In the 2016 presidential race, Donald Trump seems to have rewritten all the rules. Imagine Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan calling women “fat pigs” or making comments about their menstrual cycles, disparaging a federal judge for being “of Mexican heritage,” or calling for a blockade on Muslims entering the United States because “Islam hates us.”
Trump could make his arguments without cloaking them in this inflammatory language. He could object to a reporter’s questions, critique immigration policies or talk about ways to combat terrorism without playing on his listeners’ deepest fears and prejudices. Instead, he proudly boasts that he is rebelling against “political correctness.” He intersperses his salvos with declarations of love for his supporters, flattering them for their support of his candidacy: “By far, the Trump person, the Trump voter is most loyal.” If that loyalty comes from a vulnerable group, all the better: “We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.”
His rhetorical habit is designed to diminish the listeners’ abilities to think logically (logos) by triggering their emotions (pathos). This is nothing new. Plato warned against this very practice over 2,000 years ago. Here (in Platonic terms) is why it works against the goals of a representative democracy.
In “Gorgias,” written around 380 B.C., Plato makes the case that rhetoric is potentially destructive if it is mastered by a bad actor. He describes rhetoric as “the habit of a bold and clever mind, which knows how to act in the eyes of the world. I would call it flattery.” The dangerous speaker, in Plato’s eyes, is the one who flatters the mob to manipulate it. In “Phaedrus,” written about 10 years later, Plato postulates the existence of both evil and noble rhetoric. Evil rhetoric uses colorful language to enslave and deceive another, “a universal art of enchanting the mind by arguments.” Noble rhetoric uses language to teach and inspire rather than to cloud truthful thinking.
The point: Rhetoric can move us to good or to evil. Plato feared this power and warned against it.
In the book “Primal Leadership,” about emotional intelligence and leadership, Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee demonstrate that leaders who use dissonant messages trigger the emotional part of our brains — the amygdala, which perceives threats and causes us to fight or take flight. When your amygdala is triggered, it is difficult to think logically; instead your brain is hijacked by anxiety or anger. Leaders with optimistic messages who can stay calm under intense pressure (e.g., “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”) create an environment of trust and fairness, and open up space for you to think. Resonant messages work on your prefrontal lobe, where rational thinking takes place. Dissonant messages — racism, sexism, xenophobia, fear-mongering — can lead to thoughtless reaction and violence.
Trump says, “The current politically correct response cripples our ability to talk and to think and act clearly.” We say inflammatory language cripples the ability to talk, think and act clearly. When leaders reach for fear and anger, aimed at the universal “other” (women, Hispanics, Muslims, the banks, the wealthy, the media, etc.), the message can cause followers to act destructively. Plato warned in “The Republic” that democracy runs the risk of empowering a despot to seize control by fomenting fear and hatred, then presenting himself as the savior of the people against the threatening “other.” The United States, a representative democracy, is vulnerable to the danger Plato identified.
But the design of our nation also contains within it the defenses required to bring down a demagogue. The power of the federal government is limited by the Constitution. The president is checked by two other branches of government. And our elections take place after months of robust debate. People disagree. Journalists and private citizens alike check facts. It is remarkable that even though we have a history of partisan politics, members of Trump’s own party have resisted his inflammatory rhetoric. As Paul Ryan said in response to Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from immigrating to the United States: “I do not think a Muslim ban is in our country’s interest. I do not think it is reflective of our principles, not just as a party, but as a country.”
Here’s the tricky question, though: how do you persuade listeners who have fallen under the spell of demagoguery that they are being manipulated?
In courtroom advocacy, jurors typically see through inflammatory rhetoric because they must sift through all the evidence before they are allowed to cast their votes. Judges offer the jury a framework through which to view the evidence to encourage organized thought. Inflammatory rhetoric is likely to backfire on an attorney who uses it because the judge will curtail it and the jury may be angry at the attempted manipulation.
But there is no requirement in an election that voters pay the same careful attention to facts; in fact, there is some evidence that voters in thrall to a candidate will go to great lengths to explain away facts that might harm their candidate. And voters have more at stake personally than jurors do — they are more likely to feel personally threatened about the outcome of an election than a juror might feel about the outcome of a trial. Trump’s supporters have real grievances — economic fears, loss of power and frustration about their place in a changing world. No one likes to be lectured to or told that they are bigoted or sexist; these sorts of arguments are more likely to anger than persuade.
When you are combatting overwhelming emotions, insisting on a rational framework alone is not enough. Someone in the throes of overwhelming emotions is literally unable to think without a way to shrink the emotions back down to size. Empathy is paramount. Beth Turner, LICSW, a psychiatric social worker at the Austen Riggs Center, says that therapists help clients move from disorganized, overwhelmed emotional states to having minds capable of thinking through using their own emotions and thinking as a bridge from chaotic emotion to manageable thought. This is the concept of “containment,” first articulated by the British analyst Wilfred Bion. For example, she explains, “If you just tell your kid logically there’s no monster in the closet, they probably will feel left alone with their experience of terror. If you first emotionally resonate with the experience of the dark being scary, taking in the experience of terror and using your mind to transmute the terror into something more manageable or understandable, then showing there’s no monster, they may feel contained. The dark isn’t so scary after all.” Similarly, a politician who moves too quickly to logical arguments without first recognizing and empathizing with the emotional state of the people runs the risk of leaving people emotionally “uncontained” and unable to use their minds to think in an organized way.
Our nation has historically done a pretty good job of electing leaders who aren’t demagogues, even though we have never agreed unanimously on who the leader should be. Our election system, which relies on robust debate over a period of months, is designed to encourage voters to grapple with facts. Not all will, but many will. The best defense against fearmongering is speaking the truth. Opponents of any demagogue should aspire to the “noble rhetoric” described by Plato, which we argue includes a resonant, uplifting message (not fearmongering in kind); a fair recitation of facts; calm in the fact of hatred and panic; empathy; and patience. Perhaps not everyone in thrall to a demagogue will be persuaded, but enough of us will to be able to stop him.