Yesterday, 50 former national security officials who had served in Republican administrations published a letter criticizing Donald Trump. This document is bullshit-free: it’s written in the first person with active voice, direct, declarative sentences and a limited number of qualifiers. For a political document, this is remarkable.
An effective document is short, features a descriptive title, and explains its position in the first few sentences. This 500-word document has a bland title, but its opening leaves no doubt about what will follow.
STATEMENT BY FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY OFFICIALS
The undersigned individuals have all served in senior national security and/or foreign policy positions in Republican Administrations, from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush. We have worked directly on national security issues with these Republican Presidents and/or their principal advisers during wartime and other periods of crisis, through successes and failures. We know the personal qualities required of a President of the United States.
None of us will vote for Donald Trump.
From a foreign policy perspective, Donald Trump is not qualified to be President and Commander-in-Chief. Indeed, we are convinced that he would be a dangerous President and would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being.
The power of short, direct, active sentences
These officials want to make sure you know Donald Trump would be a disastrous choice for president. My review found is no passive voice at all, which is unusual for any document, let alone one written by government officials. Most of the sentences are either written from the perspective of “we” — the officials — or are simple declarative sentences about the officials’ view of the truth.
Most fundamentally, Mr. Trump lacks the character, values, and experience to be President.
Mr. Trump lacks the temperament to be President.
He is unable or unwilling to separate truth from falsehood. He does not encourage conflicting views. He lacks self-control and acts impetuously. He cannot tolerate personal criticism. He has alarmed our closest allies with his erratic behavior. All of these are dangerous qualities in an individual who aspires to be President and Commander-in- Chief, with command of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
We are convinced that in the Oval Office, he would be the most reckless President in American history. [Is this passive? It uses “convinced” as an adjective, so it’s arguable either way.]
These authors explain without jargon
Foreign affairs and national security are sophisticated topics. I’m sure when the people who signed this letter wrote to others in government, they used words like “deterrence,” “nuclear triad,” and “strategic defense.” But when they talk to the world in this document, they use simple language that any citizen can understand:
He weakens U.S. moral authority as the leader of the free world.
He appears to lack basic knowledge about and belief in the U.S. Constitution, U.S. laws, and U.S. institutions, including religious tolerance, freedom of the press, and an independent judiciary.
In our experience, a President must be willing to listen to his advisers and department heads; must encourage consideration of conflicting views; and must acknowledge errors and learn from them.
A President must maintain cordial relationships with leaders of countries of different backgrounds and must have their respect and trust.
Keeping weasel words under control
When you feel this strongly, it’s tempting to use intensifiers and qualifiers to make things sound alarming. (Trump himself is the master of this “huge” technique.) But these weasel words can backfire; repeating them makes you sound insincere. This document includes 17 weasel words out of 500 total words, for a weasel density of 3.4% — far lower than bullshit-laden documents like Marissa Mayer’s email about the sale of Yahoo. The authors concentrate their intensifiers in two passages, one of which is the conclusion (weasel words highlighted).
In addition, Mr. Trump has demonstrated repeatedly that he has little understanding of America’s vital national interests, its complex diplomatic challenges, its indispensable alliances, and the democratic values on which U.S. foreign policy must be based. At the same time, he persistently compliments our adversaries and threatens our allies and friends. Unlike previous Presidents who had limited experience in foreign affairs, Mr. Trump has shown no interest in educating himself. He continues to display an alarming ignorance of basic facts of contemporary international politics. Despite his lack of knowledge, Mr. Trump claims that he understands foreign affairs and “knows more about ISIS than the generals do.”
We understand that many Americans are profoundly frustrated with the federal government and its inability to solve pressing domestic and international problems. We also know that many have doubts about Hillary Clinton, as do many of us. But Donald Trump is not the answer to America’s daunting challenges and to this crucial election.
If the rest of the document were written this way, the whole thing would seem shrill. But by concentrating their intensifiers in two places, the authors focus their (and their readers’) alarm. What I see peeking out here is the speechwriter’s tendency to use words like “alarming,” “profoundly,” and “persistently” to scare readers into paying attention.
Lessons of this security letter
When you need to take a position in your organization, follow this example. Keep it short. State your case up front. Don’t use big words just because you’re an expert. And the fewer intensifiers you use, the more effective they will be.
These leaders made their case persuasively without hyperventilating, a stark contrast with the way that Mr. Trump communicates. I’m certain that that’s no coincidence.