How to Persuade a Trump Supporter to Reject and Resist Trumpism
A DIY Guide (v1.5) to Changing Minds Instead of Sending Your Sad Soliloquy or Smug Shouting Right into the Void
By an old-school rhetorician who thinks liberals, conservatives, radicals, and pretty much everyone desperately needs to improve their arts of persuasion and dialogue, who here posits that the loss of rhetorical skill and virtue contributed to the political hellscape that now engulfs us. But take courage. We shall learn. λόγος δυνάστης μέγας ἐστίν. Annihilate the echo chamber!
For use by pretty much anyone from across the left to principled conservatives, libertarians, former Trump supporters, and even current Trump supporters (there’s no secret sauce). Thoughtful feedback is welcome if you actually read the whole guide before jumping in, and I apologize for its (growing) length.
1. Know The Soul of Your Audience — Before and As You Engage — To The Fullest Possible Extent. The profound importance of this point nearly overwhelms everything else. Whether you’re persuading a parent or a total stranger, understanding who you’re talking to — from hearsay or intimate knowledge, their dialect and discourse, even clothing and body language — will ensure you pick the best path to persuasion, perhaps the only path. Try to grasp their demographics (gender, social class, geographical origins, ethnicity), ideology (principled or erratic? Populist or aristocratic? What are their values?), psychology (curious vs. cautious, neurotic vs. confident), motivations (fear? fortune? unmotivated?), morality and religion (judgmental? can you use scripture? denomination matters), past political positions (voted for Bush? Obama? Various policies?), modes of communication (through what media and styles do they prefer to be engaged?). I say “know their soul” as a shorthand for the countless characteristics, all rhetorically relevant, that shape us as linguistic and political beings. Little to nothing is truly irrelevant; even their favorite sport or hobby is an inroad to conversation. If you’re in the dark, respectfully gather information as you converse. Per the ancient rhetoricians, only someone with knowledge of everything could be an ideal orator; even politically “irrelevant” skills like geometry were demanded. You should bring a sincere curiosity for the audience and all aspects of their life and culture (maybe knowledge of NASCAR, not geometry, will provide a route to persuasion). Furthermore, friendly and humble curiosity nourishes rapport and goodwill. Going forward, we’ll be combining this knowledge of the audience with an ad hoc rhetorical approach I’m suggesting that welcomes dialogism and identification; basically, emphasizing commonalities and keeping things conversational rather than combative. In essence, this is a guide for dialogues with Trump supporters who may eventually change their minds thanks to your efforts; I offer no magical persuasive machinery or set of “irrefutable facts” that will somehow win them over during the course of an elevator ride.
2. Do Rhetorical Triage; Pick Your Audience for Safety and Efficacy. There are three types of people: the “goners” who are impossible to persuade, the ones who are sufficiently on your side already, and most importantly here, the ones in the middle who have a hope of being persuaded but need your help. This last group is the priority: maybe they’ve expressed some doubts about Trump or the GOP before, maybe you’re already friendly with them and will thus have more leverage. If you have a choice, do not engage the most trenchant ones, especially if it’s dangerous (complete strangers? Alcohol involved? High cost of failure?). Pick your battles (but think of them as persuasive discussions, dialogues, and chats, not battles!). Of course, there may be times you have no choice but to engage extreme supporters in your family and close social network. The advice here still applies. Even if Trump does something “unthinkable” (a word whose meaning now slips away) his support will find a floor above 20%: the diehard believers. But we must work hard to discover where exactly this floor rests and start with the more welcoming people. I realize that some readers are so surrounded by Trump supporters that they’ve been forced to delete Facebook, lose friends, and sever connections, so you have my assurances that I’m not trivializing the task of changing minds. It requires great emotional and mental effort, and not everyone can muster that right now. But if you’re willing to try, then here’s what you need to know.
3. Respect and Nourish the Communication Channel. Arguments can be won or lost, but they cease to exist when someone walks away, refuses to speak to you, bans political talk, or you get disinvited from Christmas. Your first goal isn’t win them over, it’s to maintain the conversation so it’s possible to win them over (social media has massively obscured this goal). Every instance of human communication has a channel, and when this gets cut, it’s game over. If they say something bigoted and you walk away in disgust, you may have won on moral terms but you’ve conceded the rhetorical contest. Obviously, you must walk away sometimes. But it is generally a bad idea for either party to destroy the communication channel (eg. unfriending on Facebook); you should quell your righteousness and condemnation until you can be sure it doesn’t end the dialogue.
