True or false? What a UChicago linguist will look for during the presidential debates

For Prof. Chris Kennedy, debates and voter reactions will test country’s capacity for dialogue

On Sept. 29 in Cleveland, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will face each other on stage for the first time. The first of three debates comes at the end of a tumultuous presidential campaign held amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and presents an opportunity for the candidates to speak directly to a national audience.

The candidates could face more scrutiny than they have elsewhere on the campaign trail, as moderators, pundits and their opponent may fact-check them in real time. But will fact-checking make a difference in the way audiences receive the candidate’s messages?

That’s a question which University of Chicago linguist Chris Kennedy has thought about for years. The William H. Colvin Professor of Linguistics teaches a course on truth, examining the concept’s relevance in an age of “alternative facts” and “fake news.” In 2018, he also focused on the nature of truth in a keynote speech for Humanities Day, an annual UChicago tradition that began in 1980.

An expert on how linguistic forms relate to meaning, Kennedy has observed that Trump has a particularly extreme disregard for the truth: instead of trying to hide his lies, he focuses instead on manipulating his audience. In the following Q&A, Kennedy discusses Trump’s attitude toward truth, and what the debates say about the state of our national politics.

What will you be watching for in the debates?

One thing that always stands out is that the candidates rarely answer questions directly. And when they do, the answer often isn’t very special. So I pay close attention to the indirect responses. They’re the most telling and the most interesting, because they raise the question: Why are they saying what they’re saying?

By evading the question, candidates are often trying to distract—or to make sure you know they care about something that’s irrelevant to the question, but important to the candidate. But sometimes, more subtle signaling is involved, and those responses are the ones to really focus on. For example, if there’s a question about the protests in response to police violence against Black Americans, in what ways will the responses that the two candidates give address those issues? What other signals will be present in their responses?

One of Trump’s moves on this subject has been to pivot to the suburbs, and to the Democrats’ alleged plans to change housing regulations. How is that relevant? He could be trying to scare people—to suggest that their lifestyle is in jeopardy because white suburbs are going to become more diverse and less insulated. Discussions that appear to be about one specific policy can be layered, and that’s worth noting.

President Trump often rambles, and earlier this year, The Atlantic wrote a profile of Joe Biden that focused on his stutter—something he largely overcame as a child but which may still manifest in some of his speech patterns. How do such patterns affect an audience’s perception of the speaker’s credibility?

We know that how people talk affects judgments about all sorts of things. As humans, we make judgments based on fairly limited amounts of data. From an evolutionary standpoint, it means we can react quickly and often accurately—but not always. This fall, voters will be judging the mental fitness of the candidates by their ability to focus and organize information. But there are also positive judgments they might make—some people actually like Biden’s digressions, for example, because they find them comforting. Bringing personal stories into policy discussions can sometimes be an effective way to make abstract policy feel relevant and immediate.

Do you think our national understanding of truth has changed at all since the 2016 race? If so, does that mean expectations for the debate will have changed too?

There are catalogues of how many lies and misleading statements Trump has made over the last four years—it’s in the thousands. Biden, of course, has also made false statements, but there’s no real comparison between the two in terms of the number of falsehoods spoken. So, Trump has normalized lying for himself. But what has the impact been?

Many people do believe the things Trump says, or are willing to take him seriously, if not literally. But what’s more concerning to me than individual false statements is that differences of belief—on issues like climate change, for example—now seem so profound that even people presented with the same data will draw different conclusions. This suggests that we may not be able to have a reasoned argument anymore as a society, because the reasoning processes that had led people from experience to belief have diverged.

When people no longer trust others as being capable of the reasoning processes, we get dysfunction: It becomes challenging to try to figure out how to argue with the goal of getting to beliefs that are justified by knowledge. To some extent, the debates and voters’ reactions to them will be a test of whether we can still have this kind of dialogue as a country.

You’ve noted that Trump often ignores facts to spin a narrative that suits his goals or resonates with his audience. Will his attempts to do so be more limited during a debate, given the presence of a moderator and an opposing candidate?

Many people would tend to be more cautious in the context of a debate, because they could be challenged on issues in real time. That said, there isn’t much evidence that Trump is concerned about that. Every time he gets caught on something, he seems to concede just a little, or even doubles down on what he initially said. Instead, I think what he says in the debate will be directed by what bolsters his larger goals. For example, he’s been saying that if the Democrats win, it’ll only be because the election was rigged. There’s no reason to think that the democratic process won’t play out fairly in November, but he is laying the groundwork for a backlash from his base should he actually lose.

In a debate, does it make sense for one candidate to call out their opponent’s lies, or is it better to signal to the audience that you are in some way relatable, and therefore trustworthy?

In this election, a lot of voters hold fairly entrenched positions, so they may not respond to criticisms of candidates they already support. Trump, for example, is really an “elite” himself, but many people don’t see him that way and will continue to like him as an “outsider.” People who find Biden comforting and calming will probably continue to feel that way. The feelings voters have about candidates don’t always reflect the policy reality. Again, this is worrisome when we think about the hard issues that the nation will have to deal with over the next four years. We need to find a way back to talking about issues, and answering questions, in an evidence-based way.