The older you get, the more you realize that your parents knew what they were talking about. I’ve spent an entire education ignoring the existence of rhetoric, and specifically, “rhetoric” as in this definition from Merriam-Webster:
: the art of speaking or writing effectively: such as
a : the study of principles and rules of composition formulated by critics of ancient times
I mean, I knew that there were all of these fancy names for rhetorical moves–but, who could be bothered to memorize them, and why bother? Then I started studying for the C1 DALF exam, and realized that understanding discourse markers could be damn useful. From there, it’s a short step to thinking in a more principled way about how to put an argument together, and from there…well, rhetoric and its “rhetorical figures” are just right around the corner.
There’s a point to studying rhetoric. You can see it in Wikipedia’s definition of the term:
Rhetoric is the art of discourse, wherein a writer or speaker strives to inform, persuade or motivate particular audiences in specific situations.
The key words: inform, persuade or motivate. At this, Trump is, unfortunately, a master: he persuades the hell out of people. (We’ll get back to which people in a bit.) Did he soak up a bunch of rhetoric courses at whatever college he did his draft-dodging in? I don’t know–but, you can see lots of fancy–and some not-so-fancy–rhetorical techniques in his communication. For example: the ad hominem argument. As Wikipedia defines it:
Ad hominem (Latin for “to the man” or “to the person”), short for argumentum ad hominem, is a logical fallacy in which an argument is rebutted by attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, or persons associated with the argument, rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself.Wikipedia
Sen. McCain should not be talking about the success or failure of a mission to the media. Only emboldens the enemy! He’s been losing so….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 9, 2017
…long he doesn’t know how to win anymore, just look at the mess our country is in – bogged down in conflict all over the place. Our hero..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 9, 2017
Does Trump respond to the content of what Sen. McCain said? No–not at all. What he does: he attacks the person who communicated the content.
Does this work? Well: he’s the president of the United States of America. Did he get the most votes? No–but, he’s still the president.
A different question: on who does this kind of crap argument work? And it is a crap argument: an example of a fallacy. You could argue that it works on people who are too stupid to catch the move. In this particular case, I’m guessing that you would be correct. Back to the definition of rhetoric again: discourse that is used to inform, persuade or motivate particular audiences in specific situations. You could take the position that the “particular audience” at whom he aims this crap is mostly made up of people who either (a) don’t begin to understand the implications of what the guy is pushing, or (b) do, but are deluded enough to think that burning the world down would be a cool way to start over. You could take the position that the “specific situation” is a shared delusion, a sort of mass hysteria. But, that clearly isn’t the only time when ad hominem arguments get taken seriously: there is a version of this that is common on the left, as well. (Just to be clear: I am on the left.) In that version, you don’t even bother to claim that the content is flawed because the person is flawed: you argue that the content shouldn’t be listened to, because the person is flawed–irrespective of whether or not it’s relevant in any way, shape, or form, to anything about the person whatsoever. Again, to be clear: just because people on my side of the aisle do it doesn’t make it right. Doesn’t make it valid. Doesn’t make Trump any less of an asshole, and doesn’t make the majority of the people who voted for him any less deluded.
I’ll close with an observation about France versus the US: as far as I can tell, ad hominem arguments work a hell of a lot less well in France than they do in my country of origin. Is it because the French are (as far as I can tell) generally less into emotion and more into logic than Americans are, and vice versa? Is it because French students are required to take philosophy in college, and we’re not? I don’t know. I do know that in France, your art will not be boycotted if you happen to be, say, a recidivist thief (Jean Genet), a rapist (Roman Polanski), or a horribly vicious Nazi collaborator (Louis-Ferdinand Céline). (This isn’t an absolute. On the 50th anniversary of his death, Céline was to be included in the list of people included in the Célébrations nationales. Mitterand nixed his inclusion. As Le Figaro put it: Une vive polémique s’est ensuivie.) In contrast: in America, if you’re an asshole, your art will, in fact, probably be boycotted. The point of all this: as far as I can tell, the French are not nearly as susceptible to the ad hominem argument as the Americans. Yes, I’m generalizing, and no, nobody fits their stereotypes, and no, I am an expert neither on America, nor on France. Nonetheless… You can certainly give counter-examples, and plenty of them–but, as a general rule, this holds.
la rhétorique: rhetoric.