On the Misuse of Rhetoric and its Consequences for Democracy

One central issue of the nascent Trump presidency bedeviled journalists and analysts trying to make sense of his campaign for office: how to treat his frequently crude, callous and mendacious rhetoric that called on the broader citizenry to withdraw or fail to honor the civil or human rights of many Americans or United States residents. His rhetoric often resulted in roars of delight from the crowds he addressed at campaign events. Just as frequently, these assertions prompted the media and commentators reporting them to express deep concern for what his words implied about the decline of democratic norms and the capacity of an empty and ignorant demagogue to be taken seriously by a share of the citizenry. David Brooks of the New York Times has lately mused about this issue and has suggested that the current cultural context of vast income and wealth inequality coupled with fear and anxiety about the future, as a result of globalization, helps to explain the carnival atmosphere that President Trump represents and that he exploited to gain office:

We’re living with exactly the kinds of injustices that lead to carnival culture, and we’ve crowned a fool king. Donald Trump exists on two levels: the presidential level and the fool level. On one level, he makes personnel and other decisions. On the other he tweets. (I honestly don’t know which level is more important to him.)

His tweets are classic fool behavior. They are raw, ridiculous and frequently self-destructive. He takes on an icon of the official culture and he throws mud at it. The point is not the message of the tweet. It’s to symbolically upend hierarchy, to be oppositional.

The first problem with today’s carnival culture is that there’s an ocean of sadism lurking just below the surface. The second is that it’s not real. It doesn’t really address the inequalities that give rise to it. It’s just combative display.

This is a resolution I’m probably going to break, but I resolve to write about Trump only on the presidential level, not on the carnival level. I’m going to try to respond only to what he does, not what he says or tweets. I really wish some of my media confreres would do the same.[1]

While it is easy to see the power of Brooks’ analogy and to agree it is afoot, it is more difficult to discern how one might distinguish behavior from rhetoric, as he has sought to do. Indeed, rhetoric IS behavior, and to the extent Trump is the “fool king,” he both embodies that role and represents its behavioral apotheosis. In short, I am unclear how one can distinguish behavior from rhetoric in any leadership role, let alone the Presidency. Trump has energized his followers by demeaning many groups and opponents, and a share of those same supporters have admired him for doing so. They have also accepted his explanation that his various alleged and admitted assaults on women were merely “locker room talk” and/or that none of the women who stepped forward to report his behavior actually endured the physical and emotional injury they reported. All of this suggests that his rhetoric is indeed eliciting supportive behavior among some while allowing Trump to do as he pleases and with pernicious consequences for civil and human rights; a condition Brooks would surely not countenance.

For all of these reasons, it is difficult to see how one can suggest that Trump’s rhetoric is immaterial, as Brooks has sought to do. It is and has been material.  And, thus far, his words have served, among other things, significantly to erode or attack democratic norms. For evidence, all one need cite are his continuing attacks on individuals who dare displease him, his untruthful daily assault on the freedom and legitimacy of the press and his baseless contention that millions of illegal voters cast ballots, depriving him of a victory in the nation’s popular vote.  Indeed, it is just this sort of ugly demagogic rhetoric that inflames and misleads at once that led the 17th century English political philosopher John Locke to suggest that all rhetoric should be held suspect and avoided. In his masterful An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke severely critiqued rhetoric, including the use of metaphor and imagination to convey meanings, as innately dangerous as they lead citizens away from deliberation:

But yet if we would speak of things as they are, we must allow that all the art of rhetoric, besides order and clearness; all the artificial and figurative application of words eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead the judgment; and so indeed are perfect cheats: and therefore, however laudable or allowable oratory may render them in harangues and popular addresses, they are certainly, in all discourses that pretend to inform or instruct, wholly to be avoided; and where truth and knowledge are concerned, cannot but be thought a great fault, either of the language or person that makes use of them. What and how various they are, will be superfluous here to take notice; the books of rhetoric which abound in the world, will instruct those who want to be informed: only I cannot but observe how little the preservation and improvement of truth and knowledge is the care and concern of mankind; since the arts of fallacy are endowed and preferred. It is evident how much men love to deceive and be deceived, since rhetoric, that powerful instrument of error and deceit, has its established professors, is publicly taught, and has always been had in great reputation: and I doubt not but it will be thought great boldness, if not brutality, in me to have said thus much against it. Eloquence, like the fair sex, has too prevailing beauties in it to suffer itself ever to be spoken against. And it is in vain to find fault with those arts of deceiving, wherein men find pleasure to be deceived.[2]

