This year’s election cycle is certainly the most bizarre in memory—though not yet as frightening as the 1968 race was (to me). That’s not to say it’s not scary in its own way, which it certainly is. I’ve been watching Town Halls, debates, and reports on rallies until I am practically blue in the face—with months and months more to come. We have seen some good commentary on language (Donald Trump’s spoken language is at third grade level—at best; Hillary Clinton doesn’t use as many “feminine” markers as does Trump). Each candidate has a signature phrase or two that keeps popping up like a jack in the box. But what has struck me most about both candidates and reporters is the contempt with which they use the word “rhetoric.” When a candidate lies, it’s “rhetoric.” When claims aren't anchored in any truth at all, it’s “rhetoric.” When reporters describe exchanges during debates, they almost always invoke “rhetoric” as getting in the way of reasonable, sensible language. Recently, one candidate said that Donald Trump’s “rhetoric” has incited violence at his rallies.
Of course, rhetoric has been tarred with the insincere/deceptive brush since ancient times (see Plato, for one). And down through the ages, rhetoric has often been compared to dialectic, seen as the scientific and worthy pursuit of Truth, while rhetoric itself is linked with doxa (common belief) and “little t” truth, or the best choice possible amidst many competing claims.
Of course rhetoric can be used for good or for ill: no one denies that Hitler was enormously effective as a persuader. We could name many, many others who have used language to deceive and to harm. That’s why I think it is so important to draw a distinction between the destructive use of rhetoric and its opposite. If students know the word “rhetoric” when they come to my classes, they have these negative associations with the word. Yet I am soon able to introduce them to my definition of rhetoric—the art, theory, and practice of ethical communication. This is the rhetoric Wayne Booth held up against what he called “rhetrickery,” the practice of deceptive, dishonest, destructive communication Hitler—and many other demagogues--practice.
It seems to me that candidates and commentators alike could use this concept of “rhetrickery” today, because it signifies what they are actually complaining about and does so with a very memorable label. They might then be able to compare that harmful rhetrickery with candidates who practice rhetoric as the art of ethical communication.
In any case, I hope that all teachers of writing are taking time during this campaign season to work with students to analyze the arguments being put forward by candidates. Once students understand that they can break a speech (or advertisement or news release) down into its claims and the support for the claims, once they know how to identify the tropes and stories a candidate relies on, once they can do fact-checking for themselves—they are exercising that part of rhetoric which is for self-protection, for seeing through deception and dishonesty clearly enough not to be harmed by them. Rather than being caught up in mob psychology, they can take a step back and differentiate rhetoric from rhetrickery.
As this seemingly endless campaign drags on, we need clear thinkers and ethical speakers more than ever.