I want to take a few disparate thoughts and put them together.
In 2003, a man named George Edwards III wrote a book called On Deaf Ears which argued that what the president says doesn’t really matter. Edwards posited that presidential rhetoric was basically meaningless and didn’t cause people to change their opinion or their behavior in any substantial way.
Years later, after Trump was elected, I changed the syllabus to my political rhetoric class. I wanted it to reflect the times we are living in. I have taught that class a few times in the last four years and in that time the intro to the class has been some variation of this:
People who study political and presidential rhetoric right now find themselves in a quandary. Politics in America is a mess, to be honest. And, if success if gauged by winning elections, everything we thought we knew about political rhetoric was wrong. What we have long said was appropriate and would lead to success failed in 2016, and a new kind of populist rhetoric swept the nation, bringing a new kind of candidate into office. The flip side to that is that by all available metrics, those who came swooping in on that populist rhetoric have been total failures in office up to this point. What may have been successful on the campaign trail has proven woefully inadequate, and possibly even counterproductive, when it comes to governing. And in a time when our leaders are increasingly more communicative, it is becoming clearer and clearer that their rhetoric really does matter. So, this is a time of testing, and waiting-and-seeing for scholars of political rhetoric. What at first seemed like a repudiation of long-held wisdom may actually be an affirmation. You have come to this class at a time of upheaval. We are watching the rupture happen. This semester we will be looking at both some historical examples of poignant speech that mattered, but also speech as it happens. It is time for us to reckon with our nation’s words and their effects.
The reason these two things are connected in my head is because where Dr. Edwards was certain, I was raising a question – but we were both concerned with the importance of rhetoric. What does it mean? What does it do? Is it actually important? Dr. Edwards came firmly down on the side of “no,” though my understanding is in the last few years he has made room for some debate there. I was asking my students to consider the state of the field. Does public speech matter? Have we been making helpful observations all this time? Was any of this fruitful?
This is all on my mind because of the impeachment trial that happened in the last week. As a few in my field have noted, the impeachment managers acted as kind of rhetoric apologists in their arguments. Their entire argument was based on one central idea: what the President says matters.
The impeachment managers provided a cogent, articulate, and sometimes profound justification of my discipline. And 43 senators rejected it. So what does this mean? Does rhetoric not matter? Has it been officially rejected? Have the powers that be spoken and announced that what public figures say don’t matter anymore? What about the everyday citizen? What is the point of public discourse? Have these 43 people effectively canceled my discipline?
As always, I think it is more complicated than that.
First, let’s look at what rhetoric is or means from a few perspectives.
Barry Brummett describes rhetoric as a process. He says we make our own reality through rhetoric because we supply meaning. We participate in the creation of reality. In other words, reality is contingent on what we bring to it. It is not objective in the sense that it exists outside of our understanding. We bring our experiences, our biases, our senses, and our contexts to a situation to help us to make sense of a situation. In this sense we are co-creators in reality. In this way, we get meaning through communication.
So, things are not defined by objective reality but by their contexts. But since contexts are made out of other things similarly defined by their contexts, then everything in turn gives meaning to other components of its contexts. The discursive world is interconnected and gives meaning to each different part of itself. And so, reality is a complex web of meaning. Because of this, and because our experiences and communication that we bring to our situations are continually changing, defining contexts are always changing. This creates a complex discourse that helps us in the process of defining reality.
Richard Cherwitz and James Hikins describe rhetoric as not a means to create truth and reality, but also does not grant that truth and reality are completely objective, either. Rather, they posit a theory of “perspectivism.” They theorize three postulates: “(1) there exists a world of entities in some sense independent of our attitudes, beliefs, and values – a world in which we are powerless to either will or wish away most, though certainly not all events, (2) the entities populating the world – be they trees, stones, polar bears, values, thoughts or human beings – are what they are solely because of their relationships in which they stand to one another; and (3) consciousness is itself an occurrence arising when a particularly entity, such as a human being, comes to stand in a certain relationship to another entity or entities. These entities and the conscious subject comprise a complex interrelated array of constituents called a ‘complex of particulars.’” In other words, there are things that exist outside of us which we cannot change. But most things in the world are defined by how they relate to the other things in the world. And we, as human beings, understand ourselves and each other by our relationships to each other. That is the very nature of consciousness.
The crux of this theory is that there is no ontological distinction between entities, like justice or trees. It gets to the heart of the dualism that plagues other theories of truth and reality. Specifically, Cherwitz and Hikins say, “According to our formulation, the mental/physical distinction – and the dualist problem which has arisen from it is an unfortunate ‘category mistake’ that is an artificial categorization of the ‘object of experience.’” All objects, both the physical and things like “good” and “justice” exist.” They are both entities. But they both derive their natures according to their relationships to other things. They are defined similarly.
