Always be Closing

I sometimes discuss politics.


It is worth reevaluating preconceptions about what qualifies as a successful political speech given Donald Trump’s election. This research examines his campaign announcement speech from 2015. Trump’s use of language handicaps traditional examinations. However, techniques exist that do provide useful analytic tools. This examination employs research in Class, Codes, and Control Volume I, and Languages, and Identities. Understanding Trump’s communication and the basic function of his rhetorical appeal through speech codes is helpful. Trump depicted a nation where things are bad and going to get worse with the use of restricted code. That is unless he assumed control. Trump did this by avoiding standard political rhetorical flourishes. Trump’s speech hits many of the usual Republican notes, though it also appears inelegant. Nevertheless, it resonated with his base. Past the superficial level, his announcement speech is remarkable for what it accomplishes. 

Key Words: Trump, political speeches, president, announcement speech, restricted code, elaborated code, Bernstein, speech codes, working class, political elites.

First Prize is a Cadillac Eldorado

Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the president’s office on 16 June 2015. Although a television celebrity, Trump had no history of public service at the time. A credible announcement from a non-politician is rare. Most people making a run for the presidency are career politicians (Eiermann, 2016). Initial reactions from media, and political circles, were to dismiss Trump, his campaign, and his speech. Reasons for the dismissal included his career as a TV personality, his lack of political experience, and Trump’s speaking style (Seltzer, 2016). This means Trump’s campaign success is worth studying. A related artifact to study is his announcement speech. It behooves us to try to understand how his rhetoric works and its appeal. It is a mistake to dismiss it because it falls out of the traditional comfort zones for the students of political rhetoric. The announcement speech matches his usual rhetorical style. So, analyzing it will help to understand his standard mode of discourse. 

This rhetorical analysis of Trump’s campaign announcement examines his use of language as a spectacle. This includes how his use is distinctive from that of career politicians. The conclusion is that this use of language is not actually “word salad.” Instead, it speaks to his target demographic (Lakoff, 2016). This research does not examine the man’s fitness for office or the viability of his policies. 

Literature Review

Trump’s rhetorical style, linguistic use of grammar, and syntax are iconoclastic and atypical for a politician (Oliver & Rahn, 2016). Due to Trump’s announcement speech lacking the standard political rhetorical hallmarks – references to the Bible, adversity the politician has overcome, careful structure, etcetera – the standard literature for understanding political speeches works (Time Staff, 2015). This analysis pursues a different approach if it is to provide helpful content. 

Much of the other available material examines Trump through the lens of American political trends. These articles examine how the American people perceive Trump’s use of language and react to him. Particularly useful is “Total Losers and Bad Hombres: The Political Incorrectness and Perceived Authenticity of Donald Trump,” by Kirsten Theye and Steven Melling (Theye & Melling, 2018). While useful, none of the literature at the time of this research only examines his announcement speech. As such, this analysis process relies on reporting by respectable non-academics. This includes transcripts of the speeches from Time Magazine. 

Essential tools used in this Trump speech analysis come from Class, Codes, and Control Volume I. These are from British sociologist Basil Bernstein (1971). His research describes “elaborated codes” and “restricted codes.” These codes provide insight into the class-based use of language. Bernstein says working-class language usage is a “restricted code.” It does not have to be precise because the working class members generally share the meanings. Language usage is an “elaborated code” among upper/leadership classes. That style is associated with formal situations, characterized by explicitness and syntactic complexity (Bernstein). This analysis argues that Trump employs a “restricted code” even though he comes from a wealthy family and is a graduate of the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania. Trump is speaking the “dialect” of his target demographic with no need for translation using “restricted code.” All the other politicians – including the Republican Party – speak the dialect of the Washington elites using “elaborated code” (Bernstein).

This analysis will go further after using Bernstein’s theory to assert that Trump uses local code. The Council of Europe, Languages, and Identities report discusses how dialect serves as necessary group identifiers (Byram, 2006). Criticism of Trump based upon his use of language became a criticism of his base once that target demographic decided he was like them, owing to his use of language. That is to say, criticism of Trump became a criticism of a real American by the phony elites. The academic article, “Perceived Group Continuity, Collective Self-Continuity, and In-Group Identification,” among other sources, lends further support to this conclusion. It examines how preserving group identity is essential to the members of a group, something that Trump addresses on many levels (Smeekes & Verkuyten, 2014). 

