen to the president’s address, you will notice that Trump knows Reagan’s five rules.

Trump begins his address with Kate Steinle’s plea of “Help me, Dad!” which puts his listeners right in the middle of an emotional situation.  Here is how Trump begins: “‘Help me Dad!’  Those were the last words spoken by Kate Steinle, as she lay dying on a San Francisco pier.”  So, the president does not wait anywhere close to two minutes before mentioning Kate.  He describes an emotional situation, using easy language, putting the listener at the center of an emotional whirlwind of a problem.  While Trump does not ask aloud any rhetorical question, his answer to the problem implies that he already knows the answer to the question that is uppermost in many Americans’ minds, after the recent acquittal of Kate Steinle’s murderer: How could it happen in America that a five-times-deported murderer, who even admitted his own guilt to a murder many people witnessed, has been released to murder again?  Trump assumes what the audience would want, without asking the question pointing to his prescription.  The president does identify with the situation he describes from the start, promising, in the end, to do all he can to make America’s public servants do what they must to protect the “safety and well-being of our nation’s citizens.”  Trump implies in the last part of his speech that a solution is in the works.  In two minutes and thirty-three seconds, Trump does an amazing job of making an emotional appeal to citizens, while using reasonable statements to back up his feelings, all of which works to justify the feelings of his audience, most of whom, it can safely be said, feel the same way the president does.  Feelings, emotions, and situational descriptions communicate, especially when they mirror the feelings of the target audience.  And Trump is unparalleled in his ability to communicate effectively with the American people.


Style of Communication

There are five registers of speech, as described by the great linguist, Martin Joos:

“Frozen: Also referred to as static register.  Printed unchanging language, such as Biblical quotations, often contains archaisms.  Examples are the Pledge of Allegiance of the United States of America and other ‘static’ vocalizations.  The wording is exactly the same every time it is spoken.

“Formal: One-way participation; no interruption; technical vocabulary or exact definitions are important; includes presentations or introductions between strangers.

“Consultative: Two-way participation; background information is provided—prior knowledge is not assumed.  ‘Back-channel behavior’ such as ‘uh huh’, ‘I see’, etc. is common.  Interruptions are allowed.  Examples include teacher/student, doctor/patient, expert/apprentice, etc.

“Casual: In-group friends and acquaintances; no background information provided; ellipsis and slang common; interruptions common.  This is common among friends in a social setting.

“Intimate: Non-public; intonation more important than wording or grammar; private vocabulary.  Also includes non-verbal messages.  This is most common among family members and close friends.”

President Trump, when giving a formal address, adopts a style that is more traditional for the President of the United States to use, while utilizing more of a consultative tone that is often bordering on the casual—for example, when the president interjects his opinion about sanctuary cities in the middle of his commentary about them, saying, “They’re no good!”

In Trump’s rallies, his speaking style is more consultative, while the register of his speech freely hovers between the consultative and casual registers, perhaps favoring the casual.  Any use of the formal register by Trump in a speech is usually done to characterize the stiffness of others and their ideas, illustrating how they tend to be disconnected from reality and from the voters.

One of Trump’s best speeches at a rally was given quite recently, in Pensacola, Florida , and features such words as “fake news” and comments such as “not too bad” in answer to his rhetorical question, “How are your 401(k)’s doing?”  Trump also says, in reference to the Democrats’ past policy influences on 401(k)s that “with us, they go up; with them, they go down.”

Never the elitist, Trump uses populist vocabulary words that reflect the “forgotten American.”  Trump is one of the people, a fact that has always been important to him.  In his daily speech, Trump favors using such words as these: huge (pronounced “yuge”); big league (which often sounds like “bigly”); loser; moron; we and us (rather than I and me) versus they and them; the incredible men and women (usually in uniform); fire and fury, et cetera.  Leftwing elitists object to these kinds of terms, referring to them as “uneducated.”  But, when they do this, they cut themselves off from the people, making any audience that is listening feel put down and scolded for how they themselves speak on a daily basis.  Trump proudly describes himself as a “Deplorable” to this day, taking sides with the people and against the Hillary Clinton elitists who branded them with that particular epithet.

So, while elitists decry Trump’s use of language, the American people truly enjoy listening to a president who sounds the way they do, who describes the Obama economy by first asking whether the crowd knows where the statistics on the economy were before his presidency began, following up his question by answering with “Dingo!” and indicating a downward direction.  As the elitists shake their heads in disapproval, Trump is connecting with the people and keeping his presidency alive.

The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by

Join the conversation!

We have no tolerance for comments containing violence, racism, vulgarity, profanity, all caps, or discourteous behavior. Thank you for partnering with us to maintain a courteous and useful public environment where we can engage in reasonable discourse.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!

Send this to a friend