2016: A Study in Rhetoric Gone Bad

Little can be said about the 2016 primaries and general election campaign that reflects well on the field of rhetoric.

Conduct all the focus groups you want. Study all the data available. What is revealed is that Donald Trump's rise is better understood by other fields than rhetoric.

Show his supporters facts, what most consider indisputable facts, and Trump voters dismiss the facts. Examine the emotional nature of his language and they don't care. Show them the contradictions. Reveal whatever you choose, Trump voters will often dismiss evidence against him… and no amount of persuasive skill matters.

If every voter had a college education, maybe the statistics would hold and we'd have different candidates and outcomes, but that doesn't help me feel better.

Some of my colleagues suggest there is a great lesson: "If only we taught classical rhetoric universally, there would be no Donald Trump [or Candidate X, Y, and Z, either]." That's as weak as the argument that the humanities somehow improve us as people, when many dictators fancied themselves creative artists and had been classically schooled in the arts. Evil people can be brilliant. There are plenty of brilliant sociopaths. Don't confuse intellect or education with goodness.

A lot of smart, educated, elite people supported Lenin, Stalin, Castro, Mao and, before World War II, some major publications reported glowingly on Hitler and Mussolini. People forget that educate people defended (and defend) some horrible dictators and bloody revolutionaries.

Trump, unlike many dictators and revolutionaries, isn't a skilled enough faux-populist to rise to power. At least that is my hope. Trump isn't intelligent, he simply has a college degree from a top-ranked university. I'm not certain that means much anymore.

An entire generation of scholarship will be possible thanks to the 2016 campaigns.


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