Raymie McKerrow has one of the most famous accounts of rhetoric and its primary functions (and really a way of being) in the world. McKerrow writes that Foucault’s analysis of the relationship between power and truth raises the question of the role of discourse as an agent of truth – and the answer is that it isn’t. According to McKerrow, “Truth is that which is supplanted by a newly articulated version that is accepted as a basis for the revised social relation. Once instantiated anew in social relations, the critique, continues.” In other words, relationships are essential. But McKerrow is particularly concerned with critical rhetoric. He says ideologickritik is not a method but a practice. “One operates from a perspective or orientation: ‘embracing a set of principles does not commit one to prescriptivism any more than it renders the critical act directionless.” McKerrow argues that the discourse of power is material. An ideology exists, in a material sense, and through the language which constitutes it: “Ideology is a property of the social world; but agents have the capacity to interact in that world to modify the discourse.” What is real is discursive and non-discursive. We don’t diminish non-discursive practices but acknowledge that the discussion of such practices takes place in terms of discursive practices. In other words, discourse is a material reality that fashions the relationships and reality of the world in which we live. That’s a bold statement. Rhetoric is a material force in the world. It moves and shapes things. Rhetoric is powerful and in a very important sense, “real.”
Dana Cloud takes McKerrow to task however for his materialist view of discourse and reality. Speaking of McKerrow’s argument, she says “on the one hand we find the limited claim that discourse is material because it has material effects and serves material interests in the world. This view, while tending toward idealism, does not equate reality with discourse. On the other hand, a more radical shift is evident, away from structuralist and realist ways of thinking. On this view, discourse not only influences material reality, it is that reality. All relations, economic, political, or ideological are symbolic in nature. This view tends toward relativism.” Cloud is wary of relativism because it avoids practical problems, such as economic stratification and disparity – true material problems. She cautioned that “Wander and McGee [two famous rhetoric theorists] argued it would be productive for rhetoricians to view discourse as an agency of economic and political power, and to bring rhetoric’s considerable repertoire of textual analysis skills to bear on understanding how political and economic power is mediated, reinforced, perpetrated, and challenged in all the texts we study.” But this does not get to the harsh realities of actual economic power. There are children starving in America. This is an economic problem. That is a material reality. To say that it is a rhetorical one erases the reality of the situation.
Cloud argues “In classical Marxist texts on language and culture one can discover two meanings of the word ‘materialist,’ the first suggesting the social relations and concreste, sensusous human activity are the source of human consciousness, and that human beings derive identity and purpose from their social contexts.” She continues, “The second, broader definition of materialism consists in the idea that the mode of production, or the way in which goods are made and distributed in society, determines the social relations and forms of consciousness of any given epoch.” Either way, it is relations that form the consciousness of people. Defining those relationships between people and people, and goods (or entities) and people, is essential to understanding reality.
“Idealism,” Cloud argues,” when defined in opposition to historical materialism refers not to the commonsense notions of wishful thinking of hopefulness about the possibility of social change, but rather to the tendency to overemphasize consciousness, speech, and text as the determinants of such change.”
Okay – so all of that was pretty complicated stuff. If you’re not a part of the field of rhetoric it might be confusing. So let’s re-cap. One theory is that rhetoric is a process by which we make our own reality. Reality is defined by a bunch of inter-connected contexts, because we define things contextually, and we use rhetoric to create these contexts.
Another theory is that all things exist in relationship to other things. Because of that a concept like “love” is just as real as a “rock” because their existence is defined in the exact same way. So we understand ourselves, and entities, including things as clear as “house” or as nebulous as “justice” rhetorically. Because it’s all in how they relate to other things, and we have to describe those things.
Then there is the idea that rhetoric itself is a material force. It creates reality and makes actual changes in the world. Rhetoric is a powerful force that affects the world we live in.
But some people have a problem with that theory. They think it leads to relativism and makes it impossible to deal with real-world problems. Rhetoric matters, but it does not create reality. It can persuade and influence, but it is not a material force in the world.
These are interesting theories to think about because in the last week we’ve heard, though maybe not in these exact terms, a sustained argument that rhetoric does, indeed matter. That it is a potent force in the world that can cause real harm if left in the hands of bad actors. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the impeachment managers argued that rhetoric was material, but they certainly argued it was persuasive. Rhetoric shaped a particular reality for a group of people who could not see the world outside of the contexts or perspectives of certain rhetors, led by Donald Trump, and the consequence was insurrection.
But, as I noted earlier, the Senate has rejected the argument that rhetoric mattered. They have acquitted Trump.
Let’s look a little closer here, though, shall we?
Immediately after the trial concluded Mitch McConnell told his fellow senators that “There’s no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.” McConnell believes that the president’s rhetoric specifically and in reality, lead to the events of January 6th. He voted one way but believes the opposite. We don’t know whether other senators feel the same.
We also must look at the practical results of the impeachment trial. The results of the trial may have been acquittal, but what happens after that? Will this simply encourage the kind of behavior or rhetoric that got us here? This could be anywhere from divisive to dangerous.