More support for the conclusion on his use of language comes from Trump himself. In Trump: Think Like a Billionaire, he wrote, “The day I realized it can be smart to be shallow was, for me, a deep experience” (2004, p. xxii). Further, In Time to Get Tough, he wrote, “…they (the GOP) also need to learn the art of using the right language” (2011, p. 79).

Trump’s use of language, and his eschewing of usual political rhetoric, is a handicap to a traditional examination of his announcement speech. However, literature and techniques exist that can provide useful analytical tools. 

Critical Methodology

There is a limit on traditional critical methods useful for understanding Trump’s use of language. To keep beating this drum, attempting to understand the announcement speech – and most of his unscripted statements – through traditional tools will collapse. As such, an eclectic method of critical analysis, a “Close Textual Analysis” with support through applying Bernstein’s theory, provides a method for examining the speech. 

In “Anatomy of a masterpiece: A close textual analysis of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address,” Amy Slagell wrote that a “microscopically” close perspective is a way to account for a speech’s success. Further, this close textual method can work as a “reader-response for literary studies,” forcing an analysis to slow down and examine the “events” of a speech. It allows a critic to analyze “…the developing responses of the reader or the listener in relation to the words as they succeeded one another in time.” She also writes that it is vital to understand a speech’s place in history (Slagell, 1991). According to “Textual Criticism: The Legacy of G. P. Mohrmann” textual criticism also allows a critic to focus on rhetorical action. It requires judgment at a level of abstraction because this method involves elements not native to the original text (Leff, 1986). This information means that examining the context of Trump’s speech is crucial. 

Comparing Trump’s announcement speech to other politicians will help understand the text. For one thing, nothing happens in a void. For another, the reason Trump, and his announcement speech, are remarkable is that they are understandable as unconventional only in comparison to the conventional. This research considers the campaign announcements speeches by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Ted Cruz. 

The close textual analysis, coupled with applying Bernstein’s theory, will help to provide evidence that Trump is employing a different code than most politicians. 

The Analysis

The subject of this analysis is part of the contentious 2016 presidential election. This research will collect and analyze the data before providing an interpretation. This includes the speech’s context, content, and how speech codes help understand the announcement speech. 

The Context of the Announcement Speech

The 2016 presidential campaign proved the largest presidential primary field for any political party in American history; 17 people entered the race on the Republican side and five on the Democratic side. Trump’s announcement came second to last of the Republicans, though he did not align himself with the Grand Old Party until several days later (Linshi, 2015). 

Cruz, and Clinton, used reserved body language, and they also had a more extensive range than Trump. He makes up for a narrower range of expressions and gestures, with ones that are more pronounced and even “operatic.” Trump is adept at aligning his body language with his verbal message, increasing his credibility with his target demographic (Fallows, 2016). This is part of his noted ability to read a crowd and to adjust his message to suit his audience (Halbach, 2016).

Trump gave his speech in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York City, even though the building had conference facilities. Video of the event depicts people chanting Trump’s name and waving placards with his name crowding the lobby. Trump steps from this crowd on a second-floor balcony and descends a gold-colored escalator to the waiting media below to deliver his speech (Time Staff, 2015). Trump stepped out of a crowd. Then he descended from above, on stairs the color of financial success, to the people waiting below. 

By comparison, Cruz gave his speech at Liberty University. That is a private and non-profit Christian institution that pursues traditional family values and supports conservative American politics (Time Staff, 2015). Clinton gave her speech in New York City, at Franklin Roosevelt Park, noting President Roosevelt’s “…enduring vision of America, the nation we want to be” (Time Staff, 2015). Both the locations chosen by Cruz and Clinton speak to their target demographics and politics. Trump does as well; his place of power, which also speaks of his politics, is the lobby of his business. 

Trump has been a celebrity since at least The Art of the Deal was published in 1988. This means he has been in the national spotlight four years longer than Clinton, who came to prominence in 1992 with her husband’s first campaign for the presidency, and 25 years longer than Cruz, who appeared on the national stage when he became a senator in 2013. America has only known Clinton, and Cruz, as part of the political landscape. Trump existed as a celebrity, a part of America’s media ecology, and someone familiar with how to operate in an image-based culture until this announcement speech (Postman, 1986). 

Trump did not carry years of political baggage when he descended those stairs to make a political foray. 