Never claim be to infallible. Surely you regret some of your past beliefs and political positions. By affirming that you’ve been wrong in the past, you model good behavior for people on the cusp of changing their minds. Depending on the religious orientations involved, you can potentially nourish a strong faith-based fellowship and dialogue (the theological arguments are some of the strongest). In any case, be humble; arrogance is nasty to virtually every interpersonal audience, and without an audience it’s still toxic. Make strategic concessions to some of their best points, building goodwill and proving that you’re engaged in civil dialogue rather than hostile debate. And of course, warmly affirm the true things they say; truths will emerge to which you must be open. Though you may despise some of their opinions, you need to demonstrate that you’re an attentive listener so that they will in turn listen to you (this is not rhetorical rocket science, just Relationships 101).
4. Massage and Master the Medium; Select the Best. Your strategy should be appropriate to the specific medium (dinner conversation, work chat, email, text, Facebook, random social media comments, memes etc.). A book could be written about the nuances of each, but typically we want to shift the medium to something more (1) intimate and (2) thoughtful and extensive (3) responsive, as in, it generates a back-and-forth. For instance, a private conversation is inherently more powerful than Facebook statuses and walls, where people perform for a public, tribal audience (and for all you know, that random news article comment comes from a Russian robot!). An email or private Facebook message will foster a more thoughtful engagement than twitter and text because both parties won’t be focused on cramming zingers and wit into 140 characters. Assess their style of communication, and try to bring your own style into partial alignment with theirs (linguistic register, formality, sense of propriety, etc.). As a baseline, choose a style that uses plain, everyday language, conveys openness and curiosity (but with friendly conviction in your principles and purpose). Avoid ingroup jargon that makes outsiders defensive.
Even ignoring the content of the conversation, you can achieve minor miracles of persuasion with an apt style in an effective medium. Ideally I’d rewrite versions of this guide for specific media and contexts (your old friend on Facebook; your uncle at family gatherings). For a while, try ignoring the content of your political discourse and instead focus on its medium, for this “content” is sometimes a diversion, a “juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind”. Then, retool the message with insights from its medium. Dialogues that get shut down in a weak medium find new life in a stronger one. Switch if need be!
5. Open With Goodwill; Build Your Ethos; Identify With Audience. Never, ever open with hostility. Don’t even think of using a word that ends in *ism or *ist (racism etc.). The vast majority of Trump supporters have been inoculated against such terms, and have been insulted so many times that you will need to suppress your moral judgements as you initiate conversation (this is a guide for persuading other people, not yourself). Your opening move should be to establish shared values, goodwill, and your credibility as a speaker, humbly identifying with the audience in certain capacities. Convey integrity, but not righteousness or elitism. You need to — at least partially — align your interests and identify with the most noble aspects of the audience. Here are some phrases that may come in handy: like “Since we both agree that [the constitution is crucial] …”, “As a veteran [or as XYZ respected vocation]…”, “We’re both women who have experienced…”, “Since we know the 1% [or Washington elites] are against the interests of the average American… ”, “I respect [XYZ thing about you] so …”, “You’re right to be angry at Washington…”, “Since we both previously supported [XYZ common person] …”, “As someone who [currently or formerly] holds certain conservative beliefs…” and so on.
The more of this identification occurs, the more the audience will tolerate the uncomfortable truths you’ll later broach. Identification (as defined by rhetorician Kenneth Burke) was of the greatest discoveries of modern rhetorical theory. It is no exaggeration to say that your ability to identify with the audience will make or break your pitch. In the rhetoric of the campaign against Trump, the kneejerk rejection of identification with (current or future) Trump voters proved disastrous. I am not asking you to sympathize with bigots; I am telling you that you must identify with parts of the Trump supporter’s being, whether it’s their working class identify or some of their more nobler beliefs. Without producing some kind of alignment between the speaker and audience there will be no changing minds, perhaps the most difficult and uncomfortable truth that readers should heed. Without identification, the only sort of utterances that produce change involve coercion, which is outside the purview of rhetorical theory. Do not threaten, insult, or harass. Identify with the audience and change minds.
