reasons to love new york

Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and the Political Appeal of a New Yawk Accent

Left: Donald Trump as a toddler in Queens. Right: Brothers Larry and Bernie Sanders in Brooklyn, c. 1944. Photo: Facebook (Trump), Courtesy of Larry Sanders (Sanders)

Early in October, Donald Trump was in the midst of a speech at the Electric Park Ballroom in Waterloo, Iowa (“I love ­eminent domain”), when from the audience a man yelled out that Trump was going to be president. It was early enough in the Trump phenomenon that one’s thinking the tycoon might actually win seemed a mark of minor instability: too much life wasted in comments sections or maybe just being drunk. Trump smiled, a little dismissively, let his tiny eyes disappear into a coy tuck. He held up his hand: “I don’t want to get too braggadocios.” Braggadocios! What New Yorker still talks like that? 

All through the summer and fall, Trump, who was born in Queens, and ­Bernie Sanders, who was born in Brooklyn, kept up an impenetrable outer-­borough code-talk: The irony was that the most cynical and vile presidential candidate in recent years and the most yearning one spoke with nearly the same voice. The refusal to pronounce initial h’s seemed ideological. Trump called things he liked yoooge, spreading his arms and beaming, and Bernie called the endangered species he was running to protect yooman beings, narrowing his features and looking pained. Second-syllable consonants emerged drowned in spit, barely recognizable. S sounds stuck to every t and d. When Sanders said billionaire class, he gave the final s an extra hiss; when he said America could learn something from Denmark, the r was lost somewhere in his sinuses. The spaces between words seemed compressed, hurried, as did the man. Sanders’s father was a paint salesman, and Sanders also seems to operate on the city’s frantic commercial schedule. “We don’t have an endless amount of time,” he said, cutting short the press conference at which he announced his candidacy for the most powerful office in the world. “I’ve gotta get back.”

The Donald is an especially perfect case study: How is it that voters have been seduced by a man who is, so routinely, so noxious? One (very partial) theory: Whatever he’s saying, you can still be charmed by the way he’s saying it. “Americans have come to associate New Yorkers, and so New York accents, with saying what you mean, intense emotional talk, and not worrying too much about whom you offend,” a Queens College linguist wrote this fall. Possibly, though “intense emotional talk” didn’t do much to build a national attachment to Rudy Giuliani, nor “saying what you mean” for Chuck Schumer. And whatever their New Yorker–iness has given Sanders and Trump, they have given a great deal back to the city. The more natural response of a New Yorker to seeing the presidential race shaped by men who talk like Mike Francesa’s callers is a certain possessive kind of thrill, like when it turned out that the whole country was in on the joke of Seinfeld’s parents. Our ­maniacs are now the country’s maniacs.

But to hear Sanders’s and Trump’s voices is to realize what a rich history is embedded in that accent, and to realize how encased each of those politicians is in a particular moment in time. In Sanders, there is the early, slightly prudish Greenwich Village of Max Eastman and Joe Gould, of very intense arguments had very early in the morning. In Trump, there is the jaded cruelty of Bo Dietl and Don Imus and dreadful preppy bars on upper Second Avenue. The fascination is in the pairing, of dry social uplift and opulent racism, each in its own way a response to the dense human city. New Yorkers can’t honestly claim ownership of one and disavow the other.

A few weeks ago, after it was ­mentioned, a bit sneeringly, in the press, I tracked down the folk album that Sanders cut in 1987. It’s a strange, compelling little record, Sanders sing-talking over tracks a little too fast and very nasally, an alte kaker Gil Scott-Heron, a man whose love of his country survived even what seemed like a monumental head cold. I found it strangely moving. Over the strumming opening to “This Land Is Your Land,” Sanders began to intone the lyrics: “As I went walking that ribbon of highway …” You could hear the Brooklyn clearly, right away: Wawking. There may never have been a more fully American sound. ­

*This article appears in the December 14, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

The Political Appeal of a New Yawk Accent