Making It Up As He Goes: Trump’s Improvisational Rhetoric and the Hyper-Rhetorical Presidency

Richard Holtzman


Trump disregards the norms of presidential communication by regularly speaking or tweeting off-the-cuff with seemingly little forethought or editorial input. As White House administrations institutionalized presidential speechwriting and strategic communications over the past century, meticulously-crafted rhetoric became the norm. Trump’s improvisational rhetoric is the antithesis of the highly-professionalized, disciplined approach to political communication we have come to expect from the presidency. This essay takes the position that his reliance on improvisational rhetoric is more than a matter of communication; it is a matter of governance. Trump regularly uses improvised communication to make important policy decisions. In doing so, the president conflates rhetoric and governance, presenting his personal decisions to tweet or speak as policy actions taken by the United States government. 

It is tempting to discount the president’s propensity for policy-oriented improvisational rhetoric as a Trump-specific phenomenon that will exit the White House with him. However, the tendency to collapse the distinction between rhetoric and governing is not anomalous feature of the modern presidency. To illuminate the dynamics that have long normalized the “not normal," this essay develops the construct of the “hyper-rhetorical presidency” by outlining four theses that situate presidential rhetoric within the broader landscape of contemporary American politics. Taken together, these dynamics contextualize and explain Trump’s reliance on improvisational rhetoric as a reflection of an increasingly distorted political order and dysfunctional system of governance.


Donald Trump; American presidency; presidential rhetoric; the rhetorical presidency; the hyper-rhetorical presidency; improvisational rhetoric; presidential governance

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