It would be difficult to imagine a more incongruous pairing of names in a headline than Donald Trump and Aristotle. The above title doesn’t mean that the Donald actually studied Greek philosophy, although the ancient one’s name may have passed blankly beneath his eyes as a young. inquiring student. As J.M. Keynes is known to have quipped, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.” Or in this case, philosopher.
The Republican Party in its currently distorted form has been changing the conventional rules of political discourse. As outlined in Jeff Greenfield’s Politico piece, “Why the GOP Will Never Accept President Hillary Clinton” (Aug. 18), conservative leadership has shifted its focus over the past few decades from debating issues to delegitimizing the Democratic Party opposition. This change of emphasis has altered the tone and substance, or lack thereof, in our national political conversation. Whatever post-November consequences will result for governance and life in the U.S. will be due in large part to this new way of framing the debate, or what amounts to a different rhetorical style. To the extent that campaign advisers craft messages to create impressions and be persuasive, they are practicing rhetoric, which was invented by Aristotle. Knowingly or not, we are all his students.
Of course there have been a few developments in language and society in the past 2,500 years, but the original concepts of rhetoric still stand. In delivering a speech, or let’s call it a political performance, there is a speaker, an audience and the speech itself. When Donald Trump speaks publicly he immediately overwhelms us with his high estimate of his own character, erasing any notion of modesty or measured temperament. Then if he later attempts to dial down this personal bravado or backpedals on an issue, trying to appear more reasonable and acceptable, it comes across as contrived — a transparent ploy. So a major criterion that voters use to judge candidates is largely lost to Trump since one’s character is not expected to oscillate like a strange weather forecast. Nor are we used to candidates who present their qualification as a foregone conclusion, a contemporary divine right of kings.
Trump fares better addressing his audience of disaffected citizens. This demographic doesn’t seem to be bothered, as yet, by their man’s erratic behavior or condescending manner. Trump knows he has set the hook in this group and believes they will stay on the line through Election Day. His inability to reach other constituencies, however, is another matter and probably a fatal weakness. Minorities are unlikely to respond well to his hostile anti-immigrant positions or lame catch-up appeals, e.g., African-Americans should vote for him because they have nothing to lose.
The political message, platform, or worldview is usually how we sort and rate candidates, although there is a blending of personality and position. A “strong” individual will seem less likely to favor cooperative projects — withdraw from NATO — and more inclined to confrontational tactics — get tough with the Chinese. Given Trump’s history of uninformed or erroneous statements, together with an attention span not suited to prolonged deliberation, there is little solid ground on which to judge a hypothetical Trump presidency. But that’s not really an obstacle for his followers, who are willing to roll the dice in a desperate act of faith. The Donald will get them a better deal in a somehow better world.
The usual ways of evaluating candidates — who he/she is, what they stand for, who their target voters are — suggest a shaky path to a Trump presidency. So it’s not surprising that his campaign is descending to character assassination, and worse, of his opponent as an election strategy. Why? Rational debate and careful examination of political differences are not Trump’s style and probably doomed to fail anyway. That means his resorting to more illogic and outright fabrication — the current Trump political brand — in what should candidly be described as a cynical bid for personal power.
If things don’t work out, and Trump loses his chance to fully unleash his inner demagogue, well, so what? The Donald has been covering his behind by informing us that the election is rigged anyway. We’ve also been told, just so we know, that in case of losing, either the general election or interest in the whole affair and dropping out prematurely, he can go back to a pretty great life, no doubt supervising beauty pageants and dreaming up new schemes to fleece investors like the very demographic his candidacy is aimed at. Returning to his private TrumpWorld would, in effect, be his middle-finger way of saying to the American people, “You’re fired!”
If Trump or his brain trust understood and applied effective rhetorical principles we would now know a lot about the candidates’ differences and have a more productive election cycle. (Aristotle, incidentally, also invented and formulated the discipline of logic, which is never a candidate’s best friend.) As things stand, this presidential contest is revealing a darker but no less true side of American democracy. Either the Trump persona will turn stunningly malleable and hope to cajole or flatter us with newfound contradictory positions, or his campaign will march ahead using a scorched-earth strategy to annihilate his adversary. Likely some of both.
Aristotle’s reputation for knowledge and wisdom led him to be recruited as tutor to a promising young man who went on to accomplish great things. Comparing Trump and Aristotle’s earlier young ward yields an interesting contrast. Alexander the Great, no doubt a willing and attentive pupil, went on to conquer the known world. The Donald, on the other hand, is overawed by large buildings, loves the trappings of power and excels above all in admiring his own image. Hail the new conquering hero.
Larry Struck is a writer and former program manager based in Little Canada. He retains an early imprint of Aristotle’s value left from student days at the University of Chicago.