6. Work The Rhetorical Triangle. Your means of persuasion fall into three categories famously defined by Aristotle. Firstly, things to do with you, the speaker, and your credibility, character, and authority (ethos). Secondly, the subject at hand (American politics), and all of the facts, figures, and reasoning associated with it (logos). Thirdly, the audience and their emotions (which hinge on beliefs and values) (pathos). All three have their merits, but for refuting Trumpism, logos and pathos are probably more useful than ethos unless the audience knows and deeply respects you (in the beginning, they probably don’t consider you credible or expert in political matters). You can, however, probe their authority figures (celebrities/politicians/heros/athletes) to discover experts who they find credible and are also against Trump. Logos fits with academic and intellectual debate around policies, and is suitable for “idea people” or “show me the data” people. However, logos can be tricky because of the lamentable partisan destruction of centrist “facts”, the delegitimation of many media sources, the scarcity of critical thinking, and the ignorance of logical fallacies. Some Trump supporters replying to this guide have flippantly told me “just use facts and reason” and “leftists don’t have the facts”, which indeed proves my point here. Facts are not values; they are things that basically everyone can verify; people of many political orientations are endowed with reasoning skills.
Someone on the left or right claiming they have exclusive access to “facts” and “reason” is a huge political problem. So, in short, you need to use facts and reason in your arguments,but disparaging people as “irrational” doesn’t get you anywhere rhetorically. Sadly, given the percentages of anti-vaxxers, young earth creationists, climate deniers, etc. (note correlations with Trump support), using “strictly scientific” reasoning, under the purview of logos, may prove extremely tricky. Confirmation bias is off the charts these days; even people with excellent reasoning skills are inclined to “shoot the messenger”. Thus pathos stands out over ethos and logos in this situation. The approach is thus to grasp the emotional essence of their beliefs and values, and show how Trumpism violates in whole or part something they stand for.
7. Show Them How Trump and/or the GOP is Inconsistent With Their Own Values, Feelings, Identity, and Position in Society. Now that you understand their values, you need to show (more than tell) them how they’ve been mislead or even betrayed. You’re not imposing your beliefs on them in a frontal assault, you’re entering their world to show them how they’ve been deceived (be gentle initially: they haven’t deceived themselves, attribute blame to other people, or to a wide group that includes yourself). Here is where the Know Your Audience information proves crucial in customizing your persuasive strategy since you’re trying to show them the internal inconsistencies in their thinking (but not in a “told you so” or “you’re a hypocrite” kind of way). Yet as you reveal these inconsistencies, you can slowly suggest that their values are in fact consistent with the massively popular and inclusive movement that is rejecting Trump. To use a crass commercial metaphor, we are “upselling” the audience from a gaudy, ill-fitting, made-in-China suit or dress to a majestic bespoke garment, which indeed is the deal of the century because it’s less expensive (in actual and moral dollars). Only a crappy salesperson would utterly humiliate the customer for picking the wrong option while offering them no alternative. To use a more stately, Platonic metaphor, you need to become the midwife to the wisdom they themselves will birth, rather than “assaulting” them with your knowledge and thus entrenching them in an impregnable fortress.
8. Offer Alternatives and Belonging. We must eventually shift to the personal, social, economic, democratic, geopolitical positives of resisting Trump. And rather than metaphors of rejection, we can use metaphors of belonging to the resistance, to the right side of history (and the resistance is cool, c.f. Star Wars). We shouldn’t forget the social psychology of belonging and rejection; the rejection that many Trump voters experienced before the election lead them to seek a new belonging under Trumpism (supposedly this was a rejection of intersecting race and class, but that trivializes it complexity and importance). Thus we should offer them a better belonging. It is true that America was “divided” by election, but too often we forget there are a hundred other ways to slice its sociological pie. There are dozens of definable groups and subcultures which (1) offer belonging (2) aren’t entirely classifiable with a D or R (3) offer resistance to Trump. Since the audience invariably belongs to one or more of these groups — moms, veterans, fans of a sports team, mechanics, Catholics, owners of corgis, whatever — their belonging is a potential avenue of persuasion. Do not let the audience make a friend-enemy distinction (like Carl Schmidt); and if they must, make sure the alignment is between the majority of Americans versus the elites: Trump, Bannon, Putin, etc. Avoid stereotyping (“typical [XYZ] behaviour”) and counteract outgroup hate. Reslice the American pie in a way they’ve never seen before and offer them a piece.
