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Donald Trump May Sound Like A Clown, But He Is A Rhetoric Pro Like Cicero

CREDIT: Gene J. Puskar, AP

“An emotional speaker always makes his audience feel with him, even when there is nothing in his arguments; which is why many speakers try to overwhelm their audience by mere noise.” — Aristotle, Rhetoric.

Donald Trump is a master of classical rhetoric — what Plato called “the art of winning the soul by discourse.”

Did you know that there is a rhetorical device, a figure of speech, that allows you to lie and exaggerate and say the most absurd things — “Mexico must pay for the wall” or “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese” — while actually making lots of people believe you are a genuine and truthful person? Donald Trump does.

Yes, while Donald Trump may seem to be a clown or buffoon, he is in fact one of the most effective practitioners of persuasive rhetoric the political world has seen in a long time. If he wins the GOP nomination it will be in large part because of his mastery of rhetoric.

I use the term rhetoric here not with its current negative connotation of overly ornate and stylized speech that is utterly unlike the way real people speak. Rather I use the term in its more classical, Aristotelian sense — the art of persuasion using the figures of speech specifically to match the way real people speak. The fact that Trump sounds more like a real person than his political competition shows precisely how upside-down our current view of rhetoric is.

Rhetoric works to grab and keep attention — and to make ideas and phrases stick in your head — which is a key reason modern marketing whizzes and branding experts stuff their advertisements with them. Trump is nothing if not a marketing and branding genius. Indeed, he is arguably nothing but a marketing and branding genius.

How powerful is rhetoric? In his dialogue, “Gorgias,” about the master rhetorician, Plato gives him this speech:

If a rhetorician and a doctor visited any city you like to name and they had to contend in argument before the Assembly or any other gathering as to which of the two should be chosen as doctor, the doctor would be nowhere, but the man who could speak would be chosen, if he so wished.

So a rhetorician could persuade any audience, no matter how intelligent, that he was more of a doctor than a real doctor. The Elizabethans certainly viewed rhetoric that way. One best-selling 16th-century handbook asserted that mastery of rhetoric and the figures of speech makes the orator “the emperour of men’s minds & affections, and next to the omnipotent God in the power of persuasion.”

To fully understand Trump’s success requires understanding his mastery of the figures. After all, modern social science has confirmed what the best politicians, orators, and speechwriters have always known — that the figures of speech are the key to being both memorable and persuasive. That was a central point of my 2012 book on the figures, Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga.

In general, our greatest presidents — FDR, JFK, Clinton, and even Reagan — have been masters of rhetoric, Lincoln being the greatest of all. Some, like Lincoln, clearly understood rhetoric, others, like JFK, had speechwriter(s) who were masters of rhetoric, like the legendary Theodore Sorensen.

The point is that rhetoric is powerfully inspirational and motivational — but obviously it can be used to motivate the worst in people, not the best.

Trump, Anger, and “Truthful Hyperbole”

How many current politicians can you name that have been intentionally using key figures of speech for 40 years? In Donald’s case his preferred figure is “hyperbole” — or rather “truthful hyperbole” as he labels it in his 1987 bestseller “The Art of The Deal”:

The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.

I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.

It’s an effective form of lying while excusing and rationalizing your lies. In that sense, “truthful hyperbole” is a “euphemism,” which itself is a figure of speech. And since hyperbole is by definition untruthful exaggeration, Trump’s phrase is an “oxymoron,” which is also figure of speech.

That said, the hyperbole Trump is using four decades later isn’t “innocent.” Why? A key purpose of hyperbole is to express the emotion of anger, as Aristotle explained in classic work, “Rhetoric,” the first in-depth study of the art. Aristotle explains the hyperboles “show vehemence of character; and this is why angry people use them more than other people.”

When Trump makes wildly over-the-top claims — he’s going to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it — it has no effect on his supporters to point out that this is hyperbolic nonsense. Quite the reverse. Trump’s claim moves them emotionally and persuades them precisely because it is hyperbolic nonsense. They are angry, and he’s showing that he is angry too — which is vastly more effective communications than the bland assertions by the professional politicians that they “understand” there is a lot of anger out there.

Trump’s Mastery Of Phony “Reluctance”

“Your language will be appropriate if it expresses emotion and character,” notes Aristotle. “To express emotion, you’ll employ the language of anger in speaking of outrage; the language of disgust and discrete reluctance to utter a word when speaking of impiety or foulness; the language of exultation for a tale of glory.”

