Sunday, January 26, 2020

Trump and Political Philosophy (2): Aristotle on Trump's Campaign Rhetoric

Despite the broad coverage of political philosophy as applied to Trump in Trump and Political Philosophy, there is something missing--there is no thought about how Aristotle's Rhetoric could illuminate Trump's rhetoric.  There are some references to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and Politics--and Carson Holloway's paper on Book Five of the Politics is excellent--but there is almost complete silence about Aristotle's classic study of rhetorical theory.  (Leslie Rubin's paper does have one paragraph on Aristotle's Rhetoric in an endnote [vol. 1, p. 69].) That's too bad, because it's impossible to understand Trump's electoral success without understanding his distinctive rhetoric, and there has never been a better book on rhetoric than Aristotle's.  (I have written a series of posts on the Nicomachean Ethics that begin herehere, and here.)

It has always seemed odd to me that political scientists and scholars of political philosophy ignore Aristotle's Rhetoric, although politics is all about rhetorical persuasion, and Aristotle wrote the best study of the subject.  Moreover, much of Aristotle's book can be understood as political moral psychology, comparable to some of the recent evolutionary political psychology developed by people like Jonathan Haidt (as I indicated in a post here.)

After looking back at my book Aristotle on Political Reasoning: A Commentary on the "Rhetoric" (first published in 1981), I thought I would briefly sketch Aristotle's framework for rhetorical analysis and then apply it to one of the prominent examples of Trump's campaign rhetoric: his speech announcing his presidential run in June of 2015.


For the sake of brevity, I will have to be schematic without filling in the details.  (Hey, go buy my book, and buy extra copies for your family and friends.)

Rhetoric is reasoning from the common opinions of one's audience, so that the persuasive speaker starts with the common opinions (doxa) and then moves the audience to the conclusions that he favors.

Aristotle distinguishes the means of rhetorical persuasion into three broad categories:  the intellectual content (dianoia) of a speech, the style (lexis) of a speech, and the arrangement (taxis) of a speech.

The intellectual content has three elements: the arguments of the speech (logos), the character of the speaker (ethos), and the emotions of the audience (pathos).  A successful speaker must offer persuasive arguments in his speech.  He must show his own character to be persuasive.  And he must persuasively handle the emotions of his audience to move them to action or decision.

Persuasive arguments have formal and substantive elements.  The two formal elements are logical (deductive) reasoning through enthymemes and factual (inductive) reasoning through examples.  Enthymemes are syllogisms (reasoning from premises to conclusions), but often some of the steps in the syllogism are left unstated.  Examples can be either historical cases or fictional stories.

There are three substantive kinds of persuasive arguments corresponding to the three subject areas of rhetoric.  Political rhetoric consists of deliberative arguments about policies for the future that can be advantageous or disadvantageous for the political community.  Legal rhetoric consists of forensic arguments about past actions accusing or defending people in judging the justice or injustice of their actions.  Epideictic rhetoric consists of ceremonial arguments for praising people for their noble deeds or blaming them for their ignoble deeds.

We see political rhetoric when people are debating matters of public policy or constitutional issues concerning the institutional structure of a regime.  We see legal rhetoric when lawyers or judges are debating the application of law to particular cases.  We see epideictic rhetoric when in ceremonial occasions (such as funerals and the dedication of cemeteries), the past deeds of people are praised as honorable or blamed as dishonorable.

A speaker's persuasiveness depends not just on his presentation of persuasive arguments (logos), which Aristotle takes up in Book One of the Rhetoric, but also on his presentation of his moral and intellectual character through his speech (ethos), and on his moving his audience in their emotions (pathos), which he takes up in Book Two.

The character of a speaker is most persuasive when he displays prudence (phronesis), virtue (arete), and good will (eunoia).  A speaker shows his prudence when he shows his practical competence in judging the subject of his speech.  A speaker shows his virtue when he shows that he is trustworthy.  And he shows his good will when he shows that he cares for his audience.  A speaker who appears to be imprudent, untrustworthy, and uncaring is not persuasive.

A successful speaker must also be emotionally persuasive in understanding the emotions of his audience, so that he can stir those emotions that favor his position and calm those emotions that deny his position.  To achieve this, Aristotle lays out the social psychology of seven pairs of emotions that counter one another: anger and calmness, friendly feeling and enmity, fear and confidence, shame and shamelessness, kindliness and unkindliness, pity and indignation, and envy and emulation.

