This past week into the weekend gave us a new perspective of just how damaging Donald Trump is to civil discourse in the nation. The optics of his incredibly insane and harmful family separation policy at the Texas border just seemed wrong. In many ways for some Americans, it was one step over the line that left people feeling the pain of small children snatched from their parents’ arms and placed in cages in the middle of the border desert. What could go wrong?
For some on the liberal side of the equation, it was too much to bear. Director of Homeland Security, Kristjen Nielsen, found out just how riled up Americans are on the topic as they heckled her out of the Mexican restaurant where she was dining. Sarah Huckabee Sanders faced much the same fate as she was asked by the proprietor of the Red Hen located in Lexington, Virginia to leave her restaurant. The harbinger of all things evil in the Trump administration, Stephen Miller, architect of the “zero tolerance” policy that created the border crisis, has been confronted in a restaurant and by protesters outside of his posh D.C. apartment.
The talk of “civil discourse” has been a popular topic on the morning and evening cable networks from Fox to CNN. U. S. House of Representatives, Maxine Waters (D-CA) went so far as to prompt supporters to accost Trump administration officials in an over-the-top tirade stating,
“Let’s make sure we show up wherever we have to show up. And if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd. And you push back on them. And you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere. We’ve got to get the children connected to their parents,” Waters said at the Wilshire Federal Building, according to video of the event. CNN
Where do we draw the line? All Americans believe that they should be able to eat wherever they choose without the hassle of a group of hecklers shouting out the truth about their questionable actions and associations with (in this case) an out-of-control administration. Does the actions of a group of people really have all that much of an effect on policy decisions made by a president who wears his racism and bigotry on his proverbial sleeve? It does and here is an obvious but toxic example I have been reluctant to make until now.
First of all, let’s talk rhetoric. For those of you who were forced to suffer through formal English composition classes in your first and second years of college will be familiar with Aristotle’s Rhetorical Triangle. The three junctions of the triangle he labeled like this:
These three categories are essential to any well-argued argumentative essay, better
known as the Cadillac of essays. Logos is the foundation of any argument. It
basically means the logic the author uses to make their points of proof. Pathos is
the emotional makeup of the audience. Often overlooked by budding writers, it is
actually a potent tool that can be used to pacify, incite, instill emotion or simply
become a bridge between the author and audience. An example would be you
would not give the same speech on the merits of the Vietnam War to a group of Boy
Scouts as opposed to a group of disabled Vietnam Veterans. Both would expect
totally different information based on their emotional attachment to the subject.
Finally, ethos is the gravitas the writer brings to the argument. Ethos represents the
authority, experience or knowledge the author has on the topic.
Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is the best example of an argumentative essay using Aristotle’s Rhetorical Triangle. He begins by telling the audience why he is there and the credentials he brought with him. He then goes on to lay out his logos citing examples of actual events, history, his own personal story and both the good and bad side of the situation as it existed when the march on Birmingham took place. He ends with an appeal to the eight clergymen the letter was addressed to for a unification of efforts to bring the crisis to an end. If you haven’t read it, give it a try. It’s quite remarkable. LFBJ
King’s letter could be seen as the shining light of the rhetorical world of persuasion. However, just like there is good and bad in everything, there is the dark side of persuasive speaking as well and my third rail example.
Bruce Loebs, Professor Emeritus Communication, Media, and Persuasion of Idaho State University penned a remarkable essay titled Hitler’s Rhetorical Theory that is both succinct and informative about how logos, ethos and pathos were used by Hitler to shape both the German people’s and his own fate through the use of speech. I am not attempting to equate Hitler to Trump, however, the similarities between what went on in Nazi Germany and the events unfolding in America today are astonishing and a little frightening.
In the opening pages, Loebs gives a bit of background on how Hitler honed his message to fit his evil aspirations. He makes no bones about Hitler’s motivation and accomplishments:
Hitler was evil incarnate. For Hitler a fitting epitaph would be: “Because Adolf Hitler
lived, 50 million people died.”
The second attribute Loebs points out is Hitler made himself indispensable both to
the Nazi party and to the future of the German people. He quotes historian Robert
Waite as saying,
“Hitler was Nazidom. Seldom in the history of western civilization has so much depended on one man’s personality. He created his own political theory and a government that could not exist without him.”
Not to put too fine of a point on it, but the phenomenon and mercurial rise of Trump’s popularity to his base has been pretty incredible. This extends to the Republican Party as a whole. How many times have you heard over the past year and a half that Trump has become the Republican Party or certainly the face of the party. Think about how Trump is a grandstanding cheerleader for all of the things that are anathema to most thinking Americans who oppose his nationalistic message. Without Trump personality and his rallies, his message would have long ago gone stale and forgotten. Yet, by being a bigger than life presence on the political stage, he has singlehandedly changed the trajectory of American foreign and domestic policy, trade, and foreign relations as a whole. For all intents and purposes, he has become America.
Three things Loebs stresses that led to Hitler’s success were the fact he was a great orator, tireless campaigner and his remarkable ability as a speech writer. To the “basket of deplorables”, Trump is an incredible speaker. His use of pathos is actually quite startling. Ever watch the people that are seated behind Trump at one of his rallies? The near rapt attention of these people as he goes through his spiel is a sight to behold. They are literally hanging on the edge of their seats and respond like a covey of marionettes alternately booing, hissing or chanting any number of oldies but goodies like Build the wall, Lock her up or expressing their ire at the “evil media”.
Connected to this is the fact that Trump has never left the campaign trail. Almost weekly he can be found in the American heartland whipping up the faithful to do his bidding. He is always in campaign mode. The fact that Hitler was an effective and persuasive speech writer seems to break the link between him and the Orange One. However, when at a rally, Trump rarely stays “on topic”, but rather, approaches his audience in a freewheeling tirade that is the equivalent of slinging red meat over the podium into the waiting mouths of his supporters. While Hitler labored over each word of his speeches as Loebs points out, Trump is more of a throw shit on the wall and see what sticks. Unfortunately, a lot sticks and is gobbled up by the Make America Great Again crowd.
End of Part 1