Tag Archives: Donald Trump

Rhetorical Exigencies

Listening to the President issue his bellicose threat against North Korea made people around the world wonder: why now?

Early in their college careers students of rhetoric are introduced to the enduring idea that a leader’s public remarks are shaped by some kind of precipitating event.  As the University of Wisconsin’s Lloyd Bitzer noted decades ago, public figures respond when they believe their words will answer a problem, bending it’s trajectory in ways the speaker imagines will be positive. In the short version of the idea, rhetoric is a response to an “exigency.” It doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s almost always a piece of a larger conversation provoked by a significant event. George W. Bush was slow to react to Hurricane Katrina, taking a lot of heat for the delay. He was better in assuring Americans after 9/11.

This simple notion that has not gone unchallenged, but it is also more than an empty academic term.  It rewards us by asking that any comment be set in the context of immediate past events, not just as an isolated island of thought.  When a president or public official speaks, we expect that there are clear reasons–significant antecedents–for steering our attention toward certain issues. The theory goes on to note that in significant ways the antecedents will govern the response.  The glaring lateness of Donald Trump’s denunciation of white hate groups last Sunday is a violation of the principle. But his tone deafness on key events always been one of his problems.  His comments are too little too late or too much too soon.

Of course  Pyongyang is always making threats, but nothing coming from them seemed to warrant an out-of-the-blue threat to engage them and the world in a potentially catastrophic nuclear exchange.

Listening to the President issue his bellicose threat against North Korea on August 7 made people around the world wonder: why now?  At the time he was in the midst of a meeting on the nation’s opioid crisis, and yet the warlike language on North Korea is how he unburdened himself when reporters were ushered into the room:

North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. [Kim Jong-un] has been very threatening beyond a normal state and as I said they will be met with fire and fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.

Apparently only after his comments did we learn that the North Koreans blustered that they were looking at options for attacking Guam, some 1800 miles away. Of course Pyongyang is always making threats, but nothing coming from them seemed to warrant the President’s out-of-the-blue challenge to engage them and the world in a potentially catastrophic nuclear exchange.

This was troubling because the sabre-rattling affair would make more sense if the exigency for his words was after North Korea’s threat. But no. Trump commented first on a Tuesday of last week. The North Korean’s comment came on Wednesday. In the short term, the larger exigency resided with the Koreans.

It is so like Donald Trump to make inaccurate and combative comments for reasons that only he understands. Too often his reference points are still the former president and Ms. Clinton. In his rhetorical wanderings he often seems like a befuddled fisherman casting a line miles from the closest stream. In this case he did have legitimate bragging rights after the unanimous United Nation’s vote to increase sanctions against the North. Any other President would have used the occasion to build off this diplomatic success. But on the sanctions he was mostly silent.

In this strange pattern there is a lesson in how much we are hardwired to place the flow of a person’s ideas in a larger frame of reference.  Meaningful rhetoric is almost always a moment in a river of known events.

Exigency theory explains how we arrive at attributions of other people’s motives. We naturally search for the antecedents that seem to trigger strong reactions in individuals. There is a form to these things. We expect to be able to identify contributing factors for a significant presidential statement. This feeds into the dialogical form that is second nature to us. We mentally ‘build out’ from a person’s words to make conclusions about what likely gave rise to them. When we ask questions like “why did Mary say that?” we are looking for the triggering exigency. When we can’t find one, we worry that we are missing something important, or that the speaker has a chaotic mind that has drifted into magical thinking.

A Pity-Party for the Man From the Penthouse

 

                              wikipedia.org

His utterances come with a vast victimology that ranges from the press, to former friends and GOP allies, to loyal members of his cabinet.

Our President seems unnaturally sustained by a rhetoric of grievance.  Any event that calls for a public comment includes lines that alert us to his belief that he has been the victim of grave injustices. It hardly matters where he is: speaking to the boy scouts, holding a press conference with foreign leaders, in the comfortable womb of a Fox News, or acting out a kind of sundowners syndrome in reverse, with incoherent morning tweets mixing self-pity and verbal abuse. And so one morning we learn that it’s “sad” that even Republicans “do very little to protect their President.” (Tweet of July 23).  That self-referential quote is typical and also concerning in its switch to the Nixonian third person.  With these kinds of utterances comes a vast victimology that ranges from the press, to former friends and opponents, to loyal members of his own cabinet.

Presidents typically emphasize transcendent values in their comments.

This is all uncharacteristic coming from the person who holds what was until recently the position of “leader of the free world.” And its 180 degrees from where a President’s traditional public rhetoric should be.

Presidents typically emphasize transcendent values in their words. John Kennedy’s quotable Inaugural Address called on Americans  to fulfill the nation’s basic goodness. Trump’s will be remembered for his offensive description of America as a dystopian land of “carnage,” a tasteless dig at his predecessor seated a few feet away.

I can remember when the nation was shocked to hear a president level criticism of an American industry. Presidents didn’t do such things. The occasion was the 1962 decision of United States Steel and others to raise the price on its basic product.  President Kennedy feared it would feed inflation. In a press conference he bristled with frustration at the news.  He thought he had an understanding with company leaders, but was blindsided by the announced price rise anyway. His annoyance was the headline of the day.

Even so, we don’t remember JFK as an angry man. The steel issue consumed no more than a few moments in a press conference. Instead, we remember the countless times he used the presidential pulpit to celebrate American institutions, innovators and ordinary citizens. He had the grace and apparent modesty to let his actions speak for themselves.  And we had the sense that he was bigger than his small frame; a charismatic if cautious tactician able to absorb setbacks without demanding that others notice.

For many younger Americans like myself Kennedy was also the model of cool, the presidential equivalent of a musician like Miles Davis or the young actor Ben Gazzara. Their personas were slightly enigmatic and their words were measured, understated to let their talent do most of the talking. They are a long way from the needy billionaire installed in the White House who is defined by his daily whining.