Content Analysis of the Announcement Speech 

Trump’s vocabulary is at an 8th-grade level, the same level as Clinton’s, and a level below that Cruz’s 9th-grade level in a REAP content analysis (Schumacher & Eskenazi). Trump spoke at a 5th-grade level, two grades below Clinton’s 7th-grade level, and four grades below Cruz’s 9th-grade level. This means that to assert that Trump speaks at a fourth-grade level is incorrect and misses what he is doing. 

A simple content analysis permits further comparisons (Schumacher & Eskenazi). For example, Clinton and Cruz use “America” more often than Trump. Cruz’s third sentence appears, “Today I want to talk with you about the promise of America.” The nation’s name appears in Clinton’s fifth sentence, “To be here in this beautiful park dedicated to Franklin Roosevelt’s enduring vision of America, the nation we want to be.” By comparison, of the six times, Trump does use the specific term America, twice it is about the Avenue of the Americas, twice it is about the Bank of America, and twice it is in the term “Make America Great Again.” Cruz discusses faith, family values, and their role in America. Clinton refers to what her party’s politics brings to the country and references America’s “God-given potential.” Trump does not; he only refers to God when he says, “I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created.”

Meanings in the Announcement Speech

An audience comes together with a set of interests. They also possess a set of expectations about how a speaker will help them in pursuing those interests. The use of specific terms helps a speaker communicate those interests (McGee, 1980, pp. 6-9). It is possible to use the results of a content analysis of the speech to pick out the specific political terms that hold power in Trump’s announcement speech. Some of these include; job/jobs (appearing 23 times), China (appearing 23 times), Mexico (appearing 13 times), “our country” / “this country” (appearing 15 times), won (appearing 7 times), America (appearing 6 times), losers (appearing 2 times), rapists (appearing 1 time), and God (appearing 1 time).

Trump employs these terms to create a picture of America where the few favorable terms (i.e., “won”) appear in the past and are unlikely for the future. Even if he employed 5th-grade grammar, Trump’s vocabulary worked on Clinton’s level and close to Cruz’s. Trump knows the right words and how to use them. In any case, using these terms, Trump creates a situation where debating is pointless; things are bad and going to get worse unless Trump assumes control. As he says in the speech; “Now, our country needs… our country needs a truly great leader, and we need a truly great leader now. We need a leader that wrote ‘The Art of the Deal.'” (Time Staff, 2015)

To reiterate an earlier point, Trump did this without employing the usual political rhetorical tricks in his speech, such as Cruz and Clinton’s careful planning and political articulation. This is because he employed a different code than Clinton and Cruz. 

Meaning and Codes of the Announcement Speech

Gerry Philipsen, in his academic presentation Coming to Terms with Cultures, said that his studies of speech codes grew out of learning experience about what he felt he had to do to communicate with the people of a community new to him. Philipsen notes how groups react badly to actions and statements that violate their ethical and moral standards and refusing to accommodate those facts will ensure a failure to communicate (2010). Speech is a message, and language is a code. Specific linguistic codes define social identity, what is and is not acceptable and welcome, and shape the expression of life as an experience (Bernstein, 1971). Relevant to this discussion is that, according to Bernstein, there are two general types of political code: elaborated and restricted (Bernstein). 

Restricted code is usually part of relationships based upon a standard, extensive set of shared identifications and expectations held by people using the code. It usually restricts specific terminology for widely understood terms. This explains why Trump does not use “America” to refer to the country, as did Cruz and Clinton – restricted code generally prevents it (Bernstein). Shared identifications may stand in for specific terminology in restricted code, so Trump’s use of “our country” and “this country” functions as references to America, such as when he asserts, “Our country is in serious trouble,” meaning he referred to America 15 times.

Further, using “our country” makes it possessive, so his target demographic does not have to tolerate anything they consider the mistreatment of their property. It creates a bond with his listeners by using the term, as he shares ownership of our country with them. Trump says in the speech, “It can happen. Our country has tremendous potential. We have tremendous people” (Time Staff, 2015). Here he both creates that rhetorical bond with his listeners and compliments them. Using the name America would not include those implications. 

