Trump Rhetoric 101

October 4, 2016


Lawrance Bernabo

The Sneezing Opossum


I always tell my students the most important thing I can teach them is that an argument has three parts: claim, evidence, and how the evidence proves the claim.

For Donald Trump, the three parts of an argument are: hyperbolic claim, repeat the hyperbolic claim, and repeat the hyperbolic claim louder.

Trump and his minions go out of their way to avoid making effective arguments, and it is threatening to drive me insane. So is the drinking game the media have going where Trump is always “doubling-down” on his lies, although this morning I was told Trump is “tripling-down” his attacks on former Miss Universe Alicia Machado.

Time and time again, I have to warn my students don’t do what Trump does.

To be clear, just because these are not valid arguments does not mean they cannot be effective. As Aristotle said a hell of a long time ago, there are three types of persuasive appeals a speaker can make, and rational argument (logos) is only one of them. The others are based on credibility (ethos) and emotions/audience identification (pathos), and those are the twin pillars of Trump’s rhetoric.

The only complete Trump speech I have heard is the one he gave when he visited Superior. His speech went through the same points several times: (1) I am a winner; (2) everybody else is a loser; (3) you have problems; (4) I can fix them. Why?  Because (1) I am a winner; (2) everybody else is a loser; (3) repeat ad infinitum.

Trump is channeling John Wayne as Captain Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, where he constantly tells his young subordinates, “Never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness.” Trump takes that a step further, because every time he is caught in a lie, he does one of three things: (A) insist he is right and/or (B) insist he never said that and/or (C) go on the attack.

In the (A) category would be things like Hillary started the birther movement or Trump was always against the war in Iraq. In the (B) column would be ridiculing the reporter with a disability and then denying it. For (C), there is Machado, who is accused of making a sex tape, which I guess justifies Trump making fun of her weight.

Clinton uses a similar approach, based on a pathological refusal to give ammunition to the other side. After all those Benghazi hearings, Chelsea probably bought her a t-shirt that says, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”’

Trump’s other technique is attacking the press as dishonest, because then when the press says he is lying, it proves he is telling the truth, because the press is dishonest. Think of it as the power of double negatives.

Trump’s campaign manager (at the time I am writing this; there could be a new one by the time you read it) insists Clinton started the birther movement because of a 2008 memo by one of her strategists, saying they should exploit Obama having lived in Hawaii and Indonesia.

There is no way to get from that statement to the argument that Obama was not born in the United States without ignoring, you know, words and their meanings.

To be fair, the reporters listening to this nonsense made no effort to correct the factual errors. They waited until Kellyanne Conway finished speaking and then repeated their original question over and over again.

Her counter-strategy was, first, to argue that the journalist was biased because he dared to challenge what she was saying. (In the new world order, any challenge by a reporter is a clear indication they are biased.) Second, attack the reporter for not going after Clinton.

Of course the press pays more attention to Trump than Clinton. Trump, by his own admission, is more interesting, and he can’t shut up to save his life (or his candidacy) and give Hillary a chance to put her foot in her mouth.

Trump called a “press conference” (where he never took questions) to declare Obama was born in the United States, but before he got that far, he said Clinton started the birther movement and he ended it. “You know what I mean,” he said, which is another brilliant strategy because he gets to nudge-nudge-wink-wink his supporters.

In those few instances where he presents evidence, the evidence is what “many people say.” Is Trump hearing voices or do many people just say outrageous things to him? If it is really outrageous, he can throw out the claim and then throw up his hands and say, “Hey, I don’t know” (to show he is fair-minded and ethical).

This is how good Trump is. He can not only make an argument without evidence; he can make an argument without even making a claim. Too bad he imploded at the first debate in front of 86 million Americans, many of whom are voters and most of whom are not stupid.

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