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).

Can Kasich Accentuate the Positive?

by Lynn Vavreck

Lynn Vavreck’s forthcoming book is a followup to The Gamble, the real-time election book she published with John Sides in 2012. Their current project, written along with Michael Tesler, is a data-driven, real-time analysis of the 2016 presidential election that will show how data and political science research reveals what matters (and what doesn’t) in the campaign for the White House.

Amidst a nominating contest filled with bluster and ad-hominem attacks, John Kasich is presenting himself as something different. His campaign has a notably positive tone and although Mr. Kasich trails his opponents in the delegate count, he continues to campaign mainly on empowerment and experience—and there’s some evidence that people like it.

Mr. Kasich’s campaign has run fewer television ads than his opponents, but his ads have proven compelling to analysts. Writing about Mr. Kasich’s first television spot, Philip Rucker of The Washington Post described the ad as having “arresting images,” “moody shots,” and a narrator with a “gravelly voice.” The music in the ad is equally interesting—part blues and part rock with a dash of grunge. It lends an authenticity to the ad’s message: John Kasich lived a “hard-scrabble life in a rusty steel town” and now he’ll take that grit to Washington and “never give up.”

But is this ad attractive to voters? Do they engage with its positive message? If Mr. Kasich blankets the airwaves in the upcoming days can he gain traction?

To answer this question I combined analytic tools provided by G2 Analytics, SageEngage, and YouGov with support from Vanderbilt University and UCLA to convene a virtual focus group. In this project, roughly 1,000 people were divided into four groups to watch and react to two political ads in real time. Some participants saw one of Mr. Kasich’s ads, others saw one of Donald Trump’s first ads. If viewers liked what was playing on their screen they could respond by clicking a bell and if they disliked it they could click a buzzer. They could do this as many times as they wanted in either direction. People were also asked some questions about the ads after they played. The participants are representative of the U.S. population and were divided equally and randomly into four groups of roughly 250 each: the first saw no campaign ads, the second saw only Mr. Kasich’s ad, the third saw only Mr. Trump’s ad, and the fourth group saw both campaign ads.

During both 30-second spots, viewers registered both positive and negative ratings. On average, the moment people liked best in Mr. Kasich’s ad was near the end, when the voice-over says, “They say our best days are behind us,” as these words appear on the screen and are also read aloud with punch: “America, Never. Give. Up.” This reference to a halcyon past is as close as Mr. Kasich gets in this ad to attacking Mr. Trump, whose slogan, “Make America Great Again” implies a return to a past far better than the present. In Mr. Kasich’s ad, viewers liked this rallying cry for American hopefulness best of all. His positive message moved people who saw this ad.

The part of Mr. Trump’s ad that people liked was near the middle when black and white images of military engagement are shown and the voice-over says, “He’ll quickly cut the head off ISIS and take their oil.” The Trump ad also talks about a “temporary shutdown of Muslim’s entering the United States,” and building a wall on our Southern border that “Mexico will pay for.” Although the ad isn’t attacking any Republican candidates directly, it begins with images of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to clarify Mr. Trump’s positions from “the politicians” with whom he disagrees. His no-nonsense language moved people who saw this ad.

Overall, 42 percent of viewers who saw only the Trump ad rated it both as unfair and negative in tone. Only eight percent of the Kasich-only viewers felt the same about the ad they watched. Nearly half the Trump viewers thought the ad was untruthful relative to 16 percent of the Kasich viewers. Emotionally, 70 percent of the people who saw only Mr. Trump’s ad said it made them feel angry while only 22 percent of the people who saw only Mr. Kasich’s ad felt this way. Similarly, 74 percent of the Trump viewers felt worried after seeing the ad; only 37 percent of the Kasich viewers were left worried.

Viewers were also asked about how happy or hopeful the ads made them feel. Mr. Kasich’s ad left viewers a bit more of each, but only by a margin in the single digits. In terms of overall memorability of the ad, Mr. Trump’s ad wins—63 percent said they thought the ad was memorable compared to only 39 percent for Mr. Kasich’s ad. Both ads increased support for their sponsor in a hypothetical general election contest against Hillary Clinton by a few points (Mr. Kasich’s gave him a bigger boost).

Mr. Kasich’s ad left people somewhat happier and hopeful—and didn’t worry or anger them as much as Mr. Trump’s. They rated Mr. Kasich’s ad 10-points above the “average political ad” in overall quality while placing Mr. Trump’s ad 5-points below the average ad.

In the end, however, viewers thought Mr. Trump’s relatively negative, unfair, and untrue ad (according to their own ratings) was more memorable. This was true even for viewers who saw and rated both ads together, but memorable may not be the same thing as effective. On average, people rated Mr. Kasich’s ad as making them happy and hopeful—and as being higher in overall quality—and there’s some evidence to suggest that despite saying Mr. Trump’s ad was more memorable, Mr. Kasich’s empowering message moved people: among people who saw both ads relative to those who saw no ads at all, people increased their favorable ratings of Mr. Kasich by 11 points; Mr. Trump’s favorability, however, only increased by 3 points.

Join John Sides and Lynn Vavreck for a free online discussion and Q&A on The Gamble [Change in Date!]

Event logoJoin Shindig.com and political scientists John Sides (GWU, The Monkey Cage blog) and Lynn Vavreck (UCLA) for a free online talk about The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election followed by an audience Q&A session.

Date: Friday, October 7, 2013 [Change in date!! this was originally scheduled for September 27, but is postponed to October 7]

Time: 3:00 PM EST

Place: Your computer — all that’s needed is a fast internet connection and access to an internet browser

Sides and Vavreck will reveal their Moneyball approach to campaign analysis and discuss the writing process for The Gamble, a book praised by Nate Silver as “the definitive account of what really happened and what really mattered in the campaign.” Sides and Vavreck specialize in bringing hard data to bear and casting doubt on a lot of commentary and conventional wisdom. As a result they inject a dose of much-needed reality into a discourse too often dominated by speculation and folklore.

You can learn more about Sides, Vavreck, and The Gamble at the book’s dedicated web site: http://thegamble2012.com.

Check out the event page at Shindig: http://shindig.com/event/the-gamble. Let us know if you’ll be there by RSVP’ing below, though this is not really necessary — you can just show up if you want.