9. Secure Partial Agreement and Identification While Informing Your Audience; Don’t Be Greedy; Repeat. At the end of the (first) session with a person, you’ve hopefully (1) agreed to keep talking and massaged the medium of communication (2) clarified their values, knowing them more intimately, and identified with them in certain respects (3) moved the needle in the right direction — securing a full disavowal of Trump is ridiculously optimistic. You should now understand some of their hypotheticals: “I would still support Trump if he does X but not if he does Y”. Perhaps you can show them that Y has already happened or is about to happen. Don’t forget the value of diagnostic information: once you’ve identified what’s called the stasis in rhetorical theory — the point at which the argument rests — you know where to devote your effort. Otherwise, you’ll just be talking over each other.
Now that Trump won, his defenders burden themselves with a vastly more challenging task, being stripped of all their anti-Hilary arguments and the specious equations between “just as bad” options. Stay future oriented: anti-Hilary arguments rationalize past Trump support, but they are irrelevant to the concrete actions his administration has already taken. You could ask your audience to respond to current and specific Trump tweets, harangues, and orders; these appear especially unflattering and unprofessional in isolation from the election history. We’ve all suffered from the sunk cost fallacy or commitment bias before, and this is clearly prevalent among Trump supporters. We’ve all dumped an excessive and irrational amount of money into, say, a crappy car, or excessive energy and commitment into a crappy idea or person, only to realize months or years later that we should have cut our losses a long time ago. Such biases are not rational, but they are, according to behavioral economics, deep in our nature. Thus you should help Trump supporters split off their past support (which may have been primarily anti-Hilary anyway) from the current reality of his administration and the GOP. Give them the chance to avoid doubling down on a bad bet.
Since the Dunning-Kruger effect is profoundly prevalent in Trump himself, and prevails among many Americans of different political orientations, as you make your political case you should educate your audience on apolitical ideas that will eventually prove useful. For instance, ~17% of Americans thought the ACA and Obamacare were different policies, and ~18% didn’t know if they were the same or different. Knowing that ACA=Obamacare is profoundly important, yet ~45% didn’t know that an Obamacare repeal was indeed an ACA repeal (as of approx January 25th). Everyone across the political spectrum needs to make informed decisions with tidbits such as these. Like Cicero said, teach, move, and delight.
The time and effort you spend with the audience — and whether you follow up in the future — depends entirely on your situation. But keep in mind that, if you’re certain you’ll follow up with the audience, you build a stronger argument by doing it slowly and deliberately. As I keep saying, you must invest and reinvest in the underlying communicative relationship (which should be much closer to love than war). If your church friend, golf buddy, neighbor, coworker, brother, etc. becomes pissed off or distant due to the amount of political energy you’re radiating, you need to cool your jets and spend more time listening to them or engaging other topics.
10. In Case of Medium to Massive Success, Obtain a Commitment:
- Telling other Trump supporters why they changed their mind and where their doubts emerged. Because of their special ethos, a former Trump supporter has unique potential to persuade others! On their own accord, Trump supporters are currently changing their minds, regretting and doubting their decision. If this was you, I’d like to know what pushed you over; your message is vital.
- Making calls to representatives. There are great online resources on who to call and what to say.
- Participating in townhalls, protests, and boycotts. I’m focused on changing minds, but eventually bodies must congregate and be present.
- Steering recovering Trump supporters towards non-kooky media and reading books about history, society, philosophy, critical thinking, logical fallacies, etc.