It might seem strange that Aristotle presents this account of the emotions as part of the intellectual side of rhetoric (or what Aristotle calls dianoia), because we often assume that reason and emotion are in oppositin.  But actually Aristotle suggests that the emotions are rational, in the sense that they arise from beliefs about the world that can be either true or false.  Consequently, a speaker can talk an audience into or out of an emotion by persuading them that their emotion is either reasonable or unreasonable as a response to their circumstances.  A rhetorician changes the emotions of his listeners by changing their minds.

So, for example, Aristotle defines anger as "a painful desire for a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight of oneself or one's own, the slight being undeserved" (1378a32-33).  (Similarly, evolutionary psychologists like Debra Lieberman, who have developed a cognitive theory of the passions, will define anger as a painful response to perceptions of social undervaluation.)  Aristotle infers from this definition the various elements of anger--how angry people are disposed, with whom they are customarily angry, and in what circumstances they are inclined to anger.  With this knowledge of anger, he then shows how a speaker can arouse anger in his audience by persuading them that they have been slighted by someone undeservedly, and therefore they should seek revenge; or he can calm the anger in his audience by persuading them that their anger is not warranted by the circumstances.

Notice that the slight that arouses anger must be undeserved.  Human beings become angry when they think they are not being treated in accordance with their worth.  Anger, then, is a response to injustice in its fundamental sense of not receiving one's due.  Anger manifests a natural sense of justice.  Some of the prime causes of anger--such as ingratitude, refusal to reciprocate good for good, and failure to help one's friends--are the sort of things that Aristotle identifies as unjust by nature.  The human emotion of anger is the ultimate source of the legal concept of natural law.

By the end of the second book of the Rhetoric, Aristotle has explained all of the rhetorical "proofs" (pisteis) for handling the arguments of a speech, the character of the speaker, and the emotions of the audience.  It might seem then that he is finished.

But in the third and final book of the Rhetoric, Aristotle takes up the elements of oratorical performance that he has previously neglected--the style and arrangement of speeches.  He has denounced sophistical speakers for being so preoccupied with verbally charming and diverting their listeners that they ignore the primacy of "proof" and the "body of proof"--the enthymeme.  Now, in the third book, he seems to be introducing the same devices of verbal ornamentation that are favored by the sophists.

To devote so much attention to matters of style is necessary, Aristotle admits, only as a concession to corrupt listeners.  But still he accentuates the rational character of the subject.  Style can be proper if it is an integral part of the substantive proofs of a speech--if it's a style that is appropriate to the subject, that manifests the speaker's character, and that expresses the right emotion.

Style concerns not what one says but how one says it.  And so style has little influence with good listeners, because they are more interested in the substantive proofs of a speech than in its manner of presentation.  And "rightly considered," concentrating on style "is thought vulgar" (1403b37-1404a2).  But the "corruption of regimes" and the concomitant "corruption of the listener" make it necessary for the rhetorician to be careful about style.  Since it is important for speaking clearly and with the proper dignity, the rhetorician needs to consider it somewhat in any type of instruction.  It assumes great importance, however, only for the sake of diverting the listener with amusing imagery--"wherefore no one teaches geometry this way."

Through the clever use of an emotional style, Aristotle explains, a speaker can make his audience believe in what he asserts to be facts, even when his assertions are false:
"Style expresses emotion when a man speaks with anger of an insolent insult. . . . The appropriate style makes the fact appear credible: the mind of the listener makes a logical error in believing the truth of what the speaker says, because they in the audience feel the same emotions, so that they think the facts to be so, even if they are not as the speaker represents them; and the hearer always sympathizes with the emotional speaker, even though he says nothing.  As a result, many overwhelm their listeners by making noise" (1408a23-25).
If a speaker expresses an emotional style of anger as he asserts that he and his audience should be justifiably angry, because they have been slighted or injured by their enemies, and if the audience shares this emotion of anger with the speaker, the audience will believe the factual assertions of the speaker, even when these are false.  This is the fallacy of an emotional style of speaking: if the speaker speaks in the style of an emotion like anger, and if the audience sympathizes with that emotion, then the facts asserted by the speaker as justifying that emotion will appear to be true, even though they are false.  Because of this emotional style, "the mind of the listener makes a logical error."

This is what happens when a regime becomes utterly corrupt, resulting in the corruption of opinion, and then even the noblest rhetorician must turn his attention to style to hold the interest of his listeners.  Thus the character of a regime determines the character of rhetoric. And Aristotle wishes his rhetorician to know not only what would be possible in the best regime and what is commonly possible in most regimes, but also what is demanded in the worst regimes.

