Explaining Rhetoric as it Happens

Is Donald Trump a rhetorical genius?

The Guardian has produced a video explainer featuring Dr. Jennifer Mercieca, managing editor of Citizen Critics, as she explains some of President Trump’s most masterful rhetorical tricks. “Donald Trump is a rhetorical genius,” Mercieca says. “People don’t like to hear that. Unfortunately, I have bad news for you — because he is.” Take a look.


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.


Inquire Within

What Congress Can Learn from Ocasio-Cortez’s Inquisitive Questions

Expanded versions of this essay appeared in the New York Daily News, Des Moines Register and Buffalo News.

For over forty years I have taught a course in argumentation at the University of Texas. A major distinction discussed in this class is the difference between argument as “advocacy” and argument as “inquiry”—the former focusing primarily on explicit appeals to persuade and the latter emphasizing discovery.

This distinction is especially useful when evaluating congressional hearings. I have observed that more often than not members of Congress do not know how to—or won’t—ask genuine and useful questions. Their penchant is to practice argument as advocacy, spending their questioning time making speeches and asking rhetorical questions designed to support a predetermined political claim.

Last Wednesday, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was the exception to the rule. While questioning former Trump fixer, Michael Cohen, Ocasio-Cortez practiced argument as inquiry. Her questions were probative and focused on discovery, setting up future lines of investigation, obtaining new information, and discerning additional witnesses who might testify.

For example, Ocasio-Cortez asked Cohen specific questions about how Trump handled insurance claims and whether he provided accurate information. “To your knowledge,” she inquired, “did Donald Trump ever provide inflated assets to an insurance company?” He had. She also asked whether Trump attempted to reduce his local taxes by undervaluing his assets. Cohen confirmed that the president had also done that.

It was refreshing, therefore, to see the rhetorical uniqueness of Ocasio-Cortez’s questioning noted by media and political pundits.

The larger point, extending well beyond Cohen’s hearing, is that too often members of Congress—Republicans and Democrats—don’t know how to or won’t informatively interview witnesses. Rather, they engage in argument as advocacy; they handpick witnesses, cherry-pick answers and generally substitute posturing, self-promotion, and speechmaking for questioning. This might explain why many of our public policies are not grounded in sufficient knowledge of the problems being addressed.

Just imagine what these hearings would look like if their primary objective was inquiry rather than advocacy—if questioning led to genuine persuasion and compromise based on informed and reasoned decision making.

Professor Richard Cherwitz is the Ernest S. Sharpe Centennial Professor in the Moody College of Communication and Founder of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium (IE), University of Texas at Austin.


All Together Now

Consubstantiality in the Controversy around a Native Elder and a #MAGA Hat-Clad Teen in D.C.

Consubstantiality is a rhetorical concept describing how people align their interests and actions with others through symbols. According to rhetorician Kenneth Burke, “in acting together, [people] have common sensations, concepts, images, ideas, and attitudes that make the consubstantial.” Scholar Ira Allen clarifies consubstantiality as “a term for the way ideas and attitudes become substantially intertwined by being placed with each other.” For example, flying hundreds of different flags alongside one another at the UN building in Geneva signifies common international objectives.

In short, consubstantiality explains how relationships get established through the use of shared language, symbols, style, or action.

Consubstantiality thus helps us understand a recent controversy. Earlier this month, a video depicting students from Covington Catholic High School encircling Omaha Native elder Nathan Phillips went viral. The students were clad in “Make America Great Again” hats and appeared to be taunting attendees of the Indigenous Peoples March.

The truth of what actually happened in the video is disputed. But there is a relationship not in dispute. The Covington students aligned their interests and actions—that is, they were indicating consubstantiality with—President Donald Trump.

In embracing Trump’s signature “Make America Great Again” hat, the Covington students identified themselves with Trump’s values and interests. Likewise, their decision to shout phrases identified with Trump, such as “Build the Wall,” further demonstrated consubstantiality with Trump. While Covington students are unique individuals, their ideas, attitudes, and behaviors were substantially intertwined with Trump’s that day because they were consubstantiated through shared language, style, and action.

As we learn more about this incident, consubstantiality helps us understand public debate about these students’ motives. It helps us observe people identifying with and acting together with others. Consubstantiality is a useful tool to think about how we identify opponents or allies within public discourse and how we draw conclusions about a rhetor’s intent.


X Marks the Spot

Identifying Chiasmus in the 2019 Government Shutdown Discourse

This past weekend, Citizen Critics Editor in Chief Jennifer Mercieca tweeted about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s use of the rhetorical strategy chiasmus. Our inaugural Kairotics post breaks down chiasmus and analyzes Pelosi’s use of the strategy as she retakes the House gavel in time to navigate the longest government shutdown in US history.

Chiasmus is from Greek origin meaning “to shape like the letter X.” Chiasmus, as a rhetorical strategy, is the X figure of speech. It is seen in a reversal of successive phrases or clauses. Here’s an example: Never let a fool kiss you or a kiss fool you.

Chiasmus, as a rhetorical device, shows up in both ancient Greek literature and oration. Aeschylus in 5th century BCE said, “It’s not the oath that makes us believe the man, but the man the oath.” Around the same time, Socrates said, “Bad men live that they may eat and drink, whereas good men eat and drink that they may live.”

Mercieca pointed to Speaker Pelosi’s use of chiasmus. Pelosi, referring to President Trump’s most recent proposal about the government shutdown, tweeted, “What is original in the President’s proposal is not good. What is good in the proposal is not original.”

As Mercieca pointed out, Pelosi appears to employ an imperfect chiasmus by using the “President’s proposal” in the front of the claim and not the back, as a chiasmus X form would seem to demand. Yet, as Mercieca argues, Pelosi does this because the proposal is not the President’s, and as Pelosi notes in the second half of the chiasmus, “it’s not original.”

In other words, the chiasmus is rendered this way by Pelosi, effectively and on purpose, to support the claim she is making about Trump’s argumentative approach. As Mercieca argues, this is noteworthy and shows us the ways in which Pelosi is formidable as a rhetorical force.

Readers should follow Speaker Pelosi’s argumentative approaches to watch for more chiasmus as 2019 unfolds. And, stay tuned for future Kairotics posts from the Citizens Critics collective as we continue to trace current events and rhetorical strategies in public life!