11. In Case of Total Failure, Spend Your Time Elsewhere; In Case of Mixed Results, Rally and Retry. The genius of your approach comes in its creative tailoring for the person; when you’re frustrated, return to their identity, your previous relationship with them, and their specific sticking points (stasis) on Trumpism. Some people are lost causes; others will take time. The mind is malleable; people both enter and exit cultish thinking. The metaphorical model for persuading a Trump supporter should not be conversion; they will not have an instant, life-changing “religious epiphany” that you somehow inspire. If they do experience epiphanic rejection of Trumpism, it will almost certainly come from within, in reaction to unforeseen events and growing doubts that people like you have fostered. Rather, your model for this persuasive encounter should resemble “getting them in to something”, like a TV show, sport, or hobby; resistance is cool (in addition to being morally necessary). People recommend shows on Netflix to each other on a daily basis; surely it’s possible to recommend better media. If they’re reading Breitbart, you probably can’t swing them across the spectrum to a left-leaning outlet. But you can nudge them leftwards towards a centrist source, or “up” the intellectual spectrum (Breitbart and Alex Jones make National Review look sane).
Right now, you’re existing in two different “frames of reference” (especially in regards to media and what is considered factual); the factual/ideological “Matrix” of Breitbart, for instance, seems to have no intersecting points with Huffpo. Yet there are common facts to both worldviews; they both agree that DJT is president, enjoys golf, and has issued certain executive orders, for instance. To this seemingly tiny island of shared facts, you can slowly add enough soil until you have enough ground to stand on for a real discourse. Bringing your two “frames of reference” closer together is imperative; if you can, support your case with facts from close to, or within, their matrix.
12. Alternate Plan: Ignore Trump Entirely and Focus on The Massively Broken Swampy System. If Trump is infallible for this audience, then you have the option of focusing on the cowardice of the political elite and its worst members, especially the manipulators and sycophants who are using Trump to gut institutions and programs that some Trump supporters actually value. But you don’t need to start with the GOP: you can include a wide array of spineless democrats, sleazy lobbyists, sly oligarchs, and general jerks who are against the masses. You can even — and this may be hard to stomach, so don’t do it if you think it ugly — portray Trump relatively sympathetically, revealing his manipulation by more powerful forces (Putin/Bannon/Wall Street etc.) who are keen betray Trump’s “positives” (his promises to reform the system, as hollow as they were), and in fact argue that Trump has been co-opted by The System to shore up its power. Many Americans will agree, in a fairly bipartisan sense, that Washington is broken. You can thus explain that the demand of the people for reforming Washington has been, yet again, subverted by insiders.
Ultimately, Shift Blame to The True Causes, and Agree to Fix Them. Taking a long view of history, the roots of the Trump crisis have virtually nothing to do with the man called Trump. Only a uniquely awful combination of 3, 5, or 10 systematic causes, swelling up over the past decades, allowed him to win. You and I will differ on their exact nature and extent, but potential causes or “factors” include: decades of neoliberal policy exploiting the working classes who eventually find external scapegoats, disenfranchisement and gerrymandering, a hyper-partisan media sphere with few centrist arbitrators, a sellout “infotainment” model to news and journalism, terrible civic engagement and knowledge, an erosion of democratic ideals or tolerant “American values” (whatever those may be), a resurgence or unmasking of resentment and bigotry, an education system that fails to produce sufficient critical thinking, the failure of the evangelical right to promote and embody Christian behavior and apply scripture to real life, and other long-term issues that transcend individuals like Trump and Clinton. Intelligent conservative commentators agree that only a fundamentally damaged republic could yield Trump. It is absolutely true that the individual named Trump must be defeated, but on the other hand, America’s obsession with the individual in general — his or her morality, successes, and scandals — numbs voters to systemic machinations.
So in a fully rational world, wouldn’t it make sense to start with the fundamental causes instead of the circuitous path I proposed? Of course, but we do not live in a fully rational world. And the Trump supporter you’re engaging almost certainly does not have the patience and background of a political scientist. Thus, the model I propose builds up from friendly face-to-face elements — your relationship to the audience — to slightly more abstract ideas about the failings of Trump and the GOP —and finally to the systemic issues that are hardest to understand, yet found expression through Trumpism. In academic debate we can skip right to this last level; in the real world, our path is rarely this direct. The symptom (Trump) proves itself vastly more immediate than the disease, but let’s start now with prevention.
