By Fern Johnson, Research Professor of English
I begin with two givens. First, we teach our students to argue clearly and convincingly in both their writing and speaking. As faculty members, we aspire for our students to be not just facile with words, but also skilled in how to build a case for their point of view through supporting assertions and propositions with evidence that is credible and can be checked for veracity. Let’s call this “sound argument.” Second, most of us hope that politicians will meet high standards of argument, but we also assume they’ll cut corners in supporting their arguments and make promises that won’t be kept. Let’s call this “political cynicism.”
In any political campaign, it’s now expected that voters will need to be vigilant in ferreting out lapses in sound argument simply because those lapses are now expected. We’re also likely to give candidates we like more leeway and to assume they adhere more vigorously to sound argument and score higher on “truthiness,” to use late-night show host Stephen Colbert’s term.
When Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, spoke to the Clark community shortly after the 2008 presidential election, she laid out the findings of Annenberg’s fleet of fact checkers to demonstrate that lapses in sound argument in campaign advertising were more or less equally distributed among Republicans and Democrats. Not surprisingly, many audience members were shocked that the campaign of the newly elected Barack Obama was no better overall in presenting sound argument than was that of the defeated John McCain. Looking back now, 2008 was a pretty good year.
In August, PolitiFact reporter Aaron Sharockman summarized the changes from the 2008 to 2012 election cycle to the current situation, writing, “Statements that are False or Pants on Fire have been on the rise, increasing as a percentage of facts checked for the cycles of 2008, 2012 and 2016.” PolitiFact, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism project, found more inaccuracies by President Obama in 2012 compared to 2008, and more inaccuracies by Hillary Clinton this time around compared to 2008. For the 2016 cycle, the group reported Donald Trump has been “four times more likely to receive a False or Pants on Fire rating [than Clinton].” No wonder there is political cynicism.
With the first debate (and I use the term “debate” loosely) between Trump and Clinton behind us, we now have the opportunity to look at what’s going on with the communication approach of each candidate. Are there patterns? Are there discernable strategies in how each communicates with the public?
Before the first debate, Trump received substantial media coverage, beginning with the sprawling Republican primary candidate list, for his seeming disregard for the rules of the campaign game and for lapses in civility. What was evidenced over and over was Trump’s departure from the conventions of sound argument by repeatedly (1) planting unsubstantiated facts and (2) using what linguists call discourse implicature, which dangles an implication without actually making a firm statement.
Several commentators have noted Trump’s use of bandwagon phrases such as “many people are saying,” “some people are saying,” and “everyone knows” to leverage whatever point he wants to make without providing factual backing. For example, when Trump said Judge Gonzalo Curiel would be unable to be impartial in the case brought against him by students of Trump University because he “happens to be, we believe, Mexican,” he masked a proposition as a fact that we now know isn’t true. Nonetheless, Trump painted the judge as biased and alien through implication simply by the words he used. Dropping “we believe” into the sentence provided enough validation to suggest that there is a larger “we” beyond Trump, which invites his supporters to say that they too “believe” this. Trump’s statements about the Kahns, who spoke at the Democratic National Convention, functioned similarly. Along with lashing out at Khizr Khan whose son died in Iraq, Trump said of Khizr’s wife Ghazala Kahn that “she probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.” Here he implies a cultural fact about gender but parries it to his audience with the quip, “you tell me.” Essentially, Trump is saying that the statement is likely true, but he’s also inviting agreement from listeners.
Trump also uses a type of rhetorical device that leads the audience to draw conclusions by implication without offering specific evidence. His repeated accusation that Hillary Clinton will, if elected, abolish the 2nd amendment illustrates his frequent resort to this strategy, which poses a statement such that the listener is invited to fill in his or her own interpretation.
Clinton has been following what are roughly conventional recipes for political argument. She defines a problem, gives some evidence to flesh out the nature of the problem, and then says what she plans to do about the problem if elected president. If one goes to a textbook on the types of evidence, she covers all the bases — statistics, examples, personal stories, comparisons, statements from authorities.
Pivoting is a rhetorical strategy that allows a speaker to either account for a change in information and circumstances (for example, Clinton’s explanation that there are different definitions of “classified” for purposes of concluding whether or not an e-mail is classified) or move to a different but related topic. Although both Trump and Clinton often answer a different question than was asked, Trump is more apt to simply change the subject while Clinton pivots to something technical (and technically accurate) or to a related matter.
