The Second Presidential Debate: Trump’s Rhetoric Doesn’t Make the Grade

The Second Presidential Debate: Trump’s Rhetoric Doesn’t Make the Grade

Donald Trump’s performance during the second presidential debate was a marked improvement over his undisciplined showing in the first debate.  It demonstrates the value of preparation.  He was able to land more punches, and to articulate some of his ideas a little more coherently, than the last time around.

But if he were a student in our class, we would still not award him a passing grade.


Let’s start first with Aristotle’s principle of logos, or logic.  Fact-checkers have pointed out a multitude of false claims Trump made during the debate, which is consistent with his past practices and certainly weakens his logos—you can’t prove a case by simply making things up. But we would like to focus instead on his disorganized speaking style and his struggle to answer direct questions.

Trump’s logos would be greatly improved if he were to keep an eye on the main point, avoid digressions, and finish a thought.  Instead, he tends to speak in long, rambling phrases, interrupting himself when a new idea floats into his mind.  Take, for example, his explanation of how he would make health insurance coverage available for pre-existing conditions while not mandating that everyone have health insurance:

“Well, I’ll tell you what it means. You’re going to have plans that are so good. Because we are going to have so much competition in the insurance industry, once we break out the lines and allow the competition to come. . . . President Obama, by keeping those lines, the boundary lines around each state, and it was almost gone until just very toward the end of the passage of Obamacare, which by the way was a fraud. You know that. Because Jonathan Gruber, the architect of Obamacare has said, he said it was a great lie was a big lie. President Obama said you keep your doctor, you keep your plan. The whole thing was a fraud. And it doesn’t work. But when we get rid of those lines you will have competition.  And we will be able to keep pre-existing. We’ll also be able to help people who can’t get, don’t have money. Because we are going to have people protected. And Republicans feel this way, believe it or not, and strongly this way. We are going to block grant into the state. We are going to block grant into Medicaid.  Into the states so that will be able to take care of people without the necessary funds to take care of themselves.”

The structure of this paragraph is as follows:

  • We will have plans that are “so good”
  • We will have competition in the insurance industry
  • We must “break out the lines”
  • “it was almost gone until just very toward the end of the passage of Obamacare”
  • The passage of Obamacare was a fraud
  • Jonathan Gruber, the architect of Obamacare, said it was a big lie
  • President Obama said you would keep your doctor and plan
  • It was a fraud
  • It doesn’t work
  • Get rid of the lines to have competition
  • “Keep pre-existing”
  • Help poor people
  • “Block grant into the state”

The main idea here is that allowing people to buy insurance across state lines would increase competition, resulting in better health insurance plans.  (We will not opine here about whether this claim is accurate because our aim is to analyze rhetoric, not political positions.)  Other statements in this paragraph—that state lines were imposed toward the end of the passage of the legislation, that Jonathan Gruber was the “architect” of the legislation, that the plan is a “big lie” or a “fraud”—are digressions.  Several terms in this answer need to be defined or explained in order to be clear (“break out the lines,” “keep pre-existing,” “block grant into the state”).

Notice, though, that even if the answer were cleaned up—digressions removed, jargon defined—it still does not answer the question.  The question was, “Mr. Trump you have said you want to end Obamacare. . . and make coverage accessible for people with pre-existing conditions. How do you force insurance companies to do that if you are no longer mandating that everybody has insurance? What does that mean?”  The answer essentially is:

“You’re going to have plans that are so good. Because we are going to have so much competition in the insurance industry, once we break out the lines and allow the competition to come. . . . And we will be able to keep pre-existing. We’ll also be able to help people who can’t get, don’t have money. Because we are going to have people protected.”

It is not clear why allowing people to buy insurance across state lines would mean that “we would be able to keep pre-existing.”  It is also not clear how Trump plans to help people who can’t afford insurance.  He simply states that both propositions are true, without proving them to be true or connecting them to his proposal.  The logos here is weak.


Leaders who offer optimistic messages and who stay calm under pressure inspire those whom they lead.  Leaders who traffic in fear and hatred trigger negative impulses in their followers and erode the ability to think, as we have discussed here.  Trump struggles to stay positive, even when explicitly asked to do so.  Compare, for example, the candidate’s answers to the very first question of the debate, “Do you feel you are modeling appropriate and positive behavior for today’s youth?”

