Lessons from Aristotle: How to Judge Political Rhetoric

Lessons from Aristotle: How to Judge Political Rhetoric

What should you watch for in the coming debates between the two presidential candidates? Here’s what Aristotle might say.

Aristotle is one of the first people on the planet to write about how verbal persuasion works, and his formulation in “The Rhetoric” continues to provide useful guidance to aspiring orators. Aristotle said a speaker persuades using three tools:

Ethos, or credibility. Aristotle wrote, “Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character, when the speech is spoken as to make us think him more credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others. There are three things which inspire confidence in the orator’s own character: Good sense, good moral character, and good will.” If you trust and like a speaker, you are more likely to believe him or her.

Pathos, or emotional engagement. Aristotle wrote, “Persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions.” A speaker who is able to get the audience to care about what she says is more persuasive.

Logos, or logic. Aristotle wrote, “Persuasion is effected through the speech itself when we have proved a truth or an apparent truth by means of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question.” To persuade listeners, a speaker’s logic must be clear and easy to follow.

Hillary Clinton

Ethos: Ethos is both Clinton’s greatest strength and at the same time her greatest vulnerability. To be credible, a speaker must know about a topic. Clinton has tremendous experience through her service as a U.S. senator, the secretary of state, and as the first lady. As President Obama said in his endorsement of her, “I don’t think there’s ever been someone so qualified to hold this office.” She is tough, intelligent and clearly understands the importance of preparation — witness, for example, her performance during the 11-hour hearing by the Senate’s Select Committee on Benghazi, in which she displayed a mastery of facts and policy. When Clinton speaks, her preparation and experience cloak her in authority.

But Clinton also comes to this election weighed down by the baggage of many years in the public eye. Trump’s label of “Crooked Hillary” is a direct attack on her ethos, and reminds the public of various ethics-related accusations made against Clinton or her husband, such as stories about foreign contributions to the Clinton Foundation, Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, and the impeachment of her husband arising out of his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Even when allegations of ethical misdeeds have proved unfounded, the sense that the Clintons are shady characters has stuck. This is an ethos problem; to counteract it, Clinton would be wise to be as forthcoming and frank as possible in all her campaign appearances.

Pathos: This is another area of both strength and weakness for Clinton. In the plus column, Clinton’s nomination for the presidency is a historic moment. She is the first female candidate nominated by a major political party. The prospect of a woman shattering the “highest, hardest glass ceiling” has galvanized many supporters and packs an emotional punch.

But Clinton also triggers strongly negative emotions in those who oppose her. “I’d vote for the devil before I would ever vote for that woman,” says one Trump supporter. Some of the vitriol aimed at Clinton bears a decidedly misogynistic tone — she has been labeled a shrew, a bitch, a harpy and a castrator (“I cross my legs involuntarily every time she comes on the air,” said Tucker Carlson).

Clinton also lacks the rhetorical skills of her husband or President Obama. Her delivery can be alternately flat or irritable, and she appears more comfortable with logical arguments than with emotional appeals. This is not universally the case, though — witness her fine victory speech as the presumptive nominee, which you can watch here. To be at her most persuasive, Clinton should aim for this level of emotional engagement in all her speeches.

Logos. In this area, Clinton shines. She has a lawyer’s mind, and knows how to make a logical, clear argument. We expect Clinton to show great strength in the debates in the area of logos.

Donald Trump

Ethos: Trump’s supporters find him to be credible because they believe he has business acumen and “tells it like it is.” Trump is willing to say things that are not politically correct; consequently, he appears frank and authentic to those who support him.

However, Trump lacks experience in governing. He has never held an elected office. He has no foreign policy experience. To maintain credibility, he will need to show how his business experience qualifies him for the position of president.

Finally, many Americans believe Trump lacks the “good moral sense” and “good will” that are foundational to Aristotle’s concept of ethos. He has a complicated backstory — he runs gambling casinos, has a history of marital infidelity and has been less than forthright about his own business success. And rather than demonstrate goodwill, he routinely denigrates those who disagree with him with xenophobic, racist and sexist attacks (a woman is a “fat pig,” “dog,” “disgusting” or a “beautiful piece of ass”; Mexicans are “rapists” bringing drugs; a federal judge overseeing a lawsuit against Trump cannot be objective because his parents emigrated from Mexico; Muslims should be banned from entering the country). Without a moral center, it is difficult to achieve ethos.

Pathos: During the primary race, Trump has done a better job than Clinton at galvanizing his supporters. His campaign appearances are marked by the high energy and enthusiasm of his followers. He is able to get his crowds to laugh and to cheer.

But he has also demonstrated the dark side of emotional engagement by fanning the flames of bigotry, misogyny and xenophobia. Plato warned against the teaching of rhetoric for precisely this sort of reason — he worried that it could be used to inflame a mob. Euripides described the problem like this: “A man of loose tongue, intemperate, trusting to tumult, leading the populace to mischief with empty words.” If he hopes to become presidential, Trump should drop the inflammatory language. He is charismatic enough to keep his listeners engaged without resorting to hate-filled discourse. (We promise a more complete analysis of the dark side of pathos in a future blog post.)

Logos: Trump’s proposals during the primaries have been largely devoid of any substance on which his logos could be judged. However, he uses plain language that listeners can easily follow, even if it is not always logical. He has gotten into trouble for making bombastic statements (such as when he said women should be punished if they get abortions), that he has later retracted. He will have to fill in the details of his proposals and lay them out clearly to the American people if he wants to succeed in his campaign.

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