Donald Trump confronted an unusually daunting task in this speech: to satisfy his supporters, eager to see a show of strength; to unify the Republican party behind him, including its moderate establishment members; and to persuade undecided voters, perhaps followers of Bernie Sanders, to back his candidacy. His address was given against the background of a vituperative primary race and a convention characterized by dark, angry speeches.
According to Aristotle, a speaker persuades through inspiring trust and projecting good moral sense and goodwill.
The negative tone of first three days of the convention would make it difficult for any speaker to pivot to a positive message. Mike Pence did his best to accomplish this on Day Three, but the convention largely has been focused on what Trump’s supporters don’t like (Hillary Clinton, whom they would like to jail or execute), with little attention on what they do like. Trump did nothing to close this gap. It is clear that his supporters are united in their disdain for Hillary Clinton, but it is less clear what positive goals they find inspiring.
Trump also did very little in his speech to demonstrate his credibility as a leader, another requirement of ethos. It is not persuasive to claim, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it,” without actually explaining how the fixing will be done. His plan to address crime? “I will work with, and appoint, the best prosecutors and law enforcement officials in the country to get the job done.” His plan to address urban blight? “When I am President, I will work to ensure that all of our kids are treated equally, and protected equally.” To fight terrorism? “We are going to defeat the barbarians of ISIS.” These are noble goals, but they are not plans. Simply declaring “I am the law and order candidate” does not magically turn you into a candidate capable of creating law and order. In law school, we require our students to substantiate the claims they make in their oral arguments. “Believe me” does not suffice.
The biggest boost to Trump’s ethos has come from his children. They acquitted themselves well at this convention, delivering speeches with charm, good sense, and genuine affection. They have argued that he is a good father and a good businessperson, and because they appear credible, listeners are more likely to believe those claims.
We’ve seen plenty of pathos, or appeal to emotion, throughout this convention. As we have argued in previous posts, appeals to positive emotion rather than anger or fear are a more ethical effort of persuasion and likelier to lead to a positive result.
The first three days of the convention were dark, angry, and sometimes frightening. Trump continued to gin up fear in his remarks.
It is telling to look at the amount of time Trump spent on the various topics in his speech. Looking at the transcript, one can see that he devoted the most space—over 840 words—on claims that illegal immigrants will kill you. In second place, at 529 words: the streets are overrun with crime and violence. Coming in third place, at 456 words: the Middle East is in chaos, and ISIS will kill you. Fourth place goes to arguments that Hillary Clinton lies or should be jailed (345 words). And in fifth place, at 306 words? Only Donald Trump can fix it. This is classic demagoguery, as we have described here—the rhetorical technique of inciting fear and anger, coupled with the claim that only the speaker can put things right. Trump spends very little time on normal Republican talking points (lowering taxes, gun rights, religious freedom, coal and steel, school choice, protecting veterans, and cutting out wasteful spending each receive a short paragraph), because this was a speech about feeling, not thinking.
The result? Listeners tend to walk away from a speech like this holding the same opinion they held before the speech. Those who were already persuaded enjoyed the catharsis of screaming along with Trump. Those who were on the fence may have tuned out long before the speech ended because it is fatiguing to be yelled at.
Trump was at his best when he spoke about his family. His affection for his father was palpable, as was his pride in his siblings and children. He also ad-libbed two lines that made him appealing. When he spoke of the support of the evangelical community, he quipped, “and I’m not sure I totally deserve it”—a Mike Pence-style joke that worked. And after the crowd cheered at his promise to protect the LGBTQ community, he said, “I have to say, as a Republican it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said.” In those moments, Trump connected with his audience in a positive way, exhibiting good pathos.
Logos requires a speaker to explain facts clearly to lead to a conclusion. Trump is easy to follow because he is plain-spoken and conversational. He promised early on in the speech to lay out the details of his plan, “to present the facts plainly and honestly”—a nod to logos.
It is easier to understand an oral presentation if the sentences are short and the writing vivid. Trump’s speech includes some good examples of the kind of writing that is easy for the speaker to deliver and for the audience to process. Take, for example, this passage about the Middle East:
“In 2009, pre-Hillary, ISIS was not even on the map. Libya was cooperating. Egypt was peaceful. Iraq was seeing a reduction in violence. Iran was being choked by sanctions. Syria was under control. After four years of Hillary Clinton, what do we have? ISIS has spread across the region, and the world. Libya is in ruins, and our Ambassador and his staff were left helpless to die at the hands of savage killers. Egypt was turned over to the radical Muslim brotherhood, forcing the military to retake control. Iraq is in chaos. Iran is on the path to nuclear weapons. Syria is engulfed in a civil war and a refugee crisis that now threatens the West. After fifteen years of wars in the Middle East, after trillions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost, the situation is worse than it has ever been before. This is the legacy of Hillary Clinton: death, destruction and weakness.”
Notice how short the sentences are (“Egypt was peaceful.”) and the vivid imagery. The weakness of the argument is the conclusion—that this is the legacy of Hillary Clinton. He has not proved that Clinton is the cause of the chaos he describes. If he were to conclude, instead, with the penultimate sentence, “the situation is worse than it has ever been before,” his logos would be stronger.
Most of the speech was light on substance, and therefore light on logos. For example, Trump indicated that he would bring back the coal and steel industries without saying how. He will fix TSA—no details about how. He will repeal Obamacare—again, no details. Fact checkers are challenging the few details Trump did offer, such as his statements about the crime rate or the causes of the unrest in the Middle East. But this really wasn’t a speech about solutions. It was a speech about fear.
Does resorting to fear matter? After all, it’s been done before—you might remember Lyndon Johnson’s daisy ad, implying that a vote for Goldwater would result in nuclear war, or the famous Willie Horton ad, which implied that Michael Dukakis would let rapists roam the streets.
But we think fearmongering is destructive. When people are frightened or angry, they don’t think clearly or make the best decisions. And it’s a tone that is unbecoming of a president. The Republicans are the party of Lincoln, who after the Civil War offered these words:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
That is the quality of character we expect from a president. This is a tone that makes a speaker persuasive.