Like style, Aristotle prefers not to give too much importance to the arrangement of a speech.  In its simplest form, it's enough to arrange a speech into two parts--state the case and then prove it.  But many speeches might require at least four parts: a proem that catches the attention of the audience, a statement of the speaker's position, the proof for that position, which is usually the longest part of the speech, and then an epilogue that summarizes what has been said.

Aristotle's Rhetoric provides the entire toolkit for rhetoric.  Every possible technique for persuasion is included.  But different kinds of rhetoricians will tend to rely on different kinds of techniques.

Trump's rhetoric is certainly distinctive.  In his formal logic, he tends to rely more on reasoning from examples or factual claims than on reasoning by logical inference.  But like any persuasive speaker, there is always, at least implicitly, an underlying enthymematic deductive argument.  Trump's general enthymeme in his presidential campaign was clear: It would be good for America to be made great again.  I will make America great again.  Therefore, it would be good for America to elect me President.

In his substantive arguments, he engages mostly in political or deliberative rhetoric rather than legal or epideictic rhetoric.

In his rhetorical appeal to his good character, he emphasizes his practical judgment as a successful businessman, his trustworthiness as a leader, and his good will towards his supporters as he fights for them against their enemies.

In his emotional rhetoric, he stirs up the resentful anger of his audience as people who have been unfairly slighted by the elite ruling class, and he promises that he will take vengeance against those enemies of the people.  He also arouses his audience's fear of those who would attack and exploit them, such as foreign countries and illegal immigrants who take their jobs and threaten their lives and families, and he promises that he will defend them against those enemies.

The most distinctive feature of Trump's rhetoric is his style.  Aristotle thought that an excessive emphasis on style was vulgar.  And, indeed, Trump's rhetorical style makes him the center of attention because of its vulgarity.

This was made clear when some people complained that Trump's rhetoric was not "presidential," because it did not show the style of formal dignity and propriety that people expect to hear from a president, and Trump responded by saying that if he adopted a "presidential" style of speaking, this would be "too boring" for his audience, who need to be entertained.

                               At a Wisconsin Rally: Being Presidential "Would Be Boring"

There is, however, as I have indicated, a Teleprompter Trump who is more presidential and less vulgar in his style than the Turbulent Trump.  The Teleprompter Trump is displayed in speeches like his address in Warsaw in 2017, and these are the speeches favored by the intellectuals who support Trump--like the Claremont Straussians.


At Trump Tower in June 16, 2015, Trump announced his candidacy.  This is a full video of the speech.  A full transcript of the speech along with annotations can be found here at the Washington Post.

In this speech, Trump's primary mode of rhetorical persuasion is his appeal to his character as a successful real estate businessman who has shown his astute practical judgment for making deals that has made him very rich, which shows that as president he can make deals for America, so that America can become a winner again, after too many years of being a loser.

American politicians today don't have this competence because they are too stupid to make good deals for America: "politicians are all talk, no action."  After describing how China, Japan, and Mexico take American jobs and money, he asks: "How stupid are our leaders?  How stupid are these politicians to allow this to happen?  How stupid are they?"

"Our country is in serious trouble.  We don't have victories anymore.  We used to have victories, but we don't have them.  When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let's say, China in a trade deal? They kill us. I beat China all the time.  All the time"

Not only are the politicians too stupid to make good deals, they are also controlled by special interests, by political donors, and by lobbyists.  So the voters cannot trust them to care about what's good for America.  By contrast, Trump says, you can trust me to work for you because I am so rich that I don't need money from the special interests.  "I'm using my own money.  I'm not using the lobbyists.  I'm not using the donors.  I don't care. I'm really rich."

It's important, therefore, to impress his audience with how wealthy he is.  "I'm proud of my net worth.  I've done an amazing job."  He presents a written financial statement of his wealth that says that he has assets of $9 billion and 240 million dollars.

Remarkably, however, his financial statement gives no supporting evidence for this number.  And since he is famous for piling up huge debt that has forced him into multiple bankruptcies, many people are skeptical about his claims about his wealth.

Trump's political rhetoric about public policy in this speech depends mostly on reasoning from examples.  So to show the need for restrictions on international trade, he describes examples of trade that are bad for the United States.

