Good Wednesday Austin:
A little less than a year ago, on Dec. 11, 2015, Jennifer Mercieca, associate professor of communication and director of the Aggie Agora at Texas A&M University, wrote an influential piece for The Conversation entitled, The rhetorical brilliance of Trump the demagogue.
Trump possesses an arrogance and volatility that makes most voters recoil. So how has he maintained a grip on a segment of the Republican base that – at least, for now – seems unshakable?
And how has his support persisted, despite the fact that some have called him a demagogue and a fascist, or that political observers have found parallels between him and polarizing figures like George Wallace, Joseph McCarthy, Father Coughlin – even Hitler?
As a scholar of American political rhetoric, I write about and teach courses on the use and abuse of rhetorical strategy in public discourse. Scrutinizing Trump’s rhetorical skills can partially explain his profound and persistent appeal.
The Greek word “demagogue” (demos = people + agōgos = leader) literally means “a leader of the people.” Today, however, it’s used to describe a leader who capitalizes on popular prejudices, makes false claims and promises, and uses arguments based on emotion rather than reason.
Donald Trump appeals to voters’ fears by depicting a nation in crisis, while positioning himself as the nation’s hero – the only one who can conquer our foes, secure our borders and “Make America Great Again.”
His lack of specificity about how he would accomplish these goals is less relevant than his self-assured, convincing rhetoric. He urges his audiences to “trust him,” promises he is “really smart” and flexes his prophetic muscles (like when he claims to have predicted the 9/11 attacks).
Trump’s self-congratulating rhetoric makes him appear to be the epitome of hubris, which, according to research, is often the least attractive quality of a potential leader. However, Trump is so consistent in his hubris that it appears authentic: his greatness is America’s greatness.
So we can safely call Trump a demagogue. But one fear of having demagogues actually attain real power is that they’ll disregard the law or the Constitution. Hitler, of course, is a worst-case example.
Amazingly, one of Trump’s very arguments is that he won’t be controlled.
On the campaign trail, he’s harnessed his macho businessman persona – crafted through social media and years spent on TV (where he was often the most powerful person in the room) – to make his case for the presidency. It’s a persona that rejects restraints: he speaks of not being constrained by his party, media, other candidates, political correctness, facts – anything, really. In a sense, he’s fashioning himself as an uncontrollable leader.
A few notable things have happened in the last year. Donald Trump won the Republican nomination for president. Mercieca signed a contract with Texas A&M University Press to write a book, The Rhetorical Brilliance of Donald Trump, Demagogue for President, and then, a few weeks ago, Trump, the uncontrollable leader, was elected president of the United States.
“The book is a risk,” Mercieca said yesterday.
“I think it’s a risk for the press,” she said. “It’s a risk for me. I feel very nervous. I thought I was going to be writing this book and he wasn’t going to be president.”
“I had no idea he was going to get elected,” Mercieca said. “I thought that I was writing a book where we would kind of smugly laugh. like, `Oh, ha ha,’ and then he got destroyed by Hillary Clinton, and,`Isn’t it a good thing the demagogue didn’t win.’
I sent an email to the editor the next day (after the election), Wednesday morning, I had to catch a plane to a conference, and said, `Ah, I don’t know. Can I still write this book, you know, can I call the president of the United States a demagogue?’ And she said I could, if that’s what I thought because, academic freedom.”
For nearly seven years, Mercieca had been working on an academic paper about demagoguery, but just the right example had eluded her. Until Trump.
JM: “Just watching him, I kept hear him doing the same things, over and over and over again, using the same strategies, and so I started to think about why those strategies seemed to work when they wouldn’t normally.”
It seemed that somehow his out-of-bounds style perfectly fit a public mood founded in frustration, polarization and mistrust.
JM: “And I realized it was very smart what he was doing, diabolically smart, but smart.”
Also last December, Mercieca was contacted by the New York Times, which was preparing a piece that would call Trump a demagogue, and catalogue the evidence.
The dark power of words has become the defining feature of Mr. Trump’s bid for the White House to a degree rarely seen in modern politics, as he forgoes the usual campaign trappings — policy, endorsements, commercials, donations — and instead relies on potent language to connect with, and often stoke, the fears and grievances of Americans.
The New York Times analyzed every public utterance by Mr. Trump over the past week from rallies, speeches, interviews and news conferences to explore the leading candidate’s hold on the Republican electorate for the past five months. The transcriptions yielded 95,000 words and several powerful patterns, demonstrating how Mr. Trump has built one of the most surprising political movements in decades and, historians say, echoing the appeals of some demagogues of the past century
“His entire campaign is run like a demagogue’s — his language of division, his cult of personality, his manner of categorizing and maligning people with a broad brush,” said Jennifer Mercieca, an expert in American political discourse at Texas A&M University. “If you’re an illegal immigrant, you’re a loser. If you’re captured in war, like John McCain, you’re a loser. If you have a disability, you’re a loser. It’s rhetoric like Wallace’s — it’s not a kind or generous rhetoric.”
