Monday, May 30, 2016

The rhetorical appeal of The Donald

The Donald is a demagogue and central to demagoguery is wish fulfilment politics. Demagoguery is not about believing in things, but in saying whatever the audience wants to hear. (The real trick is saying what they want to hear but haven’t articulated themselves yet.) Say it well enough and almost any amount of contradiction will work, as the wanting-to-believe audience will grab what they want to hear and discount what they don't.

The fascist error
If we are to understand The Donald, we have to keep focused on the dynamics of demagoguery. The Donald is not Hitler redux, he is not Mussolini redux, he is not a fascist. He is not fascist in so many ways--no overt rejection of democracy, no paramilitary movement, no organised street violence (except by opponents), not in favour of a belligerent foreign policy, no fetishising of violence. (Indeed, a persistent theme in comments supporting voting for The Donald, is that The Donald is the less belligerent choice.) He does engage in Jacksonian rhetoric, but the notion that violence is the way the deep nobility of man manifests (a deeply fascist idea) is not what he is selling.

Moreover, fascism has an ideology (albeit somewhat protean one) and if you think The Donald has an ideology, you haven't been paying attention. Looking at the list in Umberto Eco's 1995 New York Review of Books piece on Ur Fascism (pdf) certainly shows The Donald's rhetoric has some echoes of Italian Fascism, but rhetorical echoes are not enough. The Donald simply lacks the notion of purifying and ennobling violence which is so central to fascism in its various forms.

If you want an Italian model for The Donald, it is media billionaire turned recurring Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was not good for Italy.  (Though his scandals had a certain entertainment value.) Italian-American economist Luis Zingales previously (2011) pointed out the Trump-Berlusconi similarities, and has sensible and informed things to say about Italy's in his conversation with economist and uberblogger Tyler Cowan. But the career of Berlusconi cannot be usefully analysed using the "fascist" metric.

The "Trump is a fascist!" rhetoric does appeal to those addicted to the rhetoric of denunciation. With the added appeal that no further thought is needed. (The Donald is Just Bad and Bad people support him.) Which is, of course, much of the appeal of the rhetoric of denunciation ("racist!", "homophobe!", "Islamophobe!", "transphobia!" etc). But what if addiction to the rhetoric of denunciation is part of the problem?

Expressing appeal
So, what do The Donald's supporters see in him? Start with academic, philosopher and blogger Keith Burgess-Jackson:
My support for Donald Trump is easy to understand. I am sick to death of Republicans standing idly by while Democrats destroy them. Think back to the way John McCain and Mitt Romney campaigned in 2008 and 2012 (respectively). Neither defended himself against the vicious attacks from the Left; both lost (and deservedly so). I saw early on in the 2016 presidential campaign that Donald Trump is a street fighter. To put it in the vernacular, he doesn't take shit from anyone. He will smash the Clintons in their faces, as they so richly deserve. This tit-for-tat response is long overdue, and it is discombobulating not only the Clintons in particular but the Left in general. George Neumayr touches on this issue in his latest column. What excites me is that Trump hasn't even begun to hit Hillary. By November, she will be staggering, if not knocked out. Get right with Donald.
This is echoed by academic refugee, philosopher, author and blogger John Pepple:
This post by Keith Burgess-Jackson pretty much sums up why I will vote for Trump, even though he is not my ideal candidate. Trump will fight against the Democrats as hard as he can. Trump also seems to have more control over the media than the other Republicans, though I’m sure that is not what the media intended. They intended to show how ridiculously un-PC he was, but it didn’t work. Their attention just drew more voters for him, and then they couldn’t stop because it would mean lower ratings. I remember a liberal expressing the hope last summer, as Trump began gearing up, that the Republicans would nominate him because I’m sure he thought of Trump as unelectable. I have the feeling he is having second thoughts about it now.
So, The Donald is good because he is rhetorically effective, which is certainly easier to be if you are also rhetorically shameless (see demagoguery).

