Donald J. Trump and members of his administration are stonewalling
on the issue of the Mueller report and subsequent congressional
investigations. They are employing a political version of the “four corners” offense. The four corners offense,
technically the four–corner
stall, is an offensive strategy
for stalling in basketball. Four
players stand in the corners of
the offensive half-court while
the fifth dribbles the ball in the middle to run down the clock. It was a
strategy used in college basketball before the shot clock was instituted. This conclusion is unmistakable
in view of Trump’s rhetoric and its effects.
Aristotle made clear, rhetoric operates in the realm of the contingent
(probable) rather than the absolute. Hence, although none of us can be certain
about the intent of a politician’s words, nor their effects, we have
clues—pieces of a puzzle that can be put together through rhetorical analysis.
Scrutinizing what is said, when and how it is said, as well as what isn’t said,
enables rhetorical analysts to make informed inferences about intent and
the President seems to believe that this tactic will force the Mueller issue
into the courts, thus making resolution prior to the 2020 election extremely
unlikely. Like the four corners offense, he will run out the clock. While many
legal observers contend that Trump eventually will lose these legal
battles, there is ample reason to believe that this potentially is Trump’s most
effective rhetorical strategy to remain in office, especially given the support
of Republicans in Congress and voter fatigue with and apparent disinterest in
the Mueller report.
Tuesday’s declaration by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that the
Mueller matter is a “closed
case,” echoing the same sentiment previously expressed by Senate
Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, is further indication that this rhetorical
strategy may work. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi candidly observed
is goading us [Democrats] to impeach him.”
of whether one insists that the Democrats, because of the duty to discharge
their oversight function, have an obligation to impeach (both as a necessary
response to the Mueller findings as well as the President’s refusal to comply
with almost every Congressional request, which itself reasonably could be
interpreted as “obstruction”), surely we can see why Trump’s stonewalling might
very well work.
always, this poses an enormous challenge for Democrats who need to devise an
effective rhetorical strategy to counter the President. Thus far, there doesn’t
seem to be one. Hence, those opposed to Trump should worry about whether
the Democrats will be successful in holding him accountable for his actions and
whether he will be voted out in 2020.
this is far more than the typical partisan concern expressed by those opposed
to an incumbent President’s policies. It is about larger democratic principles,
the rule of law and the Constitution’s system of checks and balances.
closed doors, Republican senators and representatives must have angst over the
same issues. However, to date they remain loyal to party, pragmatically
believing that holding power—and what comes with that (saving their own
positions, court picks, deregulation, etc.)—is more important than standing up
for principle and what is right for the entire nation.
the average American see through what Trump and the Republicans are doing? Will
they be able to separate the substance and form of the President’s discourse?
It is doubtful. We live at a time when many of us are locked into our existing
opinions and receive most of our information from electronic screens and from
those who reside in the same political bubble.
nothing else, this issue documents that today’s political events—and the
polarized responses they evoke—constitute a real test of the great experiment
created by our constitutional framers.
The moral of the story: as scholars of communication, we have an obligation to teach the principles of rhetoric to the public as well to our students. This will help all citizens become better consumers of political discourse regardless of their political commitments.
POSTSCRIPT: Although the Democrats are in an awkward position, in the last few days their best rhetorical strategy might be emerging. Democrats may have decided to walk a fine line, continuing relentless investigations, delaying impeachment until as Pelosi says it becomes “self-imposed” by the President—all while passing legislation benefiting Americans. The rhetorical advantage of this approach is that it allows Democrats to fulfill their constitutionally prescribed oversight function, giving the President enough rope to hang himself. They then can claim: “We didn’t act in a partisan manner by rushing to impeachment hearings. However Trump’s actions forced the choice.” In short, Democrats would have a stronger persuasive position, arguing that if impeachment occurs it isn’t politically motivated—it is the President’s choice (“self-imposed”).