"When did we beat Japan at anything?  They send their cars over by the millions, and what do we do?  When was the last time you saw a Chevrolet in Tokyo? It doesn't exist, folks.  They beat us all the time. When do we beat Mexico at the border?  They're laughing at us, at our stupidity.  And now they are beating us economically.  They are not our friend, believe me.  But they're killing us economically."

It is easy for the "fact-checkers" of Trump's speech to point out that although Chevrolet is not a popular car in Japan, there are Chevrolets in Tokyo.

"But I said, 'Don't hit Iraq,' because you're going to totally destabilize the Middle East.  Iran is going to take over the Middle East, Iran and somebody else will get the oil, and it turned out that Iran is now taking over Iraq.  Think of it.  Iran is taking over Iraq, and they're taking it over big league."

This has been one of Trump's most often repeated examples of his good judgment in foreign policy--that unlike most Republican and Democrat leaders, he warned against the American invasion of Iraq that began on March 19, 2003.  He used this both against his Republican opponents in the primaries and against Hillary Clinton.

But there is no evidence that Trump ever warned against invading Iraq before the invasion started, although he expressed concerns about the costs of the war after it started, and by 2004 he was publicly criticizing the war.

Newspapers like the Washington Post and organizations like have regularly pointed out that many of Trump's examples in his speeches are either completely false or distortions of the truth.  Remarkably, Trump's response to this has been to repeat the same examples without ever admitting their falsity.

In some cases, the falsity of his examples is so obvious as to be preposterous.

"Last quarter, it was just announced our gross domestic product--a sign of strength, right? But not for us.  It was below zero.  Whoever heard of this? It's never below zero."

It's impossible for GDP to be "below zero"!  Apparently, he's referring to a quarterly report not about GDP but about the growth in GDP, which is often "below zero" in some quarters.

Here's another preposterous example: "A lot of people up there can't get jobs.  They can't get jobs, because there are no jobs, because China has our jobs, and Mexico has our jobs.  They all have jobs."

There are no jobs?  Actually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of job openings at the end of April of 2015 was 5.4 million, which was the highest since December of 2000.  In recent years, there has been no shortage of jobs in America.  Instead, there has been a shortage of labor to fill the many job openings.

This is a critical point for explaining why people voted for Trump.  Did they vote for him because they were unemployed or otherwise economically disadvantaged, and they thought Trump would create good jobs for them?  Some surveys of his voters have indicated that most of them had incomes placing them in the top 50% of incomes.  If this is so, then it's not clear that voting for Trump was an expression of economic grievances.

The true motivation for Trump's voters might have been not so much economic as cultural--a response to Trump's emotional rhetoric of fear--the fear of dangerous foreign invaders.  Near the beginning of his speech, Trump provided the most memorable passage of his speech:

"When do we beat Mexico at the border?  They're laughing at us, at our stupidity.  And now they are beating us economically.  They are not our friend, believe me.  But they're killing us economically."

"The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else's problems."


"Thank you.  It's true, and these are the best and the finest.  [He points to the crowd of people on the balcony above him applauding.]  When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best.  They're not send you.  They're not sending you.  They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us.  They're bringing drugs.  They're bringing crime.  They're rapists.  And some, I assume, are good people."

"But I speak to border guards, and they tell us what we're getting.  And it only makes common sense.  It only makes common sense.  They're sending us not the right people."

So while "some" of the Mexican immigrants to the United States are "good people," most of them are drug-dealers, criminals, and rapists?

Amazingly, Trump and his supporters have never denied or apologized for this remark.  Instead, they have said that it really is "common sense" and an honest challenge to "political correctness."

In fact, immigrants to the U.S. generally show crime rates that are lower than for native-born Americans.  But still Trump can point to examples of immigrants who have committed crimes in the U.S.--like the infamous MS13 gangs and those who attacked the American families who were represented in the audience for Trump's first State of the Union Address, where he identified them as typical Americans who have faced violence from Mexican immigrants.

Trump is skillful in employing what Aristotle identified as the fallacy of emotional style.  Trump speaks in a style of anger in response to perceived slights from Mexico: "they're laughing at us, at our stupidity."  And he speaks in a style of fear in response to perceived attacks from Mexican immigrants: "They're bringing drugs.  They're bringing crime.  They're rapists."  And if his audience sympathizes with his emotions of anger and fear, then they believe his false facts justifying these emotions must be true.  Nothing said by the "fact-checkers" can negate the emotional power of this rhetorical fallacy over the minds of Trump's supporters.

I will have more to say in future posts about the rhetoric of Trump's speeches.

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