“And then there are the winners, most especially himself, with his repeated references to his wealth and success and intelligence,” said Ms. Mercieca, noting a particular remark of Mr. Trump’s on Monday in Macon, Ga. (“When you’re really smart, when you’re really, really smart like I am — it’s true, it’s true, it’s always been true, it’s always been true.”)
JM: To them (the New York Times reporters) it was debased, it disqualified him from office.
Why attack the reporter in such a malicious/juvenile way?
JM: “He is vindicating himself about the terrible lie of what Muslims do. So it is a way of further alienating the Muslim population, and making fun of the reporter, an ad hominem attack. He can’t be trusted he’s not a real person. He’s disabled.
“So it’s all of these things rolled into one. The purpose is to distract from the claim that he has misrepresented the truth. So the story shifts. It’s not about him misrepresenting the truth. Instead, it’s about him mocking a disabled person, in the mainstream. But then, in his in group, it’s not even about that. They maybe don’t care about that. It’s Trump is the hero. He’s right. He’s making fun of the guy who the group is making fun of. He’s not areal person anyway. He’s the enemy. So we just make fun of him.”
It sounds like junior high.
But, Mercieca said, “It’s sophisticated as a strategy.”
“I would love to see his college transcript and see if he took a rhetoric class,” she said.
“It’s too consistent over the course of a year to be accidental.”
The failing New York Times.
JM: It’s associative logic. You wouldn’t want to mention the New York Times without also associating it with something negative about it. Otherwise you’re just do PR for them so it has to be failing New York Times.
Also it’s an ad hominem attack. Instead of dealing with whatever allegations or news reports are in the New York Times you instead distract the audience away from those allegation by attacking the business itself. They are distraction techniques. Instead of looking at what we’re supposed to look at, look over here.
JM: So, don’t deal with the questions raised by the Hamilton cast, don’t deal with that issue. Instead, they’re overrated.
It’s like magic, sleight of hand. legerdemain.
There were the nicknames.
JM: If you’re trying to introduce your candidate to the American electorate and they don’t know much about Ted Cruz, you have a certain story you’re trying to tell, and if your opponent is consistently branding you as Lyin’ Ted, that has as much chance to stick as your branding attempt. He was smart to do it.
Usually you don’t find a lot of mentioning your opponent by political candidates because it helps them, (the opponent). But, if you do, you’re going to call them Crooked Hillary, you’re going to call them Lyin’ Ted, you’re going to call them Little Marco, Low Energy Jeb.
Why Crooked Hillary?
JM: The through line for the campaign was corruption, leading to `drain the swamp.’ The media is corrupt. Politicians are corrupt. Hillary Clinton was the best example of corruption so she was Crooked Hillary. She represents the full swamp.
Looking back, it all makes so much sense.
From a piece in Fusion in June.
“This is the problem when you have a rich billionaire, a fractured media, a polarized electorate, and a weak party system,” said Jennifer Mercieca, an associate professor of communications at Texas A&M University and a historian of American political rhetoric. “Conditions are ripe for demagoguery.”
“Right now it seems there is no one more powerful than Donald Trump in a position to stop him or call him out and hold him accountable for what he does,” she explained. “No one—not the party, not the media, not the people. I mean, the Pope tried to call him out and it didn’t work. I say that and I’m laughing, but it’s a nervous laugh.”
The path for Trump was cleared, Mercieca said, by “the way that the nation doesn’t share truth or fact, the way that information circulates and rumor circulates without even passably being checked. That allows for an insulated truth community, and if that insulated truth community has its own version of reality that’s separate from a different one, then it’s insulated, there is not way to interact with it.
“And so that allows for someone like Trump, who tells his story over and over again in a way that resonates with them, in a way that can’t be contradicted from the outside. The fractured media community allows for that.”
JM: The polarized electorate furthers that division. If you have distrust between parties, where they are not sharing values and they also are not sharing facts and truth and media sources. Which is why it was so crucial that he kept going after the media, over and over throughout the summer and the fall, and now, because it re-enforces the idea that, `our truth community is right and your truth community is the problem.’
Also culpable, Mercieca said, was “the weak party system. They tried, at least initially, to control him,” but Trump used his ability to dominate the news cycle every day, and his personal resources, to stay in the rac and, ultimatley, to prevail.
Mercieca it was a perfect match of man and moment.
I think it was only Donald Trump and it was only in this moment. Ted Cruz couldn’t do it this year. Donald Trump couldn’t have done it ten years ago.
Trump was also derided for his reliance on mass rallies, which seemed a quaint throwback to an older style of politics.
