WASHINGTON – Have you completed the third grade?
If so, this may be why you are having trouble understanding the appeal of Donald Trump.
At Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate, Ben Carson delivered an opening statement about “the abyss of destruction.” An analysis shows he was communicating at the level of a 10th-grader’s comprehension. Marco Rubio, who spoke of “the identity of America in the 21st century,” was also at the high-school level. Ted Cruz and John Kasich were at middle-school comprehension levels.
And then there was Trump – at a third-grade level:
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“We don’t win anymore … We’re going to make a great country again. We’re going to start winning again. We’re going to win a lot. It’s going to be a big difference, believe me.”
This was no anomaly. Some noticed Trump’s peculiarly prosaic prose early in the campaign, but it has become even more pronounced: Simple words. Simple sentences. Simple concepts.
See Donald. See Donald run. See Donald win.
This would appear to confirm polling that indicates Trump draws much of his support from less-educated Americans; “I love the poorly educated,” he said after his Nevada victory. This doesn’t mean all Trump supporters are dumb. But he is communicating – deliberately, surely – at a much more rudimentary level than any other candidate in either party.
“He says five things,” Rubio taunted Thursday night. “Everyone’s dumb, he’s gonna make America great again, we’re going to win, win, win, he’s winning in the polls … “
But, on some primal level, it works. Americans – particularly those who are angry and anxious, as Trump’s followers are – wish to be told that they will be OK, that there are simple answers. There is an obvious appeal to Trump’s declarative statement on the Middle East – “I am totally pro-Israel” – rather than Cruz’s Princetonian version: “The notion of neutrality is based upon the left buying into this moral relativism that is often pitched in the media.”
One language gauge, the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Index measures sophistication by syllables per word and words per sentence. This is meant for written language, but applied to campaign speeches and debates, it gives a rough sense of the relative levels of candidates’ rhetoric.
In speeches the night of the South Carolina primary, Cruz was at a ninth-grade level, Rubio at an eighth-grade level – and Trump at a fifth-grade level. In speeches after Nevada caucuses, Cruz and Democrat Bernie Sanders were at a ninth-grade level, Hillary Clinton was at seventh grade. And Trump? second grade:
“We love Nevada.”
“Soon the country is going to start winning, winning, winning.”
“Now we’re going to get greedy for the United States. We’re going to grab and grab and grab.”
“We’re going to bring in so much money and so much everything.”
“We’re going to build the wall. You know that. Going to build the wall.”
“You’re going to be proud of your president. And you’re going to be even prouder of your country. OK?”
This is campaigning at the level of Captain Underpants, Geronimo Stilton and Rainbow Magic fairies. And it appears to be more effective among this season’s Republican voters than, say, Carson, who spoke Thursday night about selecting judges by “the fruit salad of their life.”
By contrast, there is no puzzling over Trump’s meaning when he calls Cruz a “crazy zealot” or tells Rubio, “You don’t know a thing about business – you lose on everything.” Trump, asked for details of his budget plan, said, “We will cut so much your head will spin.” His response to conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt when pressed at the debate about releasing tax returns: “First of all, very few people listen to your radio show – that’s the good news.”
Trump only rarely left the primary grades the entire debate. On illegal immigration he was in fifth grade. His views on Mitt Romney and on polling of Hispanics: fourth grade. His record as an employer? Third grade. Through it all, his vocabulary would have suited Dr. Seuss: “They will go out. They will come back. Some will come back. … The wall just got 10 feet taller. … We’re going to make many cuts. … We’re going to get rid of so many different things.”
And he ended where he began – in third grade. “I will get it done,” he said. “Politicians will never, ever get it done. And we will make America great again. Thank you.”
Win, Donald, win. Grab, Donald, grab. See Donald make America great again.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.