Then there is retired US diplomat and now active blogger W. Lewis Amselem:
My reason for voting Trump is probably very similar to that of millions of other Americans. I will explain why I think so many of us vote for Trump--let me know if I have it wrong. As the military say, however, "bottom line upfront" (BLUF.) After all the verbiage I will spew, it comes down to one thing: I am tired, sick and tired, of seeing my country, our country, our laws, our history, our values, and our very civilization spat upon, kicked around, and degraded by hordes of low-information, pampered cretins allied with malevolent criminal thugs both at home and abroad. ...
If one seeks to defend the values of America and the West, one gets labelled a racist, a xenophobe, a supremacist, a patriarch (see here, for example). The assault on dissent, on diversity of opinion, on individual freedom is unrelenting. The truth must remain unspoken.
So, The Donald is good because his rhetoric celebrates America (and he drives those who don't wild).

Here is retired academic, philosopher and blogger Bill Vallicella:
Whatever you say about Donald Trump he did us all a great service by dispatching low-energy Jeb! early on. Jeb Bush and the rest of his family are decent people. His brother and father are gentlemen. No one could confuse Trump with a gentleman.
Unfortunately, in this age of post-consensus politics we need fighters not gentlemen. We need people who will use the Left's Alinskyite tactics against them. Civility is for the civil, not for destructive leftists who will employ any means to their end of a "fundamental transformation of America." For 'fundamental transformation' read: destruction.
It's a war, and no war is civil, especially not a civil war. To prosecute a war you need warriors. Trump is all we have. Time to face reality, you so-called conservatives. Time to man up, come clean, and get behind the 'presumptive nominee.'
Don't write another article telling us what a sorry specimen he is. We already know that. We are a nation in decline and our choices are lousy ones. Hillary is worse, far worse.
Consider just three issues: The Supreme Court, gun rights, and the southern border. We know where Hillary stands. We also know where Trump stands. Suppose he accomplishes only one thing: he nominates conservatives for SCOTUS. (You are aware, of course, that he has gone to the trouble of compiling a list of conservative candidates. That is a good indication that he is serious.) The appointment of even one conservative would retroactively justify your support for him over the destructive and crooked Hillary.
Jonah Goldberg recently made the point that his vote doesn't matter. True. Each of our individual votes is vanishingly insignificant. But that is not the issue. The issue is whether conservatives as a group should support Trump. The answer is obvious: of course.
The alternative is to aid and abet Hillary.
Are you a conservative or a quisling?
So, Hillary is identifiably worse and The Donald is rhetorically effective against the progressivists. (Nowadays, I am not keen on the use of the term "the Left"because the fading modernist Left is a rather different thing from increasingly dominant postmodern progressivism.)

Here is well-known, and mildly prolific, SF author Jerry Pournelle:
It’s official. Trump has enough delegates to win a majority on the first ballot, so barring an assassination – not an impossible event – he will be the Republican nominee. The Republican Establishment got both houses of Congress and a majority of Governors, but was a miserable failure at opposition. The deficit rose and rose, the budget grew and grew, the size of government went up and up, government workers got more and more pay, and meanwhile the Depression continued. Unemployment officially went down to manageable levels, but only because definitions were changed, so that those who just gave up and stopped looking for employment were no longer “unemployed” and were not counted in figuring the unemployment rate.
So we don’t have long lines of people looking for work; instead they sullenly stay home, or a few joyfully take the dole, food stamps, and all the other entitlements. Most Americans don’t like doing that. They want jobs. But the jobs are gone, sent overseas along with the equipment they worked with, and the economy settled into one of opening containers of goods from China, and “paying” for these cheap goods by borrowing the money from China to give it to the not-unemployed people who used to have jobs but don’t any more. And the deficit grows, the economy stagnates, people get more angry, and many of the Republican establishment long for the old days when nobody expected them to WIN for heaven’s sake. They were the permanent opposition, always employed with great benefits and retirement, and no ambition to be much more. They ran the only man Bill Clinton could beat in 1996, after which the defeated candidate made Viagra adds.
It may be that Mr. Trump can’t put America first, but he says he wants to. No one else even thinks it is a good idea. At which point I conclude that what the Republicans want to conserve is their jobs as opposition leaders who don’t have to govern. Maybe I’m just bitter. Of course for a while they did govern. They invaded the only real opposition Iran faced, hanged the former leader, disbanded his army, set an oppressed majority up to govern after disarming their former master, were shocked when the Shia began to oppress the Sunni – shocked, I tell you. But it was done democratically, wasn’t it?
Any business run the way the government conducts its business wouldn’t be in business long; fortunately they have an infinite capacity for borrowing money. Each of us owes north of $50,000 so far. You say that’s not that bad, and I point out that each means just that: a family of man, wife, and two children owes more than $200,000, each baby born owes $50,000. Sand that’s this year. Four years from now it will be well over $60,000 each. And the debt goes ever upward.
Salve, Sclave.
Mr. Trump is not an ideal candidate; but when we did run what looked like good candidates, they grew in office, and the budget went up, the deficit went up, the Depression continued, we entered wars in which our interest was not easily discerned and certainly was not served. I guess I had better get me a Trump hat. (Emphasis added.)
So, we tried conventional Republicans, which did remarkably little good, both at home or abroad, with the White House or without it. At least The Donald has positive-about-America rhetoric.

