Make Rhetoric Great Again

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.


About Adam Ellwanger

Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor of English at the University of Houston – Downtown where he directs the M.A. program in rhetoric and composition. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, will be released from Penn State University Press in 2020. You can follow him on Twitter at @DoctorEllwanger

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24 responses to “Make Rhetoric Great Again”

  1. I guess I need to dust off Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. It’s been a few decades.

  2. I am doubtful about how much mileage there now is in debate aimed at converting opponents to one’s own point of view.

    In a world where most people were susceptible to rationality, arguments which were carefully reasoned and produced convincing proofs in their support, Professor Ellwanger’s commitment to rhetoric in all its forms would be in business: big-time.

    Yet my experience of trying to convey any significant truths to leftists in internet debate has shown me that they are – in so many cases – not only post-modern but post-rationality.

    The situation was well summed up by a sort of obituary on a debate I and others had with one ‘Veritas’ on a thread in the Financial Times very lately. ‘Wildcat’ – a fellow conservative – wrote
    “Shillingburg and Pete: Calm. Rational. Genuine. Factual. Truthful. Conservatives.
    Veritas: Sarcastic. Sneering. Screeching. Devious. Blowing smoke. Mistaking history. Repeating lies over and over. Leftist.
    It’s clear. It’s sad.
    If on that blog-thread I or other conservatives made a strong point, ‘Veritas’ did not answer it with logic and convincing contrary evidence. He ignored it, or veered off at a tangent. He produced a load of leftie propaganda as facts. They were riddled with inaccuracies but he was determined to believe the propaganda, however much we showed him its untruthfulness. He had the one quality of the Devil which all virtuous human beings should imitate – persistence. He wrote at enormous length, long screeds of specious stuff, and was obviously inexhaustible. Trying to pin him down on any topic was like attempting to grab with one’s hands in a rapid river a well-greased eel.
    When at one stage he talked about ‘the imagined bullying of the left’ as a right-wing fantasy, I gave up and left the thread. After all the political thuggery that has gone on in recent times – exactly at places like Berkeley – that anyone could still suppose the Political Left was, in all its manifestations, behaving courteously, made nonsense of any further attempt at dialog.
    What I came away with from the whole exchange was a sense of encountering the mindset of those students, encouraged by some professors and allowed by many college administrations, who trash buildings, set cars on fire, march with placards, scream abuse and do every other thing they can to prevent conservative speakers holding conferences in their locales.
    We are seeing a nationwide tantrum of human beings who are determined (like the worst kind of spoiled children) to get their way AND WHO DON’T WANT TO HAVE A FAIR GENUINE REASON FOR OBTAINING THEIR WISHES. They simply insist on their (crazy) world-view being dominant regardless of logic and evidence.
    As to why this is so, I can only repeat what I have written in these columns before. I don’t THINK we are seeing the end of the world, as predicted in Holy Scripture, right now; I suspect that is centuries off. But I do think we are living through a rehearsal: that *one* of the ‘days of the Son of Man’ is upon us, *A* judgement day – not the ultimate one – and that the ungodly are in consequence hysterical.
    There are most probably lots of liberals who are amenable to rational discourse and can change their minds, and modify the opinions of conservatives such as myself, in the process of productive debates. Yet there is abundance of others who are psycho- and sociopathic in the sense that for them all that sort of thing is wholly uninteresting and irrelevant. They care only for the ‘Triumph of the[ir] Will’ (to borrow the title of the movie Leni Riefenstahl made for Hitler); and scream the house down if they be opposed.

    • Let me say at the outset that my experiences with ‘leftists’. The truth is, today’s ‘leftists’ have nothing to do with the Left/Right divide of the French Revolution. In fact, user that scheme, today’s ‘leftists’ would be the Right. However, I want to point out that you make an assumption about the *purpose* of ‘debate’ that is unwarranted. While it may appear that the purpose of ‘debate’ or ‘argument’ is to change your opponent’s mind, there is, in fact, nothing in the history of rhetoric that would support such a claim. One debates one’s opponents in a *public* forum, not to change your *opponent’* mind, but to influence the members of the *audience* of the exchange. The assumption in all practical rhetorical performances is that even *partisanship* exists on a continuum, and there are members of the audience who *can* be influenced (if not today, then eventually). Allow me, if you will, a digression into the technical aspects of rhetoric. However tedious they may appear, they are, to mind mind, relevant to your experience and to my (eventual) point. There are all kinds of factors that go into a successful rhetorical performance. While there have been many valuable insights into how to *think about* rhetoric — whether as argument or ‘persuasion’ — in my view, there is no better place to start than Aristotle’s ‘Rhetoric’. The ‘canons’ of rhetoric are: ‘ethos’, ‘pathos’, ‘logos’, memory and invention. Even those some of these words are ancient Greek, their ‘roots’ — eth-, -path-, -log- — should be familiar as they find their use in many English word such as ‘ethics’, ’empathy’, ‘logic’. ‘Pathos’ refers to the use of emotions in a rhetorical performance. Today’s pseudo-leftists are almost entirely about ‘pathos’. ‘Logos’ refers to the ‘logical’ aspects of one’s rhetorical performance (facts, the relationship between propositions). Since public debate is not the same as a philosophical argument, one should not expect the ‘full monty’ of logical argumentation in a public debate (see ‘enthymeme’). The truth is that one cannot expect ‘fact’ to prevail where there is no agreement on what constitutes a *relevant* fact or a *reliable* authority for the determination of what constitutes a ‘fact’. Which brings me to ‘ethos’. ‘Ethos’ is not simple, but I will try to state its role in rhetorical performance as simply as possible: It is the contribution to rhetorical performance that comes from the audience’s perception of the reputation of the ‘rhetor’. To put in more succinctly, ‘ethos’ is your ‘brand’. Most internet exchanges take place in the absence of any real history between the protagonists. As a consequence, the contribution of ‘ethos’ would appear to be non-existent. But it’s not. The precise manner in which one chooses to interact with one’s opponent can — and does — generate an image of one’s rhetorical ‘brand’. So, my advice is to craft your arguments, not to *convince* your opponent but to influence the less partisan (or even neutral) members of the audience. The Internet has created a truly unprecedented opportunity for the rhetor to be able to manage their ‘ethos’ without the encumbrance of one’s physical appearance or social history. Use it to present yourself — and the views you wish to promote — in the best light possible. I would also suggest that one take the advice of Sun Tzu and not fight the battle the way your opponent wishes to fight. Fight your own way.

