Donald Trump Jr. is a terrible asshole and a person with the voice and demeanor of a terrible asshole. There are no doubt other men in the United States who inherit vast wealth from their families, spend their time liking social media posts accusing the teenage survivors of a mass school shooting of being paid actors, and believe people in deep poverty should smile more—but do they sound like Donald Trump Jr. while doing those things?
What is it about Trump that makes him also sound like such a terrible asshole? I reached out to Brendan Houdek, the head of speech pathology at New York Speech Coaching, to better understand the self-presentation of the large adult son of the United States.
Can we start with some of what makes his voice so specific? Why does he sound like that? It is such an off-putting way to want to sound, particularly when you are saying things like how refreshing it is when poor people smile at you.
When we think about any person’s voice there are obviously a few different factors that come into play. So some are the actual voice itself, the pitch, all of those sorts of elements. But there are a few other elements that I think really impact our opinions of these things: linguistic choices, body language, our own presuppositions and biases.
But if we can break those areas down, regarding the voice itself, he does have a bit of a lower pitch to his voice as well as his resonance, which is a bit of a darker tone, a darker timbre.
But there is part of that that sounds slightly manufactured, and I think that is what comes across when you hear him. It seems like he is putting on that voice just a little bit. You can hear that because there is a bit of a tongue clench, a bit of overcompensation. Not as much as other speakers, but I think we hear these nuances of his voice that sound like he is trying to be that authoritative speaker—forcing that voice a little lower, forcing that resonance a little darker—that comes across as hyper-polished.
For most people, we are looking for competence, but also relatability. When someone seems so incredibly polished, they seem very disconnected with the people they are communicating with and things they are communicating about.
You mention body language, which is also something I think is very distinct about Trump. Not just in how he presents himself during interviews or speeches, but even in something like how he sits. I’m thinking of the image from last year of Trump sitting on a tree stump; he looked incredibly weird.
I think being someone in the public light, there is a bit of practice and things that you more or less rehearse. Therefore, I think a log picture might be a bit forced. If he knew he was being photographed, there might this idea of, Now I have to sit up straight, sit in this position, etcetera. I think that stiff body language, the one that wants to look authoritative and polished—no one would do that while sitting on a log. I think that comes across.
I interviewed one of your colleagues last year about White House advisor Stephen Miller and how he also sounds like a complete dick. I think it is possible for a person to hold their same terrible views but not sound this way. As an example: Jeff Sessions is also racist, but his speech is syrupy and sweet. There is something similar about Miller and Trump, then. A gendered kind of speech performance that feels very inauthentic.
There are some gender stereotypes that exist in our culture. For men, they naturally gravitate toward that because it’s their impression, if you will, of a confident speaker. They try to emulate it, but it often ends up being a poor emulation. So for someone like Stephen Miller, there is going to be more of that attempt at being committed and confident and instead it comes across as more monotonous, trying to force that tone of voice lower. And that can sound how you described it.
And it’s interesting because the content of what Donald Trump Jr. and Donald Trump Sr. are saying is largely indistinguishable—there is the same racism and all of that. They are both often saying the same things, but there is a quality in the president’s voice that is less immediately off-putting in terms of sound and gesture alone. It’s more natural. He has a really distinct voice, but it doesn’t feel like a vocal affectation.
The linguistic choices they make are fairly similar, but Donald Trump Jr. is Donald Trump lite, in these aspects. By that I mean, just linguistically, Donald Trump’s way of speaking, he has many non sequitur, parenthetical statements, false starts.
But if you watch Donald Trump Jr. in an interview setting, you can see him do that in a similar way. Again, not to the same extent, but he does have these moments where he will start a topic, then go to another, then go to another. I think it is a conscious or subconscious attempt to dance around the topic a bit and avoid what is actually being addressed. But, in a sense, he is a poor emulation of his father’s way of doing things. I think the way that we sense that is due to their level of commitment. Donald Trump Jr., you might see moments, whether in his inflection or body language and facial expression, that show he is backtracking a bit. That he is changing topics because he is trying to avoid another, but you don’t see that in Donald Trump Sr. because of the commitment factor.
One sounds horrible and natural, and one sounds horrible and alienating.
For better or for worse, what you are saying about Donald Trump Sr. is what attracted many people to him. There wasn’t that polish, that forced quality of speech. With Trump Jr., you see that polish, that trying too hard. Humans can recognize that. Even if we can’t put our finger on it we recognize it: I don’t believe him.
If you were going to do a coaching session with Donald Trump Jr. and wanted to help him sound like less of an asshole, what would you advise him to do?
I would address some of the things we discussed together. If I felt the voice was a bit forced in terms of the register he was trying to speak in, I would do one of two things: one, raise that register just a bit to be in a more comfortable range or make him aware of the physiological behaviors that he is doing that make it sound so forced. We can manipulate the sound of our voice, that is something we work on here, called speaking voice enhancement. If he wanted to speak in that register, he could do that, but the tongue is a bit too far back, it’s a bit too crunched. Let’s bring it forward a bit so it sounds a bit more relaxed and less forced.
And the linguistic choices, for example. When he is changing topic, I might help him to keep his sentences more concise. I would also really focus on that commitment factor, the subtle body language cues and facial expressions that show he is putting on an act instead of seeming genuine about the message he is trying to communicate.
One other thing I have noticed, really with all of the Trumps, is a kind of whistling “s” sound in their speech. Is this a consequence of having veneers? They all seem to have similar veneers. Does that kind of dental work impact how you speak?
It’s a great question. Can dental work affect things? Sure, but not necessarily so. What I am hearing more there is the tongue clench and pulling the tongue back a bit. If you can imagine producing an “s” sound, if you slide the tongue back far enough it becomes an “sh”sound. You can have a slight difference if there is a more retracted placement of the tongue. But there are other ways sibilance can happen, too. Is it possible the dental work caused them to begin to retract their tongue? It’s a possibility.