Potential Lines of Argument Based on the Identity of the Audience
By this point, you’ll be stewing over the specific Trump supporters in your life, and generating more persuasive ideas than I could ever suggest because of your intimate knowledge. But to spark your thinking, here is a list of arguments that you can combine, customize, or reject based on what you know about the audience; note how many of the categories overlap:
- Religious => suggest that his policies and personality are immoral according to their religion. I will break it down further. Evangelical and knows scripture: argue via scripture. Evangelical and doesn’t know scripture: argue via prominent evangelicals against Trump and teach them a bit of scripture. Catholic: argue via Pope, Catholic refugee support, scripture. Christians, don’t forget Augustine. Jewish: argue via Bannon/alt-right/neo-Nazi/support for Trump. Muslim: play the lottery, you found a true rarity. I struggle to think of a religion in which Trump models principles of good behavior (never asked for forgiveness; no command of the scripture of any religion; cannot be reconciled with the scripture of any religion; took God out of the already perverse prosperity gospels, epitomizes the false prophet, etc.)
- Atheist/agnostic (and scientifically minded) => reveal terrifying implications for scientific research under Trump; sorry state of the EPA; funding cuts; no demonstrable scientific expertise in his cabinet
- Woman => respectfully make analogies between narcissistic, creepy men they know and DJT; rationalizing and normalizing sexual assault; incoming anti-woman policies
- Working class => demonstrate DJT is impoverishing them and enriching the 1% by expanding “the swamp”; gently suggest that they are not in fact “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” and that very few of the political elite, whether D or R, come from their socioeconomic or educational background. Show how racial resentment derives from brutal economics
- White working class => The same as above, but emphasize how the elites get the white vote by scapegoating non-whites while being fundamentally indifferent to their plight, eg. the rise in alcohol abuse, drug abuse (esp. painkillers), suicides, and related malaise
- LGBTQ: => extremely unlikely, but argue the obvious (via Pence)
- Parent => make analogies about bullying and respect among kids and the spoiled brat values DJT represents; future of their kids under DeVos and climate change
- Millennial => argue about the destruction of their future, the class warfare waged against them, their abuse as scapegoats for problems caused by their parents’ generation, and throw in a dank meme or two. Anti-marijuana policy may be relevant. Do they want to be known as the Milo generation or nah?
- Non-white => focus on cultural or ethnic community’s reaction against Trump, specific hate crimes, etc.
- Recently descended from, or works with, immigrants or refugees => argue his immigration/refugee policies are unamerican and hypocritical
- Businessperson => argue trade policies and travel bans will hurt bottom line; tourism industry is already showing signs of tanking; speculative bubbles developing according to Nobel winning economist
- Military => Trump is a coward (McCain, Vietnam, etc.) and dangerous (potentially entering unwinnable wars) and ignorant of military intelligence. Competence, duty, and respect are key values in the military; Trump lacks all of these
- True (ideologically consistent) conservative => argue Trump is a danger to conservatism since he doesn’t respect its institutions and values, or seem to be familiar with the real contents of the constitution, and will saddle the movement with decades of baggage. If conservatives actually conserve, then there are strong secular and religious arguments for conserving the environment, which will not fair well under a terrifyingly anti-science, anti-clean-energy cabinet
- Libertarian => Quite unlikely: Trump’s admiration of authoritarians, protectionism, expensive proposals, etc. should be anathema
- Elderly, Sick, or Caretaker => focus on ACA and social security, GOP ineptitude and indifference
- Independent => argue that the GOP are spineless sycophants who can’t control the negatives of Trump and will block him from doing some of the occasional good things he proposed
- Populist => identify with their anti-elite sentiment, but explain that right-wing populism is a betrayal of true populism, which is based on empowering the working class and is not authoritarian in nature
Ask a Rhetorician:
Q: Are you advocating Machiavellianism or realpolitik? Why can’t I just tell them precisely how awful I think their beliefs are? Isn’t this manipulation? A: No. I am encouraging people to suppress condemnation of specific voters in a persuasive situation in service of the greater moral cause of ending Trumpism. Furthermore, I encourage sincerity and condemn manipulative schemes in general (eg. pick-up “artists”). The only “insincerity” I’m promoting is holding back your potential burning desire to insult or dismiss Trump voters, because this destroys the possibility of engaging with them in dialogue. It is not Machiavellian of me to espouse fighting the contemporary echo-chamber. Precisely the opposite.