With the now way-too-long campaign moving into the final weeks, the American public (as well as many throughout the world) awaited the first debate on Sept. 26. Would Trump say something outrageous? Insult yet another group? Imply some heinous action by his opponent from her past or if elected? Would Clinton look weakened from her bout with pneumonia? Would she be pelted with more questions about her emails?
In many ways, we were able to see and hear quintessential Clinton and Trump showing their verbal and nonverbal styles in a magnified manner because of the nature of the occasion.
Clinton filled her portion of the 90-minute debate time with facts and figures from her arsenal of knowledge about a broad range of topics. Fighting back against the perception that she isn’t relatable, she smiled a lot, and seemed to easily deflect Trump’s accusations with a soft version of her big laugh. She appeared strong and energetic to the end, replying to Trump’s attempt to belittle her taking time off the campaign trail to prepare for the debate by saying that “yes” she did, and that she had also been preparing to be president. She saved her one jab of the rhetorical finger until toward the end, when she raised the issue of Trump’s maligning women.
Trump seemed less prepared and more rattled, and by his own admission, had not drilled down on the issues to get ready for the spotlight. The split screen image allowed the viewer to see both candidates at all times, and Trump’s facial expressions ranged from his signature pouts and grimaces, to raised eyebrows, averted eyes, and tilted head. He kept interrupting Clinton, and even interrupted the moderator on several occasions. Some commentators noted he looked worn out in the second half of the debate — with The National Review calling it a “low-energy performance” and mentioning he was sniffling at times — an interesting twist on his criticism that Clinton is low energy.
The fact checkers worked diligently during and after the debate. The Washington Post offered this summary: “Trump repeatedly relied on troublesome and false facts that have been debunked throughout the campaign. Clinton stretched the truth on occasion,… but her misstatements paled in comparison to the list of Trump’s exaggerations and falsehoods.” This assessment aligns with fact checking throughout the campaign: Clinton’s massive arsenal of largely verifiable statements and Trump’s fast and loose use of numbers of questionable truth.
One way to interpret the communication styles of Clinton and Trump could be called a case of “reasoned argument vs. anti-argument.” There is nothing surprising in Clinton’s approach because it meets expectations for political discourse as we have known it and as it is practiced by almost all politicians. She’s more skilled than most, and her experience over the decades has added to the vast knowledge she uses to make her case.
Trump has shocked the country and the world with his approach. He’s crass and crude, offensive in his comments about others, and he appears to have complete disregard for facts and data verification. At campaign events and during the first debate, it seems his verbal display is one of unfettered stream of consciousness, that is, whatever comes to mind — assertions, pseudo-facts, reactions to what’s going on — moves directly from impulse to verbal and nonverbal expression. In this way, his strategies are textbook cases for how not to construct arguments.
So what gives with Trump? Could it be that he knows exactly what he is doing, and that his strategy for public discourse is to do everything possible to demonstrate how distinct he is from both established and aspiring politicians? In this scenario, Trump strategically manages his public discourse so that it appears stream of consciousness. In this scenario, he cultivates hyper-exaggeration, off-the-cuff commentary, and insults considered socially unacceptable in the context of public, civic discourse. Commentators often wonder why he digs himself deeper into trouble by not apologizing for his comments rather than amplifying what is considered crude and socially unacceptable. He’s using a style, honed over the years, because he believes this will lead others to see him as authentic rather than politically expedient. He claims also to be expressing what he knows that some others are feeling and may have suppressed. Based on the many voices of his supporters, that strategy appears to be working. In contrast, to be well prepared, polished, and complex is perceived as being inauthentic. The conclusion he hopes the American public will reach: Trump is the real deal, and Clinton is a phony.
We’ll soon know to what degree the voting populace swings in the direction of reasoned argument versus “anything goes as long as it’s not status quo politics.” The next few weeks will bring rallies, speeches, campaign stops across the country, and two more debates. Trump might move to a more “presidential” demeanor and discourse style. Maybe not. Clinton might wonk it out to the end, even if baited. Maybe not. Today’s undecided voters are November’s jackpot. The winner, of course, will not take all, because the public arena for political discourse has been changed in ways that were unimaginable before this campaign season.
It’s usually the candidates who take their blows. This time around, entire groups of people have been targeted. Whatever the outcome, there will be plenty to rehash about the principles of sound argument and plenty of cynicism to last until the next presidential election.