Tag Archives: public rhetoric

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.

The President’s Rhetorical Style

                                wikipedia.org

There is still time, but at some point soon Trump’s trail of rhetorical malfeasance will deny him the legitimacy he needs to be an effective president.

After the first few weeks of the Trump Administration we can begin to see the rhetorical style he will adopt as the nation’s chief executive.  And it’s altogether unsettling because it is still mired in a rudimentary campaign style we expect leaders to abandon as chief executives.  Presidents need to act on the premise that they have the interests of the entire nation at heart.  What will work for an insurgent candidate—and Trump was a classic example—is not suited to the kind of useful bridge-building that we expect from a President.  The nation’s leader must be at least nominally respectful of the other branches of government: the courts, congress and the “fourth branch:” a free and independent press.  Presidential language is usually inclusive rather than divisive, better when talking about “us” rather than “I” or “me,” and usually aspirational rather than apocalyptic.   We want leaders to recount the myths about ourselves we want to believe.  “Making American Great Again” partly fits. But given Trump’s history, the phrase carries the stain of retreat at the very time that the American project has made enormous gains:  in LBGQ and women’s rights, economic recovery and a rising African American middle class, a more inclusive approach to health care, the rebirth of many American cities, and meaningful action to curb environmental abuses.  So for those who see social and political progress in American life, a program to make the country what it once was triggers the corollary question: what exactly is the moment in our past that you want to revisit?   Most college educated Americans are well-versed in patterns of recent history that indicated narrower opportunities for African Americans, women, and others who felt the effects of discrimination.  Is there anything that motivates this vision beyond the admirable but questionable possibility of more home-based manufacturing?

Trump’s recent rhetorical style doesn’t offer much reassurance.  Combine his sentimental search for a better past with the puzzling impulse to speak telegraphically, and there are few opportunities to amplify a coherent vision of where he wants to take the nation.  It used to be a liability to speak only in short sound bites.  Trump has tried to turn that style into a leadership asset that seemed to work best in counties with citizens who are generally less productive and less educated.1

Additional aspects of his style are now well known or will be.  Here are just three:

He is excessively self referential.  Trump has a hard time engaging values and ideas.  He clings to discussions of his actions and successes, along with those whose slights are renamed as threats.  Hence we get the rather offensive message delivered as an adolescent Tweet that “the media” are “the enemy of the American people.”  Among most American thinkers, Thomas Jefferson would been aghast to hear such a statement.

To be sure, Trump is not getting good press.  But he seems to have forgotten the old adage to not argue with people who buy ink by the barrel.

The President lacks subtlety, often veering into the realm of hyperbole.  His words now come back to him as caricatures:  “Sad!,” “disaster,” “loser,” “moron,” “bad,” “amazing,” “huge,” “sick,” and so on.  It’s a language hovering at the fringes of false dualisms.  Consider this segment from his press conference of February 16: “I inherited a mess, it’s a mess at home and abroad. A mess. Jobs are pouring out of the country. See what’s going on with all of the companies leaving. Going to Mexico and other places. Low minimum wages. Mass instability overseas no matter where you go. The Middle East, a disaster. North Korea. We’ll take care of it folks. We’ll take care of it all.”

This kind of disaster talk is the way a homeowner might first react on discovering a flooded basement.  But as President he will need to come to terms with the world as it was before Trump noticed. “Taking care of it all” is not in the cards. If ever a figure needed a sense of history and the soft touch of nuance, it is an American leader trying to govern a diverse nation.

His rhetoric signals an individual who is paradoxically needy, but not very “other directed.”  He seeks approval, but only on his terms, something that will be increasingly problematic as he is forced to maneuver within the federal establishment.  He won’t be able to “win” every time he tries.  And courtship and compromise with his competitors and opponents will have to be something he learns on the job.  He needs to start by turning himself into a better listener, reader and seeker of middle-ground solutions.

Trump is prone to scapegoating.  Defeats or setbacks always have an external cause.  Seemingly not given to self reflection, Trump redefines obstacles or criticism in terms of the venal motives of others.  And so there is a growing verbal salad of accusations made against others that comes closer to the language of webpage trolls than presidents who must cultivate a degree of forbearance.  Among the hundreds of diatribes uttered about those who have contributed to his opposition or the ostensibly weak state of the nation include, among many others: Macys (“very disloyal to me”), John McCain (“always looking to start World War III,”“sadly weak on immigration”), Mexico (“they’re killing us”), the mainstream media (“My rallies are not covered properly”), Meet the Press (“totally biased against me”), Barack Obama (“hollowing out our military”), Germany (“going through massive attacks to its people by the migrants allowed to enter the country”), Hillary Clinton (“the most corrupt person to ever run for the presidency of the United States”), and so on.  Trump’s logorea of endless persecution now runs into the hundreds (“The 307 People, Places and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted on Twitter: A Complete List,” New York Times, February 7, 2017).

It used to be a liability to speak only in short sound bites.  Trump has tried to turn that style into a leadership asset that seems to work best with the less productive and less educated.

True, presidents are not in the habit of public self-criticism.  But most resist the urge to find an external cause for every obstacle.  When the Obamacare first went “live” online and quickly became less than user-friendly, it was indeed the President who admitted there was a problem.  He promised a reset and moved on.

Sadly, this President doesn’t seem to recognize that his daily rhetoric throws off obvious signs of an outsized need for approval.  He seems to lack the requisite self-awareness of a fully functioning person.  So the august rhetorical tools of the presidency–among them, remaining silent in the face of criticism–mostly go unused while he entertains himself on social media and rails against cable news anchors.

There is still time, but at some point soon Trump’s trail of rhetorical malfeasance will deny him the legitimacy he needs to be an effective president.

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1. Mark Muro and Sifan Liu, “Another Clinton-Trump divide: High-output America vs low-output America,” Brookings Institution , November 29, 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2016/11/29/another-clinton-trump-divide-high-output-america-vs-low-output-america/