Donald Trump’s rhetorical genius and the making of a demagogue

Jennifer Mercieca, scholar of American political rhetoric at Texas A&M University, had been working on an academic paper on demagoguery in politics, but she was missing a compelling current example of a successful American demagogue.

Then, along came Donald Trump.

A year ago, Mercieca wrote a widely disseminated piece for a journal, The Conversation, entitled, “The rhetorical brilliance of Trump the demagogue.” After Trump became the Republican nominee’ she had a contract with Texas A&M Press for a book with a slightly revised title, ‘The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump, Demagogue for President.’

It will be the story of a man with an incredible knack for branding, self-promotion, deflection and misdirection meeting a moment in history — when the American public was so frustrated and distrustful, politics so polarized and the media so fragmented — that Trump could not only fulfill Mercieca’s expectations but would exceed them.

“I had no idea he was going to get elected,” Mercieca said. “I thought that I was writing a book where we would kind of smugly laugh, like, ‘Oh, ha ha,’ and then (he’d get) destroyed by Hillary Clinton, and, ‘Isn’t it a good thing the demagogue didn’t win?’”

But on Nov. 8, the American electorate decided otherwise.

“I sent an email to the editor the next day, Wednesday morning. I had to catch a plane to a conference, and said, `Ah, I don’t know. Can I still write this book, you know, can I call the president of the United States a demagogue?’ And she said I could, if that’s what I thought because, academic freedom.”

‘Leader of the people’

Demagogue is a Greek word.

“It translates to `leader of the people,’ so there is no reason why a leader of the people has to be a misleader of the people,” Mercieca said. “It’s not a negative thing necessarily.”

She said that George Grote, the 19th-century British scholar who wrote the epic “History of Greece,” viewed demagogues as “what was best about democracy, that they were upholding democracy and democratic values and defending it from the oligarchs who were always trying to overthrow it.”

“But others, like Plato and Thucydides and Aeschylus and Aristophanes, they didn’t like democracy — and in fact some of them were oligarchs and they didn’t like rhetoric. They were philosophers,” Mercieca said. “Our understanding of the term is loaded, and it is filtered through those who hated democracy the most – Plato and friends.”

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The modern definition of a demagogue is a leader who uses his rhetorical gifts for personal gain, without regard to truth.

Mercieca said in ancient Athens, demagogues proposed policies but were never actually entrusted with implementing them in governing, so they could never be held accountable

Trump’s innovation, she said, was that he campaigned to lead the government under the banner “I won’t be accountable.”

“He ran on the fact that he was going to be an unaccountable leader and that we should give him the power to make America great again,” Mercieca said. “Anytime anyone tried hold him accountable – the Pope, The New York Times, the Republican Party – it didn’t matter. Anytime anyone tried to hold him accountable, he said, `Don’t listen to them. I know how to make America great again. I got great ideas, the best ideas. I’m really smart.’”

At another time in history, she said, Trump’s hubris, disregard for facts and instinct for insults would have been disqualifying.

But those defects were now political virtues in a nation where partisans swam in separate streams of information and misinformation — each holding their own truths to be self-evident — and viewed their political rivals as enemies undeserving of respect.

“And so that allows for someone like Trump, who tells his story over and over again in a way that resonates with them, in a way that can’t be contradicted from the outside,” Mercieca said. “The fractured media community allows for that.”

Trump’s rhetoric

Mercieca said that Trump relied on a number of demagogic rhetorical techniques.

Trump used argument ad baculum — threats of force — to energize his troops, as in this riff from a rally last December in Macon, Ga.: “If somebody hits me, I’m going to hit them so hard. We’re going to hit them 10 times harder. There’s only one way to get to the top. And it’s all through Trump. Let’s face it.”

“When people come after me, they go down the tubes,” he said.

In Wilmington, S.C., in August, he said vis-à-vis Clinton and gun rights, “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks … Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”

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Mercieca said Trump is a tireless master of argument ad hominem— personal attacks — like his disparagement of former Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina’s appearance: “Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?” Or his negative branding of his rivals — Low Energy Jeb Bush, Lyin’ Ted Cruz, Little Marco Rubio and Crooked Hillary Clinton.

Mercieca said Trump relied on argument ad populum — the crowd is wise, the experts are fools — with his constant reference to polls that showed him ahead — when they showed him behind, they were “rigged” — and winning as the supreme value.

In place of provable assertions, she said, Trump favored paralipsis — his “I’m not saying, I’m just saying” technique.

A Mercieca favorite paralipsis from Trump’s discussion of his rivals in New Hampshire last December: “All of ’em are weak, they’re just weak. I think they’re weak, generally, you want to know the truth. But I won’t say that, because I don’t want to get myself, I don’t want to have any controversies. So I refuse to say that they’re weak generally, O.K.? Some of them are fine people. But they are weak.”

Toward his enemies, Trump practiced reification, or, what Mercieca calls “thingification.”

“He treats people as objects when he doesn’t respect them or they criticize him. They are enemy objects. He always uses `that’ instead of `who.’” she said.

And Trump presents himself as the personification of American exceptionalism.

“With Ronald Reagan it was,`Let’s make America great again.’ Let us, let you and I – make America great again,” Mercieca said. “Trump took the `us’ out.”

Mercieca is trying not to get too distracted by Trump’s post-election news-making. She has to finish writing her book, which is due out next fall.

But, as president, Trump has to do something that was not expected of the ancient demagogues: deliver on his promises.

“If he doesn’t build a giant, great big beautiful wall in the next couple of months here, then I think he’s got this expectation that is unfulfillable,” Mercieca said. “If he doesn’t repeal Obamacare, if he doesn’t bring back American jobs and everybody does not have a great factory job in the next few months, I don’t know how much time people are going to give him.”

“He set pretty high expectations that he can do all these things,” she said.

But, Mercieca said, “He’s been wily and surprised me all the way through.”

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