Category Archives: Rhetorical Mastery

The Face of Trumpism Comes into Focus

 In a single 24-hour period the term “Trumpism” went from being a description to a pejorative.

                                                                          USA Today

Americans increasingly learn what they know from what they see. Many still can’t seem to grasp the Covid-19 threat, partly because it is not visible and must be confirmed in a lab. The threat seems abstract, hence not quite real. A hoax, perhaps. This principle of using a simple-minded visual guide for all that matters operates in many spheres of life, and even for all of us in the vivid images of delight in the chaos that motivated the mob at the Capitol.

All were white, and clearly delighted with the mayhem created in spaces most of us think of as sacred.

He started his administration on the Capitol steps four years ago ominously invoking the theme of “American carnage.” Almost to the day it will end, his proxies gave us a representation of what that can look like. In a single 24-hour period the term “Trumpism” went from being a description to a pejorative. As its supporters violated the our grandest government building, we saw its face in ways we will never forget: some costumed as warriors, most seemingly aggrieved by a complex world they don’t understand. Others expressed the feeling that they have been pushed to the margins.  All were white, and clearly delighted with the mayhem created in spaces most of us think of as sacred.

Trump has stood for very little beyond a virulent nationalism, focusing mostly on an unflagging sense of self-regard. He built his Presidency on the sand of his carefully combed visage, as well as a constant rhetoric of grievances. And it paid off, at least for a while. As Senator Cory Booker noted in one of the best of the delayed January 6 speeches in the Senate, Trump supporters seem to be part of a cult, carrying flags emboldened with a person’s name rather than a more inclusive symbol of hopeful values.

Watching the demonstrators milling around the Capitol, I was struck by the fact they seemed to have little to say; no argument to make, no ideal to uphold. “USA! USA!” and “Take back the steal” was heard most often. I’ve noticed the same pattern in other rallies. Holding a banner or flag is the thing. There appeared to be no war to protest, no law to challenge, no congressional action to dispute. They were there mostly to simply witness for Donald J. Trump:  a real-estate speculator turned into a cult figure.

Writing or Typing? It Seems to Matter

Edited notes of Walt Whitman– Library of Congress

Would Shakespeare’s prose scan differently if he had used Word?

In the Preface of his recent 700-page presidential biography Barack Obama observed that writing only works for him if he lays out what he wants to say in longhand. With his natural fluency he notes that “a computer gives even my roughest drafts too smooth a gloss and lends half-baked thoughts the mask of tidiness.” This is certainly a minority view these days, but this observation should give the rest of us some pause. He may be correct. Those of us who insistently invent our rhetoric at the keyboard should wonder if we have turned ourselves into typesetters first, and conveyors of significant meaning only when we can see past the instant formalism of text in pixels. Compositing in the frame of a word processor is its own satisfying act, but perhaps lets us drift away from the hard work of creating ideas worthy of the attention of others. Would Shakespeare’s prose sound differently if he had the use of Word? And what about Walt Whitman? His crossed-out scribbles seen in early drafts suggest he would have loved the ability to instantly copy, erase and edit.

And then there is the problem that some of us have that we cannot always read what we wrote. We need the help of a word processing program. The President probably did not have to transcribe his words into print. Others surely helped, and probably nudged a few errant nouns or verbs to their rightful places. But his point still stands.


We may not internalize ideas as well if we are typing them out.

One reason the choice of composition in longhand or at the keyboard is interesting is because we have some evidence that students are better notetakers if they are not using their laptops. Indeed, more university professors ban them from their classes, partly because of convincing research done at the Air Force Academy and elsewhere. These early studies suggest that we don’t internalize ideas quite as well when we are keying them in to a digital device.  The effects that play out here are a bit more subtle and complex, but we are generally more engaged when we must put thoughts down on the surface of a page.

I suspect that when we write in longhand, we look to our minds to reword what we have heard. That moment may be key. It means we have engaged with a topic differently than if we drift into a mode that is akin to taking dictation. An idea has gotten its hooks into us anytime we try to reword or simplify it.

Remember typewriters? I’m duty-bound to report that my best class in junior high school was–of all things–typing. My fingers could fly over an old Olivetti with few errors. But copying from the typing manual let my mind drift elsewhere. I had no idea what I was “writing.” Forty-five words a minute was not a problem, but this was a kind of dexterity more more akin to modern game-playing than engaging with ideas.

Now, as I wrap up a book, I have a disquieting reminder from the 44th President that I might have sometimes used my brain more than my mind.