Q: So you’re asking me to engage in warm dialogue instead of calling them Nazis? That’s not radical enough for me or demands too much emotional labor. A: At this point, the strategy I’ve outlined is one of the more radical and subversive (but still honest) ways of causing change. Smug superiority that destroys communication channels is a disastrous strategy, thus I’ve tried to outline its mirror image. I agree it’s emotionally taxing and never said it was easy.
Q: If you teach people rhetoric, won’t the bad guys use it too? Didn’t Hitler use rhetoric? A: Everyone already uses rhetoric for a spectrum of moral purposes ranging from pure evil to pure virtue (c.f. the eloquence of MLK). Hardcore Trump supporters will have difficulty hijacking this guide for their own purposes because if they had the broad philosophical and humanistic education that deep rhetorical study demands, 99% of them would have rejected Trump. Etiamsi in utramque partem valent arma facundiae, non est tamen aequum id haberi malum, quo bene uti licet.
Q. What sources have shaped the rhetorical and philosophical thinking behind this guide? A: Mikhail Bakhtin and Kenneth Burke are key. Many of the explicit terms I use come from Aristotle, but there are spiritual elements from Plato, Cicero, Quintilian, and Augustine.
Q. How can I help improve this guide? A: from readers in dialogue with Trump supporters, I would appreciate constructive feedback about successes and failures; I’d like to hear from former Trump supporters what changed their minds. From people who study rhetoric, philosophy, political science, etc. I am curious what you think of my (very ad hoc) method, apologize for the many oversimplifications, and welcome any comments.
Q. What are some of the drawbacks or possible extensions to this approach? A: I’ve been told that I focused too much on small, interpersonal audiences. That’s probably true. I’m assuming that the average person reading this doesn’t have a huge audience eager for their messages (but if you do, please share it!). I’d be flattered if this could be integrated with other resistance resources. I’ve also heard the criticism that changing minds on Trump is impossible, which I vehemently reject. His administration’s actions after the inauguration are causing buyer’s remorse; Trump himself is the most persuasive anti-Trump “message”. But we need to foster a nationwide receptivity to that message.
Q. What do Trump supporters think of this guide? A: Some of them appreciate that I’m teaching people about dialogue, others seem keen on ascribing beliefs to “you” — as in me, the author, and as in “all you leftists [across time and space and every orientation]” — that are, to put it gently, nonsense. The whole spirit of the guide is dialogical and reasonably charitable, so I welcome Trump supporters to respond in kind (one poor chap claims my guide should be called “Fascism 101” even though what I’m preaching — dialogue and political dissent — was a crucial target and the very antithesis of historical fascism). I’d prefer you talk with me instead of at me.
Q: Why did Trump win? What does this teach us about resistance and rhetoric? A: To the dozen or so worthy factors and explanations that are already circulating, the rhetorical element should be added and accounted for. In America, the normative rhetorical standards of political discourse — around propriety, eloquence, the necessity of actual policy proposals, the dignitas of politicians — were already crumbling long before Trump’s rise. He represents about a decade’s worth of decay crammed into a year. Yet had these norms been in healthy condition, his rise would have been impossible. There are many different kinds of audiences, and too many critics of Trump made the rhetorical mistake of addressing a “universal” audience, as if orating on the grand stage of history itself, rather than a situated one, which was reading Breitbart on their phones.
We should separate rhetorical mistakes from political mistakes; my expertise more concerns the rhetorical ones (though I personally believe that democratic-neoliberal fusion was a profound political blunder). On the level of discourse rather than policy, the left was too monological and insufficiently dialogical, a fancy way of saying there was too much talking at and not enough talking with. The great perversity of the web is that it seems to be the ultimate discursive platform, but in many instances, it merely amounts to a billion separate soliloquies into the void, faintly aware of each other’s existence, but not meaningfully engaging. The interpersonal and discursive nature of politics must be reaffirmed against the spectacular and operatic; more “I and Thou” and less “I and It”; more eloquence entreating the soul of the listener, less excrement ejected into the vacuum of space.
