Trump's State of the Union Address: How does it measure up to presidents past?

How relatable was Trump’s speech? To evaluate this objectively, you could look at what reading level it was at.

 

US President Donald Trump gestures during the State of the Union address in the chamber of the US House of Representatives in Washington, DC, on January 30, 2018. (Photo: Win McNamee/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump gestures during the State of the Union address in the chamber of the US House of Representatives in Washington, DC, on January 30, 2018. (Photo: Win McNamee/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump delivered his first State of the Union address on January 30, which called for unity, outlined his accomplishments in his first 12 months, and highlighted a number of proposals he’d like to tackle in the upcoming year. The president hammered mostly domestic issues, such as the state of the economy, tax cuts, and immigration. Missing were comments on the Russian investigation and any mention of the #MeToo movement.


Trump has been called a populist, and his campaign and presidency have ridden on homespun or colloquial language, the speech of everyday people, rather than that of the highfalutin upper classes. So how relatable was Trump’s speech? To evaluate this objectively, you could look at what reading level it was at. The average American reads between a 7th and 8th grade level.

Most presidential candidates speak on a 6th-8th grade level, according to a 2016 study out of Carnegie Mellon University. The study employed automatic speech recognition (ASR) systems to analyze transcripts of speeches. Such systems relied on the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, which indicates what can be read by the average student at a certain grade level. It does so by assessing the average sentence length of a reading passage and the average number of syllables per word. Most metrics look at sentence length and vocabulary.

The study found that when it came to campaign speeches, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Reagan, and Lincoln, all spoke on an 8th grade level, while Trump’s speeches lie just below a 6th grade level. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address clocked in at a 10th grade level, grammatically.


What is the reading level of most SOTU addresses and where does Trump’s clock in? Credit: Getty Images.

An online tool called The Readability Analyzer by Datayze.com can help to evaluate the reading level of several modern presidents' State of the Union Addresses. A president in these speeches is typically at his (and perhaps someday her) best.

In addition to Flesch-Kincaid, the tool uses several other scales including the Gunning Fog Index, Kincaid Grade Level, SMOG formula, Dale-Chall readability score, and Fry Reading Graph. For greater understandability, I’ve selected two of the most reliable, the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level heuristic, which indicates that the text can be read by the average student in their own grade level, and the Dale-Chall readability score.

Rather than syllable counts, Dale-Chall uses a list of 3,000 words that are easily understood by 80% of fourth-grade students. The readability score is computed based on how many words in the passage are not on the list. To get an idea of how it works, a score of 4.9 can be read by your average 4th grader. A score of 9.0-9.9 is easily understood by an average college student. 

1. President Donald J. Trump 2018 address

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 9.03 (understood by your average 9th grader)

Dale-Chall score: 7.71 (understood by an average 9th or 10th-grade student)

Most notable quote: “Americans are dreamers too.”

Most notable paragraph:

"Most importantly, these four pillars will produce legislation that fulfills my ironclad pledge to only sign a bill that puts America first. So let us come together, set politics aside, and finally get the job done."

 


Credit: Getty Images.

2. President Barack Obama’s 2016 address

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 8.47 (understood by your average 8th grader)                       

Dale-Chall score: 7.19 (understood by an average 9th or 10th-grade student)

Most notable quote: "That’s the America I know. That’s the country we love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word."

Most notable paragraph:

"Of course, a great education isn’t all we need in this new economy. We also need benefits and protections that provide a basic measure of security. After all, it’s not much of a stretch to say that some of the only people in America who are going to work the same job, in the same place, with a health and retirement package, for 30 years, are sitting in this chamber."

 


Credit: Getty Images.

3. President George W. Bush’s 2002 address

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 8.46 (understood by your average 8th grader)

Dale-Chall score: 8.1 (understood by an average 11th or 12th-grade student)

Most notable quote: “States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.”

Most notable paragraph:

"In the long run, men and women who are free to determine their own destinies will reject terror and refuse to live in tyranny. And that is why the terrorists are fighting to deny this choice to the people in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Palestinian Territories. And that is why, for the security of America and the peace of the world, we are spreading the hope of freedom."

 


Credit: Getty Images.

4. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1954 address

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 8.72 (understood by your average 8th grader)

Dale-Chall score: 8.98 (understood by an average 11th or 12th-grade student)

Most notable quote: “If progress is to be steady we must have long term guides extending far ahead.”

Most notable paragraph:

"We now stand in the vestibule of a vast new technological age—one that, despite its capacity for human destruction, has an equal capacity to make poverty and human misery obsolete. If our efforts are wisely directed—and if our unremitting efforts for dependable peace begin to attain some success—we can surely become participants in creating an age characterized by justice and rising levels of human well-being."

 


Credit: Getty Images.

5. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1944 address

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 11.41 (understood by your average 11th grader)

Dale-Chall score: 8.1 (understood by an average 11th or 12th-grade student)

Most notable quote: “Yes, we believe that the Nazis and the fascists have asked for it — and they are going to get it.”

Most notable paragraph(s):

"Our enemies are guided by brutal cynicism, by unholy contempt for the human race. We are inspired by a faith that goes back through all the years to the first chapter of the Book of Genesis: "God created man in His own image." We on our side are striving to be true to that divine heritage. We are fighting, as our fathers have fought, to uphold the doctrine that all men are equal in the sight of God.

Those on the other side are striving to destroy this deep belief and to create a world in their own image—a world of tyranny and cruelty and serfdom. That is the conflict that day and night now pervades our lives. No compromise can end that conflict. There never has been—there never can be—successful compromise between good and evil. Only total victory can reward the champions of tolerance, and decency, and freedom, and faith."

 

What does this say about Trump's first State of the Union Address?

Considering "American" has four syllables and "tremendous" has three, the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test may not give much indication as to how thoughtful or intelligent any speech is. Trump's score indicates what was evident to all who watched the address: he stuck to the script and upped his game. It's also a sign of a broader trend: the addresses have only been delivered to the public verbally since 1913 with the advent of radio, and were until then circulated as a written letter. As BuzzFeed News reports, since George Washington's inaugural State of the Union Address in 1790, the reading level has steadily declined, which is in tune with the democratization of politics and media, and the change of format from written to verbal address. Presidents, it seems, are more relatable that ever. 

Reading grade level for every presidential message and address to Congress since 1790. Each address is a point, colored by the president’s party and sized by its length, in words. (Includes addresses to joint sessions of Congress in presidents’ first years of office, which are not officially State of the Union addresses.) Credit: Peter Aldhous for BuzzFeed News/ data via presidency.ucsb.edu.

 

 

 

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7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

Nero's Torches. A group of early Christian martyrs about to be burned alive during the reign of emperor Nero in 64 AD.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
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  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

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