Jerry Pournelle's endorsement is rather less fulsome than the previously cited, but does cite the rhetorical appeal. It also picks up a strong recurring secondary theme in support for The Donald that is even clearer in this post by academic and blogger Gene Callahan:
Our foreign policy over the last couple of decades has wrecked the lives of millions and millions of people in the Middle East. It has reduced country after country to anarchy in the bad sense: starvation, lawlessness, civil war. And surprise: all of this chaos enriches American corporations that sell weapons and "security" to foreign governments.
There are many important issues dividing the American electorate: SSM, gun control, abortion law, etc., etc. I don't wish to downplay the significance of the debates on these topics, except to note that every one of them, on a global scale, pales in significance to the moral necessity that we stopdestroying the lives of millions and millions of people in the Middle East.
And it is clear to me that Hillary Clinton will eagerly continue to pursue the policies that create this destruction: indeed, she was the prime architect of some of the past destruction.
Donald Trump is not my ideal candidate for president: I would like to resurrect Dwight Eisenhower and vote for him, if I could. I agree that Trump is a wildcard, and we don't really know what he will do once in office. But we do know that Clinton is the bought candidate of the merchants of death, and gambling that Trump is not so beholden to them is not really much of a gamble at all.
Let us put aside our differences on who is entitled to poop in what bathroom, and defeat the military-industrial complex's attempt to profit off of creating continual chaos in other countries!
So, the The Donald is less about interfering militarily in other countries, because his opponent has a proven track record and all we have to go on (shameless rhetoric) suggests he will not be. (Though, to be fair, so does The Donald's set piece foreign policy speech.)

Now, whether anything can be inferred about what President Trump would do from what The Donald says is a very good question (because, hey, demagogue) but the claim that he is the less belligerent candidate than Hillary is far from self-evidently false. If The Donald was actually a fascist, even a “fascist for the C21st”, it would be.

Notice, these are all intelligent, informed men of accomplishment (though it is also possible to find women who support The Donald). One may, of course, quibble about, for example, some of the economics. But they are not knuckle-dragging grunts. What they have in common is a profound sense of cultural alienation.

Cultural alienation
Reading posts and online pieces of the “I will vote for Trump because …” variety, the overwhelmingly dominant theme is cultural alienation. What they are culturally alienated by is fairly clear: relentless and ever-expanding moral bullying; rhetorics of denunciation pretending to be politics of compassion; a civilisation portrayed as if it was without achievements only crimes, a culture as if it was without virtues only sins; bearing lots of blame yet having little power; being the only folk with cross-generational guilt, and so on. With the abusive syllogism of:
we do X in order to achieve Y,
you are objecting to us doing X,
therefore you are against Y
being constantly deployed against anyone who arcs up. The rhetoric of denunciation so relentlessly employed is fundamentally based on both assuming, and attempting to impose on the public sphere, the illegitimacy of disagreement. It is the weaponising of morality and of (pretend) civility.