If the results are that Trump faces criminal trials in various states, then we will continue to hear the arguments about how his rhetoric caused real and lasting impact. But what’s more important is that we may SEE how his rhetoric did.
We are seeing now how conspiracy theorists have infiltrated the legislature. We have seen how Q-Anon has moved from a fringe, unknown discourse to a mainstream influence. We are also seeing in real time how it is reacting to the lack of Donald Trump’s constant communication. We have seen the increased radicalization of the GOP base and are now witnessing the fracturing of the party.
And the condition of the GOP is something Trump’s rhetoric is measurably responsible for. The GOP has become notable more authoritarian, anti-democratic, and reactionary in the last few years, losing voters in every demographic except uneducated white men. It is shrinking at a remarkable pace. But instead of re-assessing and shifting gears it is digging in its heels and marching toward Trumpism. Trump had, overall, the lowest favorability percentages of any president in history and the GOP is embracing Trumpism wholeheartedly. They are moving in the exact opposite direction that the country is telling them they should be moving. They may be playing to the wants of a vocal base, but the majority of the country is rejecting Trumpism and leaving it behind. So in some ways the senatorial rejection of the impeachment managerial team’s argument DOES show the power of rhetoric. Those 43 senators have been swayed by a particular narrative. Trump’s rhetoric has proven powerful with a small audience and it is tearing apart the Republican party. In the next 10-15 years we may well see just how powerful rhetoric really is and this acquittal may be one of the hallmarks of that.
The more paranoid among us fear that this combination of Trump’s rhetoric and the Senate’s vote may be leading the country into a period of insurgency. There are four primary stages to an insurgency: pre-insurgency or pre-conflict; incipient; open insurgency or open conflict; and resolution. According to the Center for American Progress some experts believe we may be in the incipient stage of an insurgency. The pre-conflict stage was when the recruiting, training, and arming happened. Pro-Trump militias, neo-Nazis, and white supremacist groups organized and began to ready themselves for the coming conflict. “The next stage of insurgency, “incipient conflict,” is “when insurgents begin to use violence … but are still weak and organizing.” In the incipient stage, leaders play a key role in unifying the insurgency, and studies highlight the importance of leaders in normalizing the political violence during this stage. Some experts believe America may currently be in the incipient conflict stage of an insurgency. The events on January 6, 2021, as well as calls for further violence ahead of President-Elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, support that conclusion.”
If America finds itself facing continued uprisings and violence from Trump supporters, which has not happened yet, let’s be very clear, then we will have to contend with the power of Trump’s rhetoric in ways that outstrip any president in recent history. But not as a president. Trump has clearly failed as a president. We will have to contend with Trump as an insurgent.
But for now such things remain hypothetical, and (hopefully) far-fetched. The biggest proof that we have that Trump’s rhetoric mattered is actually his acquittal itself. While that may seem counterintuitive, I argue that the senators who voted to acquit were not rejecting that his rhetoric mattered but were indicating that they had accepted his rhetoric. This rhetoric was anti-democratic, authoritarian, and subverted all institutional norms. The senate’s vote did just the same. The senate was simply following Trump’s orders, which was to ignore the evidence of their own eyes and put party, which in this case was Trump, over country and integrity. The acquittal, while it may seem a repudiation of the argument that Trump’s rhetoric mattered, is actually proof positive that Trump’s rhetoric is effective and makes a difference in the reality we are living in. Forty-three senators live in a reality in which Trump’s rhetoric is more convincing than the constitution, democracy, or their personal safety. The acquittal shows how he has effectively created a whole reality for an entire group of people.
A few weeks ago I argued that a Clinton presidency would not have saved us from our problems. And I stand by that. But I also admit that Trump has expedited and worsened the problems we had. But one favor he has done for me personally is to show that what I do matters. Because what we say matters. He wasn’t kicked off of Twitter for no reason. Facebook didn’t shut him down just because. It’s because when it comes down to it, we all recognize that what he said made a difference.
Rhetoric is not just the study of powerful people. It is the study of voices of all varieties combining to make the discourse that defines us. True, some voices are louder than others, but that doesn’t mean yours doesn’t matter. Rhetoric defines our contexts. It gives us perspectives. Some people think it changes the world. Others think it helps us with practical problems. But there is no doubt that it is powerful. A well-placed word, or sadly, a poorly placed one, can move the masses.
So as you go about your week, I encourage you to think about your relationship to rhetoric. How are you helping to contextualize your world or shape a perspective? How are you crafting reality? What are you doing with that Facebook post? That Tweet? How are you contributing to the discourse? We don’t all have to be prophetic rhetoricians all the time. Nobody is asking that of you. But I do want you to think about how you are contributing to the discourse in which you find yourself. Because we KNOW rhetoric matters. And like it or not, you are a rhetor. You are speaking and somebody is listening. What do you have to say?
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.