JM: It was a way of creating a safe space. You always saw these stories of people saying, “I feel free when I’m at one of these rallies. No political correctness. I can say what I want. This is freedom. This is America.”
It was brilliant.
What is a demagogue?
JM: It translates to leader of the people so there is no reason why a leader of the people has to be a misleader of the people. it’s not a negative thing necessarily. So if you go back to histories of ancient Greece, one way to think about a demagogue is – and this was George Grote, who wrote a multi-volume history of ancient Greece – his version of a demagogue is that they were what was best about democracy, that they were upholding democracy and democratic values and defending it from the oligarchs who were always trying to overthrow it.
For him the demagogues were heroes. But others, like Plato and Thucydides and Aeschylus and Aristophanes, they didn’t like democracy and in fact some of them were oligarchs and they didn’t like rhetoric, they were philosophers. Our understanding of the term is loaded and it is filtered through those who hated democracy the most – Plato and friends.
The one thing that distinguishes demagogues from other leaders of the people – because we would want someone to emerge from the people to lead them – is being held accountable. A real political leader would allow for themselves to be held accountable for their actions. They would promote transparency and accountability, stand for questions from reporters. They would allow themselves to be interrogated and questioned. They wouldn’t have anything to hide.
Whereas a demagogue, even in ancient Athens, would be a person who proposed a policy but then wasn’t in charge of implementing that policy, so could never be held accountable for it.
Trump’s credo, Mercieca said, was, ““I won’t be accountable,’ which, by the way, is the last thing you’d want in a leader. But that’s what he ran on. He ran on the fact that he was going to be an unaccountable leader and that we should give him the power to make America great again.”
“Anytime anyone tried hold him accountable – the Pope the New York Times, the Republican Party – it didn’t matter. Anytime anyone tried to hold him accountable, he said, “Don’t listen to them. I know how to make America great again. I got great ideas, the best ideas, I’m really smart.'”
JM: With Ronald Reagan it was, “Let’s make America great again.” Let us, let you and I – make America great again. Trump took the `us’ out. With Trump it’s Make America Great Again. “I’m going to be the greatest jobs president God ever created.”
Here are some of Trump’s demagogic rhetorical techniques.
Argument Ad Baculum.
Menace, threats of force, were a feature of Trump’s rhetoric -“when people come after me they go down the tubes” – especially at his mass rallies, which often featured the almost ritualistic expulsion of protesters.
Sometimes, it went beyond that.
From the New York Times in early August.
Repeating his contention that Mrs. Clinton wanted to abolish the right to bear arms, Mr. Trump warned at a rally here that it would be “a horrible day” if Mrs. Clinton were elected and got to appoint a tiebreaking Supreme Court justice.
“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” Mr. Trump said, as the crowd began to boo. He quickly added: “Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”Oblique as it was, Mr. Trump’s remark quickly elicited a wave of condemnation from Democrats, gun control advocates and others, who accused him of suggesting violence against Mrs. Clinton or liberal jurists.
Argument Ad Hominem
Trump is the master of the ad hominem attacks.
From Mercieca’s piece in The Conversation:
When opponents question his ideas or stances, he’ll employ ad hominem attacks – or criticisms of the person, rather than the argument (dismissing his detractors as “dummies,” “weak” or “boring”). Perhaps most famously, he derided Carly Fiorina’s appearance when she started to go up in the polls after the first Republican debate (“Look at that face!” he cried. “Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?”).
Argument Ad Populum:
JM: The crowd is wise. The experts are fools.
From The Conversation.
He often uses ad populum arguments, which are appeals to the wisdom of the crowd (“polls show,” “we’re winning everywhere”).
From First Reading when Trump came to Austin at the end of August.
Good day Austin:
You gotta be flattered.
Ostensibly, Donald Trump came to Austin Tuesday to raise money and hold a rally.
But, it turns out, he really came to Austin to figure out what he really thinks about the thing we thought he cared most deeply about – the deportation of some 11 or 12 million immigrants without legal status.
“I mean, I don’t know. You tell me,” Trump told a packed house of rabid supporters – and a few ringers – at the Moody Theater for a taping of Sean Hannity’s show on Fox Tuesday afternoon.
“It’s like a poll. There’s thousands of people in this room.”
(And of course, the obligatory self-congratulation: “This place is packed. Does everybody get this kind of a crowd?”)
And so, Trump asked the Moody audience to determine what his policy on deportation should be and, lo and behold, they seemed to agree that their hero should adopt the position previously articulated by the likes of Jeb Bush and John Kasich.
Except, of course, Trump, reality TV star that he is, knew how to manipulate his audience to get the results he wanted.
JM: He treats people as objects when he doesn’t respect them or they criticize him. They are enemy objects. He always uses `that’ instead of `who.’ He treats women as objects. He treats the Khan family as objects.