Nor is the cultural alienation surprising, as the information industries (media, entertainment, academe, IT) are overwhelmingly dominated by a narrow ideological range, increasingly disfigured by the pathologies that ideological echo chambers create.

And I mean the weaponising of morality and civility. The ludicrous lie that political correctness is about civility expresses either the deep duplicity or the deep self-blindness of its adherents. There is nothing "civil" about point-and-shriek (as Sir Tim Hunt and comet scientist Matt Taylor found) or the rhetoric of pc denunciation.

The concluding sentence of a Crooked Timber post against Jonathan Chait's mild critique of political correctness--"Seriously, fuck right the fuck off, Chait"--expresses the actual dynamics of pc splendidly. As this piece expresses particularly clearly the deep, pervasive disregard, indeed blindness, to achievement involved. (Boris Johnson gets the point.) But, then, landing a probe on a comet is hard; inciting and joining an online/public space moral sneering mob is easy: even inviting, as it drowns status from achievement with status from collective moral sneering. (And those who delight in attacking other people's motives are typically outraged when someone questions their's.) This plus crybullies blocking speech, no platforming, disinviting and all the other deeply uncivil abusive nonsense.

This is weaponised morality, weaponised civility, which extends all the way down, via "codes of conduct"*, to your local workplace. In other words, not civility at all. Instead, what is being run via the moral bullying, rhetoric of denunciation is a moral caste system, where you are allowed to hold someone's race against them--if they are white. You are allowed to hold someone's gender against them--if they are male. You are allowed to hold someone's sexuality against them--if they are heterosexual. You are allowed to hold someone's religion against them--if they are Christian. (And you are allowed to hold the existence of another country against them--if they are Jewish.) Treating Western civilisation as if it is not one of achievement and emancipations, but of crimes and oppression, and Western cultures as if they were without virtues, only sins. All the while bleating about heteronormative white male supremacy and being shockedshocked, when those whose civilisation, culture, country and identities are under serial attack arc up.

The notion that only "good people" would play identity politics was always a remarkably silly one.

Of course, when they do arc up, it gives you millions of fellow citizens to sneer at and feel superior to. No wonder, as historian Niall Ferguson points out, there is something of a turn to populism across the West; in cultural politics alone there is so much for them to work with.

Destroying civility
It turns out that, if civility and morality are weaponised, that removes important constraints within the body politic which — surprise! — has unfortunate implications. And those implications are likely to keep turning up as long as the underlying causes continue to operate.

And all this without considering the Alt Right, who are also obviously a product of cultural alienation and the toxic public culture of weaponised morality and civility. (Though prominent Alt Righter Vox Day's blog commentary turned out to be much more accurate about The Donald's Republican primary prospects than almost any mainstream media commentary.)

Online supporters of The Donald support him because of his rhetoric, his refusal to bow to the moral bullies that have so poisoned the public sphere. The shouts of "racism! racism!" and "fascism! fascism!" in response to The Donald's rhetoric are using the rhetoric of denunciation against someone whose success is fundamentally predicated on a revolt against the very same rhetoric of denunciation. That is not likely to be a successful strategy.

But nor is copying populists the way to undermine them -- that just legitimates what they say. The trick is to steal the underlying issue(s) in a way which leaves the populists with a lot of associated negatives. None of The Donald's Republican opponents were clever enough to do that -- partly because they did not take him sufficiently seriously until too late and partly because they were conventional politicians who did not understand the nature and level of angst in significant sections of the electorate and, when it did dawn, did too much implicit or explicit agreeing with The Donald, rather than stealing the underlying concerns his rhetoric played to.

Then Australian Prime Minister John Winston Howard provided a classic example of how to steal while undermining. In response to the populism of Pauline Hanson and One Nation he did not steal any of their policies or their specific rhetoric; he captured the underlying issue of control, of having a say, with the brilliant line of "But we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come".  All while running a high immigration policy, and the least Eurocentric migration policy Australia had ever run.

