In 2016, a man with no political experience and little political support was elected president of the United States. Previously, no president had been elected without a background in government or the military. How was Donald Trump able to be elected? His mastery of rhetoric.
In order to understand Trump’s rhetoric and why it is so detrimental to American democracy, the first step is understanding the concept of rhetoric itself. Rhetoric is, in essence, the ability to persuade through speech. Rhetoric is an essential ability for any politician or public figure. There is a need to be able to convince voters that you are the right candidate for the position or that your policy is the correct one. However, what distinguishes mostly harmless common rhetoric from the dangerous rhetoric Trump expounds? There are two main components: the fact that he speaks as an outsider with no political experience and secondly his use of rhetoric to subvert democratic norms.
Trump’s dangerous use of rhetoric is not a new phenomenon and was expressed nearly 2,500 years ago in Plato’s Gorgias in regard to Athenian democracy. Plato through the voice of Socrates argues against rhetoric for a few reasons. First, he defines two different kinds of persuasion, “the sort which gives rise to being convinced without knowing, or the sort which gives rise to knowing.” That is to say there are two types of people, the one who has knowledge of the subject and convinces others using that knowledge, and the other who does not have knowledge but employs rhetoric in order to persuade others. Generally, most politicians and especially those running for president have years of public service experience in government or the military and would fall under the category of those with knowledge. Trump, however, has no political background or experience so when it comes to his ability to convince voters on his political merits, he falls under the “without knowing” category.
The issue with Trump having no political experience is that as a result, he must use rhetoric that doesn’t rely on fact, but instead rhetoric that allows him to avoid being held accountable. In the words of Plato, a danger with rhetoric is that it “has no concern with what is best but uses the pleasure of the moment to ensnare and deceive folly.”
In taking a closer look at Trump’s rhetoric we can see the strategies he employs in order to accomplish this. Jennifer Mercieca, an Associate Professor of Communication, Texas A&M University, has been analyzing Trump’s rhetoric and has categorized it into 6 strategies:
- Ad populum – Trump praises his followers as better than others in order to solidify his base.
- Paralipsis – Allows Trump to say whatever he’d like, usually racist white nationalist content, without being held accountable.
- American exceptionalism – Trump claims to be the hero who embodies American exceptionalism in order to use his followers nationalism to his gain.
- Ad hominem – Trump attacks the character of his opponents rather than their argument.
- Ad baculum – Trump uses threats of violence or intimidation in order to silence political opponents.
- Reification – Trump treats opposition as objects in order to delegitimize their critiques against him.
In looking at Trump’s rhetorical strategies, a worrying pattern emerges. His language is indicative of authoritarian and anti-democratic behavior. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in How Democracies Die, have outlined 4 indicators of authoritarian behavior as the rejection of democratic rules of the game, denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, toleration or encouragement of violence, and the readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents.
For example, when Trump tells his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully,” not only is he espousing ad baculum rhetoric by calling his supporters to intimidate voters, he is also rejecting the democratic rules of the game by calling into question the legitimacy of the election.
When Trump refused to condemn white supremacy during a presidential debate, and instead gave a call out to the white supremacist group the Proud Boys, and told them to “stand back and stand by,” not only is he using ad populum rhetoric but he is also tolerating and even encouraging violence.
Trump’s rhetoric generally doesn’t break any legal rules; however, his rhetoric poses a danger to democracy because it breaks democratic norms. Norms are important. They keep the democratic process peaceful and respectful, but they aren’t a guarantee. Norms include things such as not labeling your opponents as criminals or calling into question the legitimacy of elections. When a demagogue such as Trump comes along and breaks the norms to his gain, it poses a danger to democracy.
Recently Trump has descended into rants about perceived enemies, both inside and outside his administration, the result of which has left some of his followers to fear a stolen election or a coup by the left. The International Crisis Group, who gives warning of potential deadly conflicts around the globe, has for the first time given a warning about the U.S., stating that there is potential for violent incidents as a result of the election.
is no easy solution. To impose limits on rhetoric, would infringe on free
speech. But if anything should be learned from the Trump presidency, we should
at the least begin to think about the danger of rhetoric. Plato warned to
beware the orator, and we as a democracy would do well to take heed of that warning.
 Plato, Gorgias, ed. Malcolm Schofield, trans. Tom Griffith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
 Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown, 2018).
 Levitsky and Ziblatt.
 Levitsky and Ziblatt.
Thank you for your article Mateo! It was compelling and persuasive. I’m interested as to what you believe is the antidote to Trump’s incendiary rhetoric. Given that his version largely relies on distortions of the truth, do you think that if ample context is provided to his statements the corrosive effects will be constrained? Or is the US political culture too polarized to produce consensus on the credibility of critiques? Meaning, will the critiques just be dismissed by Republicans as partisan disparagements?