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.