JM: My favorite example:
From the New York Times piece in December.
“All of ’em are weak, they’re just weak,” Mr. Trump said in New Hampshire on Tuesday of his fellow candidates. “I think they’re weak, generally, you want to know the truth. But I won’t say that, because I don’t want to get myself, I don’t want to have any controversies. So I refuse to say that they’re weak generally, O.K.? Some of them are fine people. But they are weak.”
JM: I like that example because he runs you through the thought process, he actually says out loud the whole paralipsis. `I’m gonna say it, I’m not gonna say it because I don’t want to get in trouble. Here I am saying it but I’m not actually saying it because I don’t want to get into any controversy.’
JM: He personifies American exceptionalism. He can make America great again. He has the best words. That gives his audience, the in group, this hopeful, ambiguous goal.
Stepping back to take a more meta look, Mercieca thinks Trump smashes the liberal idyll about he course of American history.
JM: We’ve had this liberal, progressive version of history that says, you know, the status quo is fine, the Constitution is good, let’s make managerial small changes and we’re going to see progress unfold through history
However, Mercieca said that America was founded on the foreboding that “democracy will always decay, democracy will always turn into tyranny,” and that patriotic citizenship demanded a continuous critique of government, protecting against “the natural corruption of government.”
But, Mercieca said, “the language of critique wanes over the course of the 19th Century,” and the 20th Century turns to the “language of progress.”
“I think we’ve been lulled into this false sense of security from the liberal/progressive notion of the 20th Century that things are always going to get better, they’re not going to get worse and no one election really matter that much because things are going to unfold to a better life for everyone in the long run.”
“We believe that our presidents out to be heroes,” Mercieca said.
Trump has certainly presented himself as the hero.
And, raised expectations.
JM: Trump has give us some pretty specific agenda items that he’s going to make happen. if he doesn’t build a giant, great big beautiful wall in the next couple of months here then I think he’s got this expectation that is unfulfillable. If he doesn’t repeal Obamacare, if he doesn’t bring back American jobs and everybody does not have a great factory job in the next few months, I don’t know how much time people are going to give him.
He set pretty high expectations that he can do all these things. Maybe people don’t think he can, actually. Maybe people are actually thinking, `We know the Democrats, or Hillary Clinton tried everything else, let’s give this guy a chance.’ Or maybe they take him more literally. `I want to see that wall built and see that new job.'”
He’s been wily and surprised me all the way through. Maybe he’ll find a way to misdirect or redirect our attention.
He must have a game plan.”
And if he doesn’t?
Mercieca said the media are supposed to play the watchdog role that was seen as the responsibility of patriotic citizens at the founding of the Republic
“They want to hold people accountable,” she said. But with Trump, “He’s not going to let that happen.
She recalls this modest pre-eletion proposal in the Federalist:
The GOP Needs To Elect Trump, Then Impeach Him
October 25, 2016 By Jonathan Ashbach
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the only two viable presidential candidates. Both are disastrous. Third-party candidates are a joke, electorally. Supporting them accomplishes nothing beyond weakening the candidate one would otherwise have supported from the two major parties.
The Utah scheme, if successful, would only pull support from Trump, leaving Clinton likely to win an even more impressive margin of victory in the Electoral College. Even on simple policy grounds, most conservatives would be unhappy with the two leading third-party candidates. Conservatives are left with no good options.
Or are we? There is a way out of this mess. It is a desperate plan, but desperate times, desperate measures: Elect-and-Impeach. Elect the ticket. Impeach Trump.
The Republican Party does have an attractive candidate on its ticket. Socially conservative. Economically conservative. Conservative on national defense. Morally and religiously impeccable. The trouble is, that man is the Republican candidate for vice president, Mike Pence.
But if Trump were impeached immediately after he took office, the Republican candidate for vice president would become president in his place. Further, if Republicans take the lead in removing Trump from office, the party might regain some of its lost credibility in parts of the electorate that it is anxious to attract.
Yes, We Can
There is nothing impossible about this strategy. That Republican leaders are strongly at odds with their party’s candidate is no secret. If enough of them are willing to cross the aisle and join forces with their Democratic colleagues, impeachment is a perfectly plausible outcome.
That made Mercieca laugh.
“What makes you think he’s going to stand for being impeached?”
But how would he, how could he, resist it?
JM: I don’t know. I don’t know. He has not allowed anybody to hold him accountable yet. He has prevented every single institution from holding him accountable.
By the time The Rhetorical Brilliance of Donald Trump, Demagogue for President is published, probably next fall, we will know much more about whether the skills that got Trump to the White House are serving him and the nation well as its occupant.
Here’s a TED talk Mercieca gave in June at Brinn College in Bryan.