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 rhetoric of demagoguery
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.
Using speech to demolish detractors
But most voters would never want an uncontrollable president. So why do so many remain adamant in their support?
First, Trump draws on the myth of American exceptionalism. He depicts the United States as the world’s best hope: there is only one chosen nation and, as president, all of his decisions work toward making America great. By tying himself to American exceptionalism – while classifying his detractors as “weak” or “dummies” – he’s able to position his critics as people who don’t believe in, or won’t contribute to, the “greatness” of the nation.
Trump also uses fallacious and divisive rhetorical techniques that prevent him from being questioned or backed into a corner.
He often uses ad populum arguments, which are appeals to the wisdom of the crowd (“polls show,” “we’re winning everywhere”).
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?”).
Finally, his speeches are often peppered with ad baculum arguments, which are threats of force (“when people come after me they go down the tubes”).
Because demagogues make arguments based on false claims and appeal to emotion, rather than reason, they’ll often resort to these devices. For example, during his 1968 presidential run, George Wallace declared, “If any demonstrator ever lays down in front of my car, it’ll be the last car he’ll ever lay down in front of” (ad baculum). And Senator Joseph McCarthy resorted to an ad hominem attack when he derided former Secretary of State Dean Acheson as a “pompous diplomat in striped pants with a phony British accent.”
Trump will also employ a rhetorical technique called paralipsis to make claims that he can’t be held accountable for. In paralipsis, the speaker will introduce a topic or argument by saying he doesn’t want to talk about it; in truth, he or she wants to emphasize that very thing.
For example, in New Hampshire on December 1, he said, “But all of [the other candidates] are weak and they’re just weak – I think that they are weak generally if you want to know the truth. But I don’t want to say that because I don’t want to…I don’t want to have any controversies, no controversies, is that okay? So I refuse to say that they are weak generally, okay?”
Trump’s ultimate fallacy
Let’s return to Trump’s December 7 2015 statement about Muslims to analyze which rhetorical techniques are in play:
Without looking at the various polling data, it is obvious to anybody the hatred is beyond comprehension. Where this hatred comes from and why we will have to determine. Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life. If I win the election for President, we are going to Make America Great Again.
In this statement, Trump immediately makes two things axiomatic (or unquestionable): American exceptionalism and Muslims’ hatred for America. According to Trump, these axioms are supported by the wisdom of the crowd (ad populim); they are “obvious to anybody.”
He also defines Muslims in essential terms as people who believe only in jihad, are filled with hatred and have no respect for human life. Trump uses Reification – the treatment of objects as people and people as objects – to link his axioms together and support his case: “Our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in jihad.”
Here, he personifies “our country” by presenting the nation as a person. Meanwhile, he uses “that” rather than “who” to signal that Muslims are not people, but objects.
His underlying logic is that our nation is a victim of these “objects.” Objects need not be treated with the same amount of care as people. Therefore we are justified in preventing Muslims from entering the country.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Trump’s use of evidence is incomplete and biased toward his point of view. His announcement cites a survey of American Muslims “showing 25% of those polled agreed that violence against Americans here in the United States is justified.”
The polling data came from the Center for Security Policy (CSP), which the Southern Poverty Law Center has called an “anti-Muslim think tank.” Furthermore, Trump fails to report that in the same survey, 61% of American Muslims agreed that “violence against those that insult the prophet Muhammad, the Qur’an, or Islamic faith” is not acceptable. Nor does he mention that 64% didn’t think that “violence against Americans here in the United States can be justified as part of the global jihad.”
Unfortunately, like a true demagogue, Trump doesn’t seem all too concerned with the facts.