Aristotle defines rhetoric as the ability to see what is possibly persuasive in every given case (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). We try to influence others when we communicate and, naturally, we attempt to make choices that maximize our chances to persuade them. Rhetoricians study the choices people make in various situations. Part of this task is studying the arguments and emotional appeals people do not make– rhetoricians study what’s been left out.
In my public speaking classes, before the presidential elections began, group projects, at the semester’s end, focused on speeches of apology. I would typically introduce the project by showing two speeches given by Marion Jones, who you may remember was an articulate, beautiful track star. In the first speech, she denies using performance enhancing drugs. But, it took her quite a while to do so. Before denying she took drugs, she says that there is no evidence that she took performance enhancing drugs. She repeats this claim several times and she attacks her accusers. In the second speech, months later, on the steps of the courthouse where she was convicted of lying to federal agents, she admits she lied, but still does not say she took performance drugs. Watching these two videos is always painful for me because Marion Jones is a tragic figure. She is powerful in the first speech as she defends herself. She is crying in the second speech when she apologizes. I feel like crying along. Some of my students, on the other hand, get mad, which is one reason this apology project is so interesting.
I often pick out someone in class after showing the first speech and ask in an accusatory voice if she or he has murdered someone. The answer is always something like, “No, I didn’t kill anyone. Are you crazy?” I then point out that the response was not, “You do not have any evidence that I killed anyone.” People will lie, of course, and talented liars will give the more natural response. But, we may be able to learn as much about people’s motives from what they don’t say as from what they do say.
I read an article, but do not recall the source, about Trump never talking about the partners he took on who became rich. Do you recall anything that’s ever been said about someone he has mentored? He claimed on the campaign trail that he was in the race solely to help the American people. Has he done much to help anyone other than himself? There is little evidence that his charity has ever done much good. The Clintons and Carters could talk for hours about the accomplishments of their charitable foundations. Heck, Jimmy Carter, in his 90s, is still volunteering to build Habitat for Humanity houses. Trump’s only charitable efforts, that I know of, involve his foundation, which in recent years has not received any money from Trump himself. He’s made multiple claims about donating money that have not quite been true. What has actually happened is that his foundation has been used for self-serving purposes. His foundation has made donations for political purposes, paid his own legal bills, and bought portraits of himself.
His cabinet choices suggest that he has surrounded himself with like-minded millionaires–people who will be loyal to him. Quite a few are apparently admirers of Ayn Rand, the author of “The Virtue of Selfishness.” The view presented in that book is called psychological egoism. This theory suggests people only do any act of kindness to make themselves feel better. People may think they are engaged in an act of charity to help others, but they are always wrong. The theory is not falsifiable. Rand also writes fiction. Her works, like Atlas Shrugged, advocate for a capitalism taken to the extreme, where everyone should be left to fend for themselves. People like Trump, who ruthlessly take advantage of people, are to be admired. They are somehow special; they are far better than everyone else.
It’s survival of the fittest. Let the consumer beware. Lying is better than telling the truth if it helps you get what you want. The best government is no government at all. Helping others really hurts them. The people who remain poor are poor because they deserve to be. They lack the skills or willpower to compete or they can’t “make the deal” as the case may be stated.
Trump’s choices for cabinet positions have been justified because they are deal makers. They are said to be sophisticated business people who will make good deals on behalf of the America people. But, I want to know about what’s been left out of their resumes? Have any of them done any charitable work? What have they done in their lives to help others or make the world a better place? I don’t know if the nominated cabinet members have good answers to these questions. I have yet to read anything that suggests these folks have pursued anything other than money, power, or ideology.
Trump has been unwilling to release his tax returns, he has failed to talk about his connections to Putin and Russia, he has hesitated to reveal how he plans to avoid conflicts of interest, and he seems to want his daughter and son-in-law serving on his staff while his sons run his businesses.
I hope he really wants to make America great again because that motivation (as misguided as it is) is better than wanting to build an empire for himself. I am hoping that his talks to those who oppose him, where he is telling them what they want to hear, are not round two of a scam. By now, after all we have seen of this man, we should be On Guard.
How many weeks will we continue to listen to his outrageous remarks and the soothing rhetoric of his surrogates before the American people, even the Republicans, realize that Trump is wielding a knife aimed at the heart of this Republic.
Don’t worry about that finger. You have more of them. Sorry about your eye. If you weren’t watching me, it would have never happened. That foot won’t be necessary. I need it for a moment. You’re not bleeding much. Don’t be a whiner. I promise you, everything will be great (especially, ha, ha, for me and my cronies).
What’s been left out in the discussion of his choices? What is their motivation? They all have more money than they need. Why do they want to serve this country? We’ll hear some nominees answer that question when they are confirmed. Listen to what they don’t say.
If they really want more power or more money or more ideological, self-centered policies, we’ll be in big trouble. What will we have left in this country by the time Trump and his friends have taken whatever they can? It depends on whether Trump and his people can continue to normalize the changes he is bringing about and whether he can use his power to reward other powerful allies so they continue to support him.
What’s going to be left out in this country, if people don’t get wise to his game, is “we the people” and “the rule of law.” And you, Brutus?