Yes, he may win
I am, however, not convinced that Hillary is clever enough politician to adapt to a situation where past rhetorics are the problem not the solution ("vast right wing conspiracy" really isn't going to work).

So, those who don't want President Trump are going to have to hope he alienates enough of the electorate by his rhetoric to get Hillary over the line. But The Donald is a shameless rhetorician, a demagogue, that the media cannot look away from because he is such good copy/viewership.

The Donald is also, as Dilbert author Scott Adams has been explaining for months, a very effective rhetorician. And Hillary is such a good target for a shameless rhetorician.

In a fight between the two most disliked candidates in US Presidential politics for decades, fighting over a public sphere poisoned by the rhetorics of denunciation and the weaponising of morality and (even more problematically) basic civility, the media-savvy shameless rhetorician who represents a revolt against the dominant culture of denunciation has a much better chance than those who have no clue about the politics of cultural alienation, or why it has such power, are likely to realise. In which case, we better hope that this is not just a puff piece and there is someone of substance under the shameless rhetoric.

* How can one object to codes of conduct? When they create ideological sins not remotely subject to precise definition empowering the politics of denunciation; especially when accompanied by dubious complaint procedures. They are, as suggested here, easy weapons for budding little totalitarians.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]


  1. Good post. I also wrote my own post explaining why I voted for Donald Trump, with similar attention to foreign policy as Callahan:

  2. Oh, great. Another post on Trump's rhetorical charisma/appeal/prowess. The last time I checked, votes win election, not abstractions. And Hillary plainly has the votes, from the minorities to Bernie's core constituencies (

    Not to mention, this.

    "Tribal lords mistrust her, but refugees and former slaves flock to her banner, and her moral standing is crucial to helping her gain increasing power in the lands beyond the Narrow Sea. Daenerys faces hard choices and embodies contradictions, and she ends up grappling with all-too-familiar challenges and limits of humanitarian intervention and liberal imperialism. But she tries to balance the demands of power and principle rather than retreat into cynicism or indifference — hardly the standard realist response."

    "Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton /ˈhɪləri daɪˈæn ˈrɒdəm ˈklɪntən/ (born October 26, 1947)," thus making her, like "Emilia Isabelle Euphemia Rose Clarke (born 26 October 1986)" -- same birthday, mind you -- who plays Daenerys, a...

    "Scorpio: The Phoenix Rises

    Scorpio’s waters are the most potent in the zodiac. Though it soothes and nurtures us, water is the most powerful of the elements. It’s the one that can and does wear down all the others, drop by drop.

    Running with deep swift power beneath the surface of things, Scorpio carries the tremendous energy of the unseen and invisible. From the surface, it looks low-key and understated. Don’t be fooled. Underneath, this energy is intensely magnetic, keenly sensitive–and absolutely irresistible.

    Scorpio frightens people, and for good reason. It’s extreme. For Scorpio the world is black and white. It’s a place where forgiveness is possible yet forgetting never happens. With built-in radar, Scorpio smells secrets like others smell fire. It knows where the bodies are buried, what is vulnerable, and where it is hidden.

    And it knows what it wants."

    Maybe SNL was onto something with this joke last year: "This season focuses on a woman from a once-powerful family who will stop at nothing to claim her rightful place on the throne. Based on the true story of Hillary Clinton." After all, how can she "feel the Bern" when she's "the Unburnt"? That the answer is obvious is why she's winning.

    Everything else is noise.

    1. The Donald has won elections -- he won the Republican race outright. We should take that electoral success seriously. Sure, it is just one Party in a two Party system, but received wisdom gave him little or no chance and, in the end, he succeeded handily forcing all rivals to drop out before the primaries were finished. I grant you that he did not win as solidly as previous winners, but he did so without any previous political experience. I am not suggesting he is a sure thing in November; I am suggesting he has a much better chance than people are giving him credit -- particularly all those folk who dismissed his chance of winning the nomination in the first place.

    2. I am taking the astrology to be a joke. And I notice that I