Restricted code does not limit the amount of speech, only its form (Bernstein). So it is incidental that Trump used more words than Cruz or Clinton: 6,665, 2,377, and 4,791. Elaborated code usually involves a higher level of grammatical organization. This speaks to Clinton and Cruz’s higher grammatical level than that of Trump. Delivering explicit meaning is the purpose of elaborated code. If a restricted code involves the exchange of “communalized” symbols, then elaborated code involves the exchange of specific symbols (Bernstein). For example, Trump says in his announcement speech;

We have all the cards, but we don’t know how to use them. We don’t even know that we have the cards, because our leaders don’t understand the game. We could turn off that spigot by charging them tax until they behave properly (Time Staff, 2015).

Here he invokes the metaphor of a card game to describe international trade deals. Card games are a part of American culture that does not have to explain. He uses this metaphor to assert that America – again not specified but understood – holds all the cards but that the Washington elite politicians are too incompetent to handle even a simple card game. Many of his target audience will have played card games. So they will understand what Trump discusses because it is a communal set of symbols. They will also understand that he asserts these politicians are poor gamblers with taxpayers’ money. 

Further, Trump mixes his metaphors in comparing all the money the poor gamblers are losing to an open spigot. However, this is an image with which many Americans are also familiar or another communal symbol. He can even get away with using the term tax when he means tariff. 

Planning usually does not go into restricted code, while elaborated code involves planning (Bernstein). As noted, Clinton and Cruz employed speechwriters to develop their announcement speeches, likely Dan Schwerin and Amanda Carpenter (Glueck, 2015; Everett, 2014). Trump winged it, which means they employed careful planning while he did not. 

Because restricted code limits verbal planning, it can create a sense of dislocation, and thoughts are “often strung together like beads on a frame rather than following a planned sequence.” Restricted code also leads to repetition (Bernstein, p. 105). During the first half of his announcement speech, Trump says;

And I hear their speeches. And they don’t talk jobs, and they don’t talk China. When was the last time you heard China is killing us? They’re devaluing their currency to a level that you wouldn’t believe. It makes it impossible for our companies to compete, impossible. They’re killing us.

But you don’t hear that from anybody else. You don’t hear it from anybody else. And I watch the speeches. (Time Staff, 2015)

Here he repeats the use of “impossible,” that China is “killing us,” that he watches the speeches of the career politicians, and that no one else will talk about how China is making this killing, i.e., through currency manipulation. There is also a random feel to the arrangement of the entire discussion. 

Restricted code functions as a kind of dialect for working-class groups. This includes groups of lower social and economic authority with less formal education. By comparison, elaborated code serves the same functions for “leadership” class groups. This includes groups with greater social and more formal education (Bernstein). Languages, and dialects, are essential signifiers of in-group and out-group status. People become conscious of this status if someone uses the wrong words for the group or does not recognize the common reference points made in a group conversation. So speaking “correctly” marks the individual as a member of the in-group. Failing to do so identifies the individual as an outsider (Byram, 2006). In his announcement speech, Trump says;

I watch the speeches of these people, and they say the sun will rise, the moon will set, all sorts of wonderful things will happen. And people are saying, “What’s going on? I just want a job. Just get me a job. I don’t need the rhetoric. I want a job.” (Time Staff, 2015)

Trump’s use of language allows working class and blue-collar Americans to see him as “one of them” if the idea of restricted code is correct and if the ideas of language and dialect as necessary group identifiers are also correct. He presented himself as a man using their native dialect to speak to their concerns. This is also why many in the political and media establishments reject him because, for them, he did not use the correct code (Lakoff, 2016). Anouk Smeekes and Maykel Verkuyten demonstrated that a sense of self-continuity, a person’s sense of self and personal integrity, is vital to many people. People who define themselves through their groups report higher levels of group attachment. The likely reason why feelings of group continuity foster attachment to the in-group and increase rejection of out-groups is that these responses strengthen people’s sense of self-continuity and their sense of belonging. (Smeekes & Verkuyten, 2014). A rhetorical asset in one group, be it working-class America or America’s nominal political and media leadership, is a liability for the other group. 

Many sources support this understanding of the situation. For example, a Trump voter and supporter told a National Public radio journalist, “…is he contradicting himself? Look, we all contradict ourselves every day. We say one thing. We do another.” The supporter indicated they were not surprised or dismayed by Trump’s use of language or supposed inconsistencies (Garcia-Navarro, 2017). Further, in a column for the National Review Dan McLaughlin discusses how Trump’s use of language is objectionable for many elite Republicans – but the Republican base supports Trump (McLaughlin, 2017). 

