You Might Think It’s Okay, But I Don’t

Tracing Symploce in Democrats’ Response to the Mueller Report

“My colleagues might think it’s OK that the Russians offered dirt on the Democratic candidate for president as part of what’s described as the Russian government’s effort to help the Trump campaign. You might think that’s OK.”

So began House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff’s rebuttal to the Republican members’ letter demanding that Schiff step down.

Schiff followed this statement with a litany of additional claims about the President’s behavior, each of which he began the same way: “You might think it’s OK…” that the President’s son facilitated and attended a meeting with Russians to obtain dirt on the Democratic candidate for president, that other members of the campaign did as well, that they lied about it, and so on.

The speech was powerful as a consequence of Schiff’s repetition of the opening phrase–what rhetoricians call anaphora. Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive sentences, and it has the effect of driving home a message by building to a crescendo. The form prepares listeners for the resolution. Anaphora also shows up in one of the most famous speeches of the 20th century: Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” address. The repetition of “You might think it’s OK” in Schiff’s remarks leaves listeners waiting to hear just what it is they might think is okay.

Schiff also pairs anaphora with epistrophe, which is a similar rhetorical tactic to anaphora. In epistrophe, repetition appears at the end rather than the beginning of a speaker’s sentences.

For example, Schiff notes, “You might think it’s OK that the campaign chairman of a presidential campaign would offer information about that campaign to a Russian oligarch in exchange for money or debt forgiveness. You might think that’s OK, I don’t.” Over and over, he opens with “You might think it’s OK” and ends with “but I don’t.” Over and over, as the audience anticipates the conclusion, they begin to desire it.

Together anaphora and epistrophe are what rhetoricians call symploce. Symploce has the effect of both building anticipation and establishing resolution, and as a rhetorical device, it is incredibly forceful. That is precisely the effect Schiff was aiming for. And while the impact of Schiff’s symploce remains to be seen, it will be important to watch in future weeks as controversy around the Mueller report unfolds.