James M. May: How Donald Trump Wins Arguments

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by James M. May

Can Ethical and Emotional Appeal Carry Donald Trump to Victory?

People love Donald Trump. People hate Donald Trump. He presents himself as a rule-breaker and an independent thinker, but is he perhaps following some very old rules? Is he a student, two millennia removed, of the great orator Cicero?

More than two thousand years ago, Marcus Tullius Cicero, Rome’s finest orator, published his masterful treatise, On the Ideal Orator. It constructed a portrait of the person Cicero would consider to be his perfect public speaker. Now, more than two millennia later, we find politicians in the public eye employing many age-old techniques of persuasion, for good or for ill, and with varying results.

In On the Ideal Orator, Cicero bases his system of persuasion on the Aristotelian notion of three main sources of proof to use in persuading people: logos (rational argumentation: I make a good case), ethos (the presentation of character: don’t you think I’m a reliable guide?), and pathos (the arousal of emotions in the audience: don’t you feel the way I do?).

Rational argumentation has its foundations in two basic processes, induction and deduction. But not many would say that rational argumentation via induction and deduction has been a strong suit for either presidential candidate this year. Both resort almost continually to the other two sources of persuasion, ethos and pathos—and this seems particularly true of Mr. Trump.

Proof based in ethos persuades by effectively presenting the speaker’s character. If you win the admiration and approval of your audience, they’re ultimately more sympathetic to your argument. Hand in hand with the positive self-fashioning of your own persona goes the negative character portrayal of your opponent. “Lyin’ Ted,” “Little Marco,” and “Crooked Hillary,” have all had a taste of Donald Trump’s negative character portrayal tactics, and certainly there will be more to come.

But it is in the presentation of his own persona that Mr. Trump seems once again to have defied all tradition and convention. Consider what character traits Cicero identifies as most effective in winning over the confidence and sympathy of a speaker’s audience:

Now people’s minds are won over by a person’s prestige, his accomplishments, and the reputation he has acquired by his way of life… The effect of such things is enhanced by a gentle tone of voice on the part of the speaker, an expression on his face intimating restraint, and kindliness in the use of his words, and if you press some point rather vigorously, by seeming to act against your inclination, because you are forced to do so. Indications of flexibility…are also quite useful, as well as signs of generosity, mildness, dutifulness, gratitude, and of not being desirous or greedy. Actually, all qualities typical of people who are decent and unassuming, not severe, not obstinate, not litigious, not harsh, really win goodwill, and alienate those who do not possess them. (On the Ideal Orator 2. 182)

Are these the character traits that anyone could use to define Donald Trump’s public persona? Cicero, like most modern-day political pundits, would be flabbergasted to see Trump’s success—both in the primary run and now in the actual presidential campaign, in the face of flaunting such long-standing conventional wisdom about rhetorical self-fashioning. Surely, the absence of such traits largely explains Mr. Trump’s negative approval ratings; it must, however, also account for a good deal of his success.

Indeed, it appears that Trump has purposely defied age-old traditions in fashioning an ethos that is markedly unrestrained, obstinate, brash, and in-your-face. But isn’t he here following Cicero after all? Has he not made it his special strength to create his own character, his own ethos—his own image? All the voters who say they know he’s trouble but still want to vote for him are not being persuaded by his rational arguments—they’re sold on the ethos.

The third source of proof is pathos, persuading by appeal to the audience’s emotions. The speaker’s goal is to sway the feelings of his listeners so that they will side emotionally with him. Cicero realized the great power of argument based on emotional appeal, often calling it the most effective means of persuasion. For him, ethos involved knowledge and exploitation of the milder emotions, while pathos dealt with the more violent emotions:

Related to this [i.e., ethos]…is the other mode of speaking I mentioned, which stirs the hearts of the jurors quite differently, impelling them to hate or to love, to envy someone or to want his safety, to fear or to hope, to feel favor or aversion, to feel joy or grief, to pity or to want punishment, or to be led to whatever feelings are near and akin to those other such emotions… But such enormous power is wielded by what one of our good poets rightly describes as “soul-bending speech, the queen of all the world,” that it cannot only straighten up someone who is bending over and bend over someone who is standing, but also, like a good and brave general, take prisoner someone who is offering resistance and fighting back. (On the Ideal Orator 2. 185-187)

If Mr. Trump is largely unconventional in shaping an effective and attractive political ethos, he embraces fully the Ciceronian notion of pathos. Democratic commentators on Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention harshly criticized it for its dark tone, its negative view of the country, and its fear-mongering, perhaps not fully appreciating that such a tone was precisely what Trump was aiming to set. Cicero wouldn’t have been fooled, and might well have admired it.

So Mr. Trump has cleverly and successfully identified a collection of emotionally-charged issues—from the ever-increasing national debt to illegal immigration to the threat of domestic terrorism—that have some significant resonance with a large portion of the electorate. He plays upon fears that certainly have legitimacy for many people (e.g., the loss of jobs or the threat of a terrorist attack), and he offers hope that these fears and anxieties can be allayed with a change in leadership (“Make America Great Again!”). The crowds that he has attracted and the enthusiastic, sometimes almost frenzied reactions that he evokes, testify eloquently to the power of emotionally-based persuasion, what the Roman poet called “soul-bending speech.”

Relying on the emotions as sources of persuasion through the effective use of ethos and pathos is a tactic as old as oratory itself. Several of Cicero’s own surviving speeches show a heavy, sometimes almost exclusive reliance on these modes of proof at the expense of rational argument, especially when the facts of his case were weak or lacking. As we enter the final months of the presidential campaign, we are already witnessing (from both sides) an increase in attacks on the opponent’s character and more flagrant appeals to emotion. If Trump wins, the experts will have many things to say. I hope at least a few of them remember to say something like, “and you know, Cicero was right.”

Click through for an analysis of Ms. Clinton’s oratory vis-a-vis classical norms.

MayJames M. May, Professor of Classics and Kenneth O. Bjork Distinguished Professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, is the author of How to Win an Argument: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Persuasion (Princeton).

This post is part of a series, explore additional posts here<< Leah Wright Rigueur: Black conservatives do not speak for the black majorityAmy Binder: Conservative organizations and the suspicion of higher education >>

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  1. […] Princeton University Press tries to explains Donald Trump’s success as a speaker. Mr. Trump has cleverly and successfully identified a collection of emotionally-charged issues that have some significant resonance with a portion of the electorate. He plays upon fears that certainly have legitimacy for many people, and he offers hope that these fears and anxieties can be allayed with a change in leadership. […]