This interpretation of the reaction to Trump’s speaking style allows an understanding of how his supporters view his veracity. The speech falls into rhetoric statements, even bluffs, designed to pursue a goal rather than reveal facts or verifiable truths (Frankfurt). Writing for the Atlantic, in the September 2016 issue, columnist and journalist Salena Zito described this phenomenon as “… the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally” (Zito). Trump’s first campaign manager Corey Lewandowski echoed the sentiment during a conference at Harvard following the 2016 election (

Trump’s supporters, the people receptive to his rhetoric, either do not care about his veracity or they care but consider it a low priority. Trump’s veracity is not a meaningful heuristic prerequisite for supporting him.

This response to outsiders for Trump’s target demographic includes anyone among the elites. Since at least the presidency of George W. Bush, part of the general Republican strategy is to market the resentment against the elites running America (Krugman, 2008). That this resentment includes career Republican politicians is a “hoist your own petard” result (Mae & Carlston, 2005). Trump says;

As an example, I’ve been on the circuit making speeches, and I hear my fellow Republicans. And they’re wonderful people. I like them. They all want me to support them. They don’t know how to bring it about. They come up to my office. I’m meeting with three of them in the next week. And they don’t know— “Are you running? Are you not running? Could we have your support? What do we do? How do we do it?” (Time Staff, 2015).

In this case, the “it” is winning, and the Republicans, in Trump’s recounting, are desperate for him to validate them and their political efforts. 

Cruz and Trump hit many of the same points in their speeches, including discussing American greatness, a need for a strong economy, national security, and problems with immigration. Nevertheless, both employed elaborated code – all the candidates employed the same code to some degree regardless of the party. For many people who use restricted code, who feel disenfranchised and even frightened by the modern state of America, there was little to distinguish one politician from another. To many voters, it was the same promises from the same people employing the same code, which many working class and blue color voters view as having failed them, failed their needs, and failed America (Seltzer, 2016). Trump concludes his announcement speech with;

“Sadly, the American dream is dead.

But if I get elected president, I will bring it back bigger and better and stronger than ever before, and we will make America great again” (Time Staff, 2015).

Trump rarely spoke like a politician, and his discourse did not permit those techniques. Being traditionally articulate – such as speaking at an 8th or 9th-grade level – would have hampered his ability to communicate with his target demographic. Even so, he was, and is, careful in his use of language (Lakoff, 2016). The man who wrote Trump’s speech for the 2016 Republican convention said, “His words are his own, and that is their power” (Hackman, 2016). 

A coda to this is that the insight becomes like learning how a magic trick works; once you know how to recognize it, you cannot unsee it. Trump can use scripted speeches, which is to say elaborated code, such as his acceptance speech during the 2016 Republican convention, his address to Congress in February of 2017, and his inaugural address. However, it is also recognizable when he is employing restricted code. Examples include Trump’s New Mexico in August 2016 speech, his January 2017 address to the CIA, most of his media interviews, and all his tweets. Restricted code appears to be his default mode. 

Always Be Closing

In the 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross, a character informs the real estate office staff that only the top two performers will keep their jobs – first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado, second prize is a set of steak knives, and “Third prize is you’re fired.” Baldwin’s vulgar character also chastises the sales staff, flaunts his wealthy success, and tells them to “always be closing,” meaning a salesperson should be aggressive, persistent, and keep completing a sale. Most salespersons in the film rely on older methods to connect with clients and are unsuccessful in their business (Foley, 1993). 

For the 2016 presidential campaign, almost 20-career politicians failed to adapt how they sold themselves. By comparison, Trump never stopped closing; he never stopped communicating in an unconventional style that resonated with many voters. If viewed through a traditional lens, Trump’s announcement speech hits many of the usual conservative Republican notes. It also appears poorly put together and executed. Nevertheless, if we move past the superficial level set by standard political expectations, the announcement speech is remarkable for what it accomplishes, and many people miss it. The first paragraph’s syntax allows Trump to cast himself as “one of the people” and pit himself as part of them in a struggle against the elites, including the Republican establishment. It uses these terms to create a situation his target demographic understands on an emotional level, independent of fact, and careful articulation. It manages to communicate this with the right voters while appearing to be inarticulate gibberish to the establishment.

It is remarkable what the speech announces.

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