If we think about the greater rhetorical situation of America via Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle — ethos, pathos, logos — the element of logos has been largely eviscerated in the discourse of politicians and the commentary on those politicians. An assault upon and defense of ethos has swelled up in its place, with a ridiculous amount of airtime devoted to the personalities of politicians instead of their policy proposals. Celebrity culture and its pernicious celebrity worship inflames political ignorance; politicians must be pinned down to the worth and coherence of their ideas. Trump’s career, of course, was produced by and reproduces the spectacular culture of reality TV. America killed the authentic political ethos and replaced it with mere “personality”: this shouldn’t be news to anyone on the left or the right.
Pathos has always held a key place in the form of voter sentiment, but its emotional content has been rearranged into the most expedient feelings (fear, resentment, etc.). If and when logos is fully annihilated in politics, we are all doomed, thus we must nurse it back to health. This will require, however, building the channels and relationships for its return, and defending the very possibility of dialogue between disagreeing parties and worldviews. There are massive, insidious forces at work in the modern world that splinter and separate knowledge and political beliefs into Balkan states, information silos, alternative universes, partisan epistemologies, or whatever metaphor you want to use. Here we must not be complicit. Healthier dialogue, in and of itself, cannot overcome these forces, but my hope is that this guide is a small contribution to those resisting the present crisis.
The eternal gripe of rhetoricians ancient and modern is that “rhetoric” became a pejorative term for the average person, rather than being a capacious descriptor for the arts, sciences, teachings, and traditions concerning eloquence, persuasion, and doing things with words. This continues today; at least 95% of election articles that mention the term “rhetoric” do so in a negative light. Rhetoricians want to share their knowledge with the public to help analyze good and bad arguments, a worthy idea. Yet they also tend to privately dream that the most noble public figures on the historical stage will also be the most eloquent, and fear that the most vile will have the greatest wiles, imbued with rhetorical cunning in the pejorative sense. Nightmarish notions of a silver-tongued demagogue, articulate and clever, once stirred their sleep; they worried about grandiose “political orators” like Belial and Satan from Milton’s Paradise Lost, furnished with a great boudoir of the most seductive phrases and the most enticing words.
And thus Trump’s victory often came as profound shock, for it was always assumed that the next demagogue of note would have a grammatical command beyond a 6th grade level; classical eloquence founded itself on top of rudimentary language skills; these were always taken for granted. Yet today’s editors require a generous gallon of red ink to bring Trump’s speeches up to the linguistic register of Reagan or Obama, an upgrade that is only a precondition for eloquence (there exist countless grammatically correct yet ugly speeches). Rather than as an insult to Trump, however, I mean this as a criticism and challenge for my fellow lovers of language, literature, philosophy, and rhetoric: we must come up with new avenues of engagement for voters under the sway of Trumpism and acknowledge his powerful transformation of rhetoric (understood in any sense you please). It is not enough to deem him a master of apophasis and move on. And evidently, this study and teaching of rhetoric after Trump cannot be a pedantic project of correcting voters’ grammar — elitism is political-rhetorical suicide at this juncture — instead we must restore a humble love for the logos in all of its countless philosophical, theological, and rhetorical senses and defend the very possibility of dialogue. Now desecrated, defiled, and derelict, our communal logos must be nurtured, venerated, and restored to its rightful rule. λόγος δυνάστης μέγας ἐστίν.
Rhetoric alone has undertaken the managing of private as well as public matters. For what could be thought up or said in the conduct of our affairs that does not require the power of oratory? … It teaches us to be provident and to avoid adverse things before they happen. If they should happen through chance or ignorance, rhetoric alone will come to our aid and will support us with hope or consolation. It adorns our successes and mitigates our disasters. It intimidates our enemies and strengthens our friends. It founds, preserves, and enlarges cities. It both promulgates and abrogates laws. But it is really foolish to want to enumerate all this, for the number of things that men have drawn from rhetoric, as from a divine fountain, is almost infinite. — George of Trebizond, a 15th century humanist