Donald Trump may sound like a clown, but he is a rhetoric pro like Cicero

Joe Romm writes: A key purpose of hyperbole is to express the emotion of anger, as Aristotle explained in classic work, “Rhetoric,” the first in-depth study of the art. Aristotle explains the hyperboles “show vehemence of character; and this is why angry people use them more than other people.”

When Trump makes wildly over-the-top claims — he’s going to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it — it has no effect on his supporters to point out that this is hyperbolic nonsense. Quite the reverse. Trump’s claim moves them emotionally and persuades them precisely because it is hyperbolic nonsense. They are angry, and he’s showing that he is angry too — which is vastly more effective communications than the bland assertions by the professional politicians that they “understand” there is a lot of anger out there.

“Your language will be appropriate if it expresses emotion and character,” notes Aristotle. “To express emotion, you’ll employ the language of anger in speaking of outrage; the language of disgust and discrete reluctance to utter a word when speaking of impiety or foulness; the language of exultation for a tale of glory.”

Trump loves the rhetorical device of phony “reluctance” to utter a word or phrase: “She just said a terrible thing. You know what she said? Shout it out because I don’t want to say. OK you’re not allowed to say and I never expect to hear that from you again. She said — I never expect to hear that from you again — she said he’s a pussy…. That’s terrible! Terrible.”

This figure, apophasis (from the Greek word for “to deny”), emphasizes a point by pretending to deny it, stresses an idea or image by saying you don’t want talk about it, as with Trump’s use of “pussy.” A favorite of Cicero’s — “I will not even mention the fact that you betrayed us in the Roman people by aiding Catiline” (63 BC) — it’s also called paralipsis (from the Greek word for “omission”).

Trump, however, is more Ciceronian than Cicero himself:

  • “I was going to say ‘dummy’ Bush; I won’t say it. I won’t say it,”
  • “I refuse to call Megyn Kelly a bimbo, because that would not be politically correct,”
  • “Unlike others, I never attacked dopey Jon Stewart for his phony last name. Would never do that!”
  • “I promised I would not say that she [Carly Fiornia] ran Hewlett-Packard into the ground, that she laid off tens of thousands of people and she got viciously fired. I said I will not say it, so I will not say it.”

Seriously — but then again, this should be very serious, selecting a President.

Shakespeare and the great rhetoricians of the past knew and regularly used some two hundred figures of speech. Equally important, they knew which figures expressed which kind of emotion and hence when to use them to get the desired emotional effect.

In recent months, scholars have pointed out Trump’s use of a great many different figures beyond hyperbole (including various figures of repetition) — he uses more figures more often than any of the other major candidates. They’ve called him “a brilliant master of rhetoric” who has “plundered the figures of classical rhetoric.” [Continue reading…]

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