Locke had distinguished forebears in his suspicion of rhetoric. In The Gorgias, Plato reported Socrates’ engagement with the ideas of a great rhetorician and Sophist of his day, Gorgias, in a supremely critical fashion. In that dialogue, Socrates suggested rhetoric is merely a sort of flattery and ignoble because it aims only to provide pleasure, rather than seek the welfare of the public.[3] Socrates, through Plato, also argued that rhetoric, "is the artificer of a persuasion which creates belief about the just and unjust, but gives no instruction about them.” [4]  Overall, as C. Francis Higgins has argued, “The character of Gorgias in the dialogue is forced to admit that his ‘art’ deals with opinion (doxa) rather than knowledge (epistemê); that its intention is to persuade rather than to instruct, and that rhetoric deals with language without regard to content.”[5]

In short, both modern and ancient philosophers have contended that rhetoric can mislead, sometimes grotesquely, and therefore can result in harmful beliefs and behavior based on little more than empty declarations. For Locke, it led too often to a willingness among citizens to act on emotion, and therefore without prudence and with often deeply unfortunate consequences for human liberties. For Plato, rhetoric masked the truth, leading to citizen embrace of the untoward and the unjust, even as it prompted those same individuals to misunderstand the reality they were confronting. For democracy, the harms to which these thinkers pointed have often taken the guise of an erosion of civil rights or freedom of some by others on the basis of appeals by one or more leaders to their unreason and emotion.

As students of both Plato and Locke, our Founders were aware of the dangers of the misuse of rhetoric as a way to mislead the citizenry and to inflame their passions, and they feared such behavior could result in the abuse of the rights of some individuals in its name. We now are witnessing the start of a Presidency in which outright lies are a daily part of our collective experience. We are likewise waking to a President whose principal aim each day seems to be to inflate his standing in his own eyes by demeaning others through his public rhetoric. Moreover, his spokesperson, Sean Spicer, and senior advisor, Kellyanne Conway, recently held public press events following the inauguration at which each presented “alternative facts,” of crowd size that day and protests the next day to those offered by media accounts. That is, each offered falsehoods aimed at obscuring and denying reality and at supporting Trump’s lies concerning these matters. Nonetheless, as Brooks has argued, Trump’s (and his staff’s) use of language in these efforts, however false, is adroit and offered with a straight face, and it continues to arouse and mislead many in the nation. All the more reason, then, that all other Americans and the nation’s press work assiduously to call him to account and to point up the falsity of the double speak and wild imaginings that are already the staple of his White House, and to demand that Trump provide reasons and accounts for his positions, and not simply employ poisonous or hateful rhetoric to change the subject or elicit emotion. In short, more than ever, citizens must constantly and persistently practice cool-headed analysis of Trump’s rhetoric and actions. The following statement, often attributed to George Orwell, appears an apt warning for Americans interested in preserving their freedom in this present moment of demagogic upheaval: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”




[1] David Brooks, “The Lord of Misrule,” The New York Times, January 17, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/17/opinion/the-lord-of-misrule.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Fdavid-brooks&action=click&contentCollection=opinion&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=collection Accessed, January 17, 2017.

[2] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, “Of the Abuse of Words,” Book III, Chp. X, pp. 372-373,

https://books.google.com/books?id=vjYIAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA372&lpg=PA372&dq=John+Locke:+If+we+would+speak+of+things+as+they+are+we+must+allow&source=bl&ots=je6eAf39R8&sig=t5SxSAbVi0SswIgpCduHmbFj4xY&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj7hdnY4dPRAhUr_4MKHat2B_oQ6AEIIDAB#v=onepage&q=John%20Locke%3A%20If%20we%20would%20speak%20of%20things%20as%20they%20are%20we%20must%20allow&f=false  Accessed January 21, 2017.

[3] Jowett, Benjamin. The Dialogues of Plato, Vol.1, New York: Random House Publishers, 1937, p. 525.

[4] Jowett, Benjamin. The Dialogues of Plato, p. 513.

[5] C. Francis Higgins. “Gorgias,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/gorgias/ Accessed January 22, 2017.