More alike than they seem

By: By Mac McPhail - Contributing columnist

“You can tell a lot about a person by the words they use.” That was a line from a radio commercial from several years ago promoting a program to improve a person’s communication skills. And it is still true today. The words and the language a person uses will tell you much about themselves. And words may tell us that two people we think are polar opposites may not be as different as we think. Those two people are President Donald Trump and former President Barak Obama.

What? I can already hear supporters of both strongly disagreeing with this column. (Hey, that’s another thing the two presidents have in common – strongly disagreeable supporters.) But I have support from a study by two college professors using a computer program, and you can’t argue with that.

Two University of Minnesota professors, Ronald Kriebs and Robert Ralston, recently published a study of speeches made by President Trump and President Obama, and their similarity of the language used in those speeches. They only used, what they called, “more substantial speeches” of 500 words or more. They ran such speeches made by Trump and Obama through a computer program called Diction. In their study, Kriebs and Ralston stated that Diction, “contains 33 separate dictionaries tailored to political speech. It searches texts for the words contained in the designated dictionaries and then calculates the number of words from each dictionary that would be present in a typical 500-word sample.”

Their findings were interesting. First, they found, that the rhetoric of both presidents is much more self-referential, meaning it uses more first-person pronouns. Obama’s rhetoric is 69 percent more self-referential than the presidential average, and Trump exceeds Obama by another 20 percent. In other words they both like to talk about themselves a lot, much more than the other presidents in the study. Trump and Obama also rank high on the use of urgent action words like “must” and “need.” Both presidents ranked much higher than the average, over 45 percent higher than the average in the study.

So, basically here is the point that both presidents were attempting to convey in their speeches: “The need is urgent. Something must be done. And only I am capable of fixing the problem.”

For example, President Trump in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention boasted, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” And President Obama, in an interview with the Washington Post in January 2009, stated, “I am the one who brings change. It is my vision.”

Now, Trump and Obama’s political views are different. Barak Obama is Democratic liberal. I think the correct term to use today is “progressive.” Donald Trump is a, well, I’m not certain what he is. Let’s just say he is a “Trumpian.” But they both send out basically the same message – “I am the one who can fix government, so that government can fix your problems.”

The study on the presidential use of words is interesting. It is surprising the last two presidents who seemingly are so different, are so alike in their use of words. But maybe it also says something about the electorate that voted for them, and how it has changed over the past years. Polls of voters back in 2007 showed that the most desired characteristic of the person they wanted for president was “honesty.” That has changed in less than ten years. Now the quality Americans want most in their president is “strong leader.” So they want someone who is self-assertive and forceful. Trump and Obama have tried to fit the bill, while going about it in different ways, and with different agendas.

So American voters want someone as president who is strong and self-assertive. Years ago, a great person said, “The greatest among you shall be your servant.” And it looks like a servant leader is not what America is looking for today. But it’s what we need.

Mac McPhail McPhail

By Mac McPhail

Contributing columnist

Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at

Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at