Our dreams often are unsettling. Sometimes, however,
they also provide a unique picture of and insight into reality, giving us a
clearer and more vivid understanding of current events.
Last night I had such a dream—a
nightmare—that made me realize in a visceral (as opposed to intellectual) way
the danger of Donald Trump’s rhetoric.
In the dream I was an autoethnographer. Autoethnography is a form of qualitative research in which an author
uses self-reflection and writing to explore anecdotal and personal experience
and connect this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political, and
social meanings and understandings. Communication scholars
like Art Bochner document some of the insights
that can be gained from autoethnographic research.
It is a self-reflective form
of writing used across various disciplines such as communication studies, performance studies, and education. Autoethnography is one of
several forms of ethnographic research,
which are designed for systematically
studying people and cultures.
In this dream, my autoethnographic research
project involved going underground and becoming part of the Trump movement,
closely following those who attend his rallies. My experience as a rhetorician,
when not dreaming, has been spent analyzing Trump’s discourse from a distance.
But in my dream, for the first time my understanding of his discourse was
intimate, personal and grounded in the lived experiences of his audience.
With each rally, I became increasingly aware
of—and subsequently horrified by—the audience’s enormous electricity and
Trump’s ability to tap into, exploit and arouse their emotions. What I was
witnessing was the archetype of Aristotle’s concept of “pathos”—appeals to the
emotions of the audience, eliciting feelings that already reside in them. Pathos is a communication technique
used most often in rhetoric (in which it is considered one of the three modes
of persuasion, alongside ethos and logos) as well as in literature, film, and
other narrative art.
Obviously I was not actually engaged in autoethnographic
research because I was dreaming, but the dream experience nevertheless gave me
a fuller appreciation of Trump’s emotional power and of the potential insights
of a more engaged form of research than I normally do.
Moreover, it made even more transparent what
I knew intuitively prior to the dream: that the source of Trump’s persuasion is
perhaps as much if not more about audience than speaker—more about Trump’s
supporters than him.
Needless to say, when I awoke, I was
frightened. More than ever, I worried that President Trump will not and perhaps
cannot be defeated until we come to grips with what Plato called the “soul of
the audience”—their identity, core beliefs, and fundamental values. Until then,
we may not have the available means of persuasion to neutralize and counter
“the Trump effect.”
Such a psychological revelation might allow those not part
of Trump’s base to see the dangerous
effects of his political persuasion on audiences and why therefore he
must be removed (whether through impeachment or the ballot box). This larger
and more serious rhetorical revelation could have a greater capacity to capture
the attention of voters than simply continuing the barrage of well-rehearsed
arguments with Trump supporters and the daily reminder about his lies,
wrongdoing, and harmful policies—efforts to which many now are inoculated and
tune out, and as a result seem not to have changed many minds.
This made me wonder as well whether those who
are among Trump’s ardent supporters are analogous to a religious cult, as
some people already have claimed, and hence, whether they
can be deprogrammed. Of course, there are limits to what can be learned from a
dream, but the experience can still reveal important questions and
Thick description will require less time
being focused on analyzing and critiquing Trump’s speeches and Tweets, and
spending more time attending his rallies and recording what is happening from
the perspective of audience members. By getting inside the heads of his
supporters, much as do ethnographers, the public at large might get a sharper
image of United States’ political culture. And that may change minds and
encourage those who are undecided to vote in 2020.
Again, I know my dream was not autoethnographic
research per se because I was dreaming, but if nothing else, it suggests that
this is an important time for scholars in communication to intensify the excellentethnographic
that is already taking place in the field—research that may afford us a more
enriched understanding of the rhetorical significance of audiences in the our
current political environment.
Dreams indeed may be instructive.
Postscript: Following submission of this op-ed, on
July 17 President Trump whipped up the crowd at a North Carolina rally with a
racist attack against Representative Ilhan
Abdullahi Omar—one of the four House of Representatives members of color he
earlier said should “go back to where you come from.” The subsequent audience chant, “Send her back,” provides more compelling evidence of the need to
take an ethnographic approach to Trump’s audience.