      • I’m a little taken aback at the prospect of reading Aristotle’s Rhetoric … but you state the case for debate far better than I did. Good demonstration of your point.

      • A very readable translation is that by George A. Kennedy. It’s one I used at one time in teaching rhetoric.

      • With deep trepidation, I ordered a copy … I have read an essay or two of Cicero’s and Plato’s The Republic. But I was younger and more ambitious. Thanks for the tip. I will do my best!

      • I’ll have to admit having not read much of Cicero, so I cannot comment. However, Aristotle is *nothing* like Plato and the ‘Rhetoric’ is *nothing* like ‘The Republic’. I’m hoping you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

  3. My experience with “debate” and “discussion” with Democrats is; They want to shut down either, or both, if it does not comply with their hedonistic agenda.
    Most “debates” are hampered, interrupted, and/or impetuously assassinated by liberals, well before any “discussion” can commence.
    e.g. Berkeley.
    Essay’s and comments/discussions such as these, are their archenemy.
    This phenomenon is patently evident on Democrat/Liberal friendly websites and comment sections.
    They campaign for ultimate dominance and supremacy at any cost.

  4. Engaging the left in debate is a fool’s errand. It would be more productive attempting to explain gravity to a dog. The dog could at least feign understanding.

    • I know many dogs that exhibit way more intelligence, understanding, and ability to communicate, than most any garden variety Democrat.
      And; They’re NOT rabid!

  5. I’m not sure it’s worth the effort to debate people who have been brought up thinking they and their opinion is “special”. They simply have no concept of what being “wrong” is, on any subject or action. Mom told them so.

    Even as as adults, the enter like-minded bubbles that reinforces their specialness and opinion.

    Example…i was at a family dinner and a twenty two year old spoiled rotten niece sitting besides me and out of the blue, she came out and scolded me about eating meat. She felt perfectly comfortable with that public rudeness….. until I told her to sit down, shut up and mind her own business. She was in total shock. Nobody in her entire life talked to her like that. The little queen never imagined that there was any world which she wasn’t special and her opinion gold drippings. BTW, she was eating fish.

    That to me is a sample of many encounters from the left. Self righteous, hypocritical and hollow….so I have no problem being combative and shoving political correctness down the drain.

      • Why bother. Haven’t seen or heard from her in a decade…..and couldn’t care less.

      • From the sound of it, you couldn’t make any difference anyway.
        Nature has to take its course with some amoeba.
        Maybe it already has!!!

    • Reminds me of Roger L. Simon’s “I Know Best…” book on escaping the left.

  6. We MUST debate – we must present a counterargument to the left. Some will be convinced, some will be lose their total certainty, others are too deeply committed to tolerate dissent. Doesn’t matter. There is a whole new generation on the way up the chronological ladder, and their adult commitments are still in play. Besides — what kind of belief system can’t be articulated by its supporters? This is a valuable reminder that we can use rhetoric to defend our beliefs, and that we should. Although I think I’ll start by reading Trump’s Art of the Deal … sounds easier …

    • The ‘Art of the Deal’ is interesting and ‘rhetoric’ plays a role in the negotiating tactics that are described.

  7. Excellent piece. The point isn’t debating the left, but presenting arguments that normal people (the vast majority of our fellow citizens) find persuasive. The growth of classical education, both Christian and in public charter schools, give me hope for the future of America.

  8. Addendum:
    This article makes rhetoric great again with a “debate” of solid substance.
    The “discussion” usually falls apart in the comments section, where disjointed “discussions” parlay and deteriorate into anal belching.

  9. Loved this appreciative/substantive view of Trump’s tactics and goals. I found a lot to compare in Boris Johnson’s book on Churchill, who also used words and rhetorical skill to persuade and get what he wanted. Thank you.