At the university where I teach rhetoric, an organization called the Center for Public Deliberation promotes events where students, faculty and other citizens can discuss issues that are relevant to American democratic life. Among the goals listed on the Center’s website are decreasing political polarization, creating safe spaces for dialogue between “co-creating agents in our communities,” and facilitating “respectful, reciprocal relationships” between participants.
But glaringly absent from the Center’s long list of educational goals is any mention of teaching students to win arguments. In fact, even during the recent renaissance of the ancient study of rhetoric in American universities, the field has retreated from teaching persuasion. There is virtually no interest in teaching students how to convince other people to adopt their perspectives. Though the way that rhetoric is taught in higher education may seem remote from the growing urgency of the political moment, this trend has major implications for the function of American democracy.
Like the vast majority of academic rhetoricians, American politicians constantly invoke consensus-building, negotiation, compromise, and conciliation as the ideal ends of public deliberation. Although many conservatives also speak to such themes, they are particularly strong on the Left: one need look no further than Bill Clinton’s Third Way, the pre-autocratic Obama’s insistence that we’re “one America: red, white, and blue,” and Hillary’s vapid insistence that we are “stronger together.”
One reason the 2016 presidential debates were among the most explosive in American history was that all of the candidates (the GOP contenders and, later, Clinton) were entirely accustomed to a conciliatory rhetoric and the deliberative courtesy that attends it. But the obvious exception to these unwritten rules was Donald Trump. He practiced an agonistic rhetoric throughout the campaign. Perhaps the prime example was when he orchestrated the most powerful visual argument of the election. Entering a crucial debate just days after the timely release of the “Access Hollywood” tapes, and expecting a Clintonian polemic on his misogyny and unfitness, Trump ensured that a menagerie of Bill Clinton’s sex victims would be seated prominently in the hall. This should have scared Hillary away from the topic of “pussy-grabbing”—but it didn’t. As Clinton admonished Trump, cameras panned over the assaulted women and upon an apparently dumbfounded Bill. The juxtaposition of these sounds and images perfectly encapsulated the hypocrisy of the Clinton Machine, a characteristic that was largely responsible for Trump’s victory.
While media and academic elites continue to lament Trump’s confrontational rhetoric as a threat to democracy, Trump is teaching politicians, professors, and journalists a hard lesson about the practical limitations of a rhetoric of conciliation: compromise and negotiation cannot, and should not, be the exclusive aim of our political discourse. Sometimes a middle ground doesn’t exist. Sometimes a compromise is a worse approach to a problem than any of the competing solutions that the compromise synthesizes.
Adversarial Rhetoric Revitalized?
In a sense, Trump’s presidency is the logical result of decades of administrative half-measures. Trump’s refusal to play the conciliatory game has indeed elicited much more forceful uses of rhetoric by cultural elites, but these attacks on Trump have done little to change the minds of his supporters. This is because Trump’s loudest critics (as good products of the elite academy) do not understand the difference between critique and persuasion: 23 hours of daily programming on “why Trump sucks” may do much to catalog the president’s personal shortcomings, but it mostly leads to skepticism and exhaustion among those not yet converted to The Resistance.
Trump’s agonistic approach to the status quo offers a chance to revitalize the ancient democratic tradition of adversarial rhetoric—a rhetoric aimed not simply at building “respectful, reciprocal relationships,” but one aimed at winning arguments and changing minds. A look at the sad state of affairs on campus might indicate to some that the last thing American universities need is a renewed emphasis on eristics and adversarial debate. One need only mention recent events at Berkeley to justify a new call for tolerance and compromise. But these explosions of violence at Evergreen, Berkeley, Yale, and others could be said to be the result of teaching only reconciliatory approaches to rhetoric.
Remember that the students and agitators aren’t engaging in adversarial rhetoric when they shout down professors or destroy public property: in fact, these students are trying to preempt the rhetorical encounter entirely. It’s really an extension of their inability to productively and persuasively navigate a dialogue where interlocutors are hostile to their points of view. Surely, academics and media types will be resistant to actively teaching adversarial persuasive strategies (rather than a monologic and intellectually distanced “critique”), but doing so could lead to more effective public deliberation and more efficient democracy.
What Plato and Aristotle Knew
The study of rhetoric has its roots in ancient Greek democracy. The spirit of public deliberation in Greece makes contemporary American political discourse seem polite. In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates faces off against the sophists who teach rhetoric as a means to manipulate public opinion. Socrates (of course) wins the debate and shows how rhetoric can be corrosive to democratic life, but he uses some decidedly sophistical strategies to do so. Even as an enemy of rhetoric and a proponent of a more reciprocal dialectical mode of inquiry, Socrates still at least knows how to play an expert game of adversarial rhetoric.
Aristotle took a less hostile view of rhetoric in the public sphere. His seminal book On Rhetoric argues that in an ideal republic, citizens would only be persuaded by logical claims based in reason. But he knows human nature better than that, and thus asserts rhetoric as a critical force for democratic governance. In fact, rhetoric is a tool that can mitigate humans’ natural tendency toward conflict: rather than actually resorting to physical violence to stymie debate (Berkeley), Aristotle reminds us that rhetorical instruction refines the ability to “test and maintain an argument” and “defend themselves and attack others” through dialogue rather than with weapons.
Put differently, adversarial rhetoric can serve as a civilizing force. In his book Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, Josiah Ober poses rhetoric as a condition of stability in ancient Greek democracy. And it was often ugly and abusive in practice. Demosthenes and Aeschines were two statesmen who routinely traded crushing, personal, rhetorical blows in their public speeches at the Assembly. Aeschines publicly derided Demosthenes as the “rhetor-man” (a moniker that calls to mind nicknames “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary”). Both men warned audiences to watch out for the other’s oratorical skill and ability to manipulate and mislead the masses (i.e., the Greeks need to keep a lookout for fake news). Demosthenes publicly derided Aeschines as a traitor to Athens and an elitist because he didn’t share the opinions of the masses.
The death of Cicero, Rome’s greatest rhetorician and Republican statesman, best shows the catastrophic effects of exerting too much control over public rhetoric. In an attempt to coerce fealty from marginalized Republican citizens, Imperial Rome banned the schools of rhetoric and moved the locus of political activity away from the Forum where rhetoric was most publicly displayed. As a key symbol of the Republic, Cicero was a target of the Empire. When he was caught, his hands and head were cut off and nailed to the Rostra—the platform upon which orators and statesmen spoke to the public. In the absence of a place for adversarial public deliberation, impulses to physical violence have no productive channel through which to be dissolved. So fearful were the elites of Cicero’s rhetorical skill that legend tells us Antony’s wife cut his tongue out of his decapitated head and mutilated it with her hairpin.
Trump’s Art of Persuasion
It is telling that after all the scholarly ink spilled over The Audacity of Hope (Obama’s mock paean to conciliatory rhetoric), rhetoricians seem utterly uninterested in Trump’s book The Art of the Deal. The book is a compelling artifact: not only is it a rare example of a book written by a president before he had any presidential aspirations, the title practically begs for the text to be read as a treatise on the art of persuasion. But most rhetoricians in the academy would view the book as beneath scholarly consideration, if for no other reason that it was only ghostwritten for Trump (though Bill Ayers’ possible involvement in some of Obama’s writing has never tempered the great praise of his books in the academy).
But even a cursory read of The Art of the Deal would teach Trump’s critics that the president’s rhetorical style isn’t simply the product of a rambling, undisciplined mind: rather, his agonistic approach is a carefully considered persuasive strategy. By threatening frivolous lawsuits and other tactics to forestall bank foreclosure on a widow’s farm, Trump learned that “Sometimes it pays to be a little wild” (p. 5). Later, Trump explains that the key to getting what you want (i.e. persuading others to make it happen) is a “total focus” and “controlled neurosis,” a “maniacal” drive (pp. 47–48). He notes that a key rhetorical edge is that most people are “afraid of winning” and “afraid of success”—he isn’t, and this serves as a “great advantage” in negotiation (p. 47). He also notes that “bravado” and “truthful hyperbole” are key ways to promote his visions to the public (p. 58).
Trump recognizes that a conciliatory rhetoric is often a precursor to failure: “Much as it pays to emphasize the positive, there are times when the only choice is confrontation” (p. 58). He warns that when he is treated unfairly his instinct is “to fight back very hard,” even if it means alienating people in the pursuit of “something you believe in” (p. 59). Indeed, victory may even require personal rhetorical attacks: “Sometimes, part of making a deal is denigrating your competition” (p. 108).
The Art of Presidential Deal-Making
Today, Trump still talks frequently about deal-making. But he means something very specific by the term. In contrast to Obama’s tendency to make compromised deals with the likes of Iran, Cuba, and others (though never, it turned out, with domestic adversaries), Trump understands a political “deal” as an agreement that is advantageous to American interests.
This can be easily misunderstood: Trump isn’t looking for the deal where both sides give something up to acquire mutual benefits of equal value. Trump wants a bargain where America gets the better end of the deal: anything less is losing—a deal, yes, but not one worthy of the name or our deference. That so many on the left understand the discovery of “shared mutual interests” as a prerequisite for any good faith negotiation indicates their total devotion to a conciliatory notion of rhetoric.
Trump’s detractors are right that he represents a significant departure from the forms of deliberation valorized by the academy, the media, and the cultural Left: but their present inability to neutralize his rhetorical attacks show the weakness of a dedication to conciliatory rhetoric. When they do adopt a more adversarial approach, it is not an attempt to try to engage their opponents in dialogue—it is usually in the form of the “critique” (a high-minded, deliberately distanced “analysis” that is typically written rather than spoken, and which is read by few).
There are certainly disadvantages to a singular devotion to adversarial rhetoric, too—President Trump would be wise to consider them. But the success of his agonistic mode of engagement in countering his critics points to a need for a return to a more traditional vision of rhetoric that pursues the central goal of winning arguments and convincing others. I encourage teachers, writers, and speakers to re-learn the uses of adversarial argumentation. Let us begin the work of revitalizing democratic deliberation: Make Rhetoric Great Again.