Trump loves the rhetorical device of phony “reluctance” to utter a word or phrase: “She just said a terrible thing. You know what she said? Shout it out because I don’t want to say. OK you’re not allowed to say and I never expect to hear that from you again. She said — I never expect to hear that from you again — she said he’s a pussy…. That’s terrible! Terrible.”

This figure, apophasis (from the Greek word for “to deny”), emphasizes a point by pretending to deny it, stresses an idea or image by saying you don’t want talk about it, as with Trump’s use of “pussy.” A favorite of Cicero’s — “I will not even mention the fact that you betrayed us in the Roman people by aiding Catiline” (63 BC) — it’s also called paralipsis (from the Greek word for “omission”).

Trump, however, is more Ciceronian than Cicero himself:

  • “I was going to say ‘dummy’ Bush; I won’t say it. I won’t say it,”
  • “I refuse to call Megyn Kelly a bimbo, because that would not be politically correct,”
  • “Unlike others, I never attacked dopey Jon Stewart for his phony last name. Would never do that!”
  • “I promised I would not say that she [Carly Fiornia] ran Hewlett-Packard into the ground, that she laid off tens of thousands of people and she got viciously fired. I said I will not say it, so I will not say it.”

Seriously — but then again, this should be very serious, selecting a President.

Shakespeare and the great rhetoricians of the past knew and regularly used some two hundred figures of speech. Equally important, they knew which figures expressed which kind of emotion and hence when to use them to get the desired emotional effect.

In recent months, scholars have pointed out Trump’s use of a great many different figures beyond hyperbole (including various figures of repetition) — he uses more figures more often than any of the other major candidates. They’ve called him “a brilliant master of rhetoric” who has “plundered the figures of classical rhetoric.”

You may ask how much of Trump’s use of the figures is intentional and how much simply has become his natural way of speaking after decades of marketing and branding himself.

The answer is, it doesn’t matter. Aristotle’s key point — and indeed the point of considerable modern social science research — is that when regular people talk, they use the figures of speech. He explains, “This aptness of language is one thing that makes people believe in the truth of your story.” Aristotle continues:

… their minds draw the false conclusion that you are to be trusted from the fact that others behave as you do when things are as you describe them; and therefore they take your story to be true, whether it is so or not. Besides, an emotional speaker always makes his audience feel with him, even when there is nothing in his arguments; which is why many speakers try to overwhelm their audience by mere noise.”

Trump sounds more sincere than than his political opponents because he sounds more like a real person. He has “aptness of language.” It is a great irony, to use another figure of speech, that what the intelligentsia views as transparent hyperbolic lies are in fact one of the things that make people believe in the truth of Trump’s stories.

Made In China

Let me end where I began with one particular example of Trump’s (un)truthful hyperbole, to see how it works:

Okay, so that is laughably absurd on its face. It would be generous to call this truthful hyperbole, though it certainly does capture a sort of an inchoate anger at the Chinese. But how does Trump himself view the truth of it?

We actually found out when Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders called him out on this exact statement during a debate with Hillary Clinton, saying the New York billionaire should be unelectable because he “thinks that climate change is a hoax, invented by the Chinese.”

Trump was then asked to defend his inane claim on Fox & Friends, and he replied (video here):

“Well, I think the climate change is just a very, very expensive form of tax. A lot of people are making a lot of money. I know much about climate change. I’d be — received environmental awards. And I often joke that this is done for the benefit of China. Obviously, I joke. But this is done for the benefit of China, because China does not do anything to help climate change. They burn everything you could burn; they couldn’t care less. They have very — you know, their standards are nothing. But they — in the meantime, they can undercut us on price. So it’s very hard on our business.”

Let’s set aside the laughable hyperbole that Trump “received environmental awards.”

Trump asserts he means “this is done for the benefit of China” as a joke — which is how most in the media reported it. But the fact is Trump immediately repeats the claim again: “Obviously, I joke. But this is done for the benefit of China.”

The point of “truthful hyperbole” then is to allow Trump to spout lies but speak them as emotional truths that, when caught, allow him to claim that he “obviously” doesn’t actually believe — even as he repeats the lie again.

At least Politifact caught that repetition, explaining that Trump “has said as recently as Jan. 18, 2016, that action on climate change ‘is done for the benefit of China’.” And since he has repeatedly called climate change a hoax, they rated the charge by Sanders “Mostly True.”

And “mostly false” is perhaps a more apt phrase for Trump’s balderdash than “truthful hyperbole.”