Clinton’s answer was upbeat and inclusive, speaking of “respect,” “diversity,” “optim[ism],” and “com[ing] together”:

CLINTON: “I think that that’s a very good question because I’ve heard from lots of teachers and parents about some of their concerns, about some of the things that are being said and done in this campaign. And I think it is very important for us to make clear to our children that our country really is great because we are good. And we are going to respect one another, lift each other up. We are going to be looking for ways to celebrate our diversity. And we are going to try to reach out to every boy and girl as well as every adult to bring them in to working on behalf of our country. I have a very positive and optimistic view about what we can do together. That’s why the slogan of my campaign is stronger together. Because I think if we work together, if we overcome the divisiveness that sometimes sets Americans against one another, and instead we make some big goals and I’ve set forth some big goals – getting the economy to work for everyone, not just those at the top, making sure that we have the best education system from preschool through college and making it affordable and so much else, if we set those goals and we go together to try to achieve them there’s nothing, in my opinion, that America can’t do. So that’s why I hope that we will come together in this campaign. Obviously, I’m hoping to earn your vote, I’m hoping to be elected in November, and I can promise you I will work with every American. I want to be the president for all Americans. Regardless of your political beliefs, where you come from, what you look like, your religion — I want us to heal our country and bring it together. Because that’s, I think, the best way for us to get the future that are children and our grandchildren deserve.”

And Trump’s?  It is awash in fear, warning of “horrible things,” “bad deal[s],” “terrorist[s],” and death:

“I began this campaign because I was so tired of seeing such foolish things happen to our country. This is a great country. This is a great land. I’ve gotten to know the people of the country over the last year and a half that I’ve been doing this as a politician. I cannot believe that I’m saying that about myself, but I guess I have been a politician. And my whole concept was to make America great again. When I watch the deals being made, when I watch what’s happening with some horrible things like Obamacare where your health insurance and health care is going up by numbers that are astronomical 68 percent, 59 percent, 71 percent, when I look at the Iran deal and how bad a deal it is for us, it’s a one-sided transaction where we’re giving back one hundred fifty billion dollars to a terrorist state, really, the number one terrorist state, we’ve made them a strong country from really a very weak country just three years ago.  When I look at all of the things that I see and all the potential that our country has, we have such tremendous potential, whether it’s in business and trade where we’re doing so badly.  Last year we had an almost 800 billion dollar trade deficit. In other words, trading with other countries we had 800 billion dollars deficit, that’s hard to believe. Inconceivable.  You say who’s making these deals? We’re going to make great trade deals, we’re going to have a strong border, we’re going to bring back law and order. Just today policemen were shot – two killed – and this is happening on a weekly basis. We have to bring back respect to law enforcement.  At the same time we have to take care of people on all sides. We need justice. But I want to do things that haven’t been done including fixing and making our interest that is better for the African-American citizens that are so great and for the Latinos, Hispanics, and I look forward to doing it – it’s called make America great again.”

Trump also made a mistake by stalking around the debate stage as Clinton spoke.  His debate prep team should have told him what Al Gore learned before him:  menacing your opponent physically can backfire, particularly when you’ve boasted of grabbing women in the past.


The biggest challenge of all for Trump is his ethos, or credibility.  A speaker must possess ethos to be credible.  Aristotle describes ethos as “good sense, good moral sense, and goodwill.”

Trump’s performance was colored by the Access Hollywood video released two days before the debate, in which he boasted, “I’m automatically attracted to beautiful [women]— I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. . .Grab them by the p****. You can do anything.”

This is not the statement of a man exhibiting good sense, morality or goodwill.

During the debate, Trump was asked, “You described kissing women without consent, grabbing the genitals. That is sexual assault. You brag that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?”

You can see Trump’s defensive response, in which he minimizes the statement as “locker-room banter,” and Hillary’s Clinton’s rejoinder that he is not fit to be commander-in-chief, here:

As measured by the rubric of ethos, pathos and logos, Trump’s debate performance does not measure up.

Molly Bishop Shadel and Robert N. Sayler are professors at the University of Virginia School of Law and the authors of Tongue-Tied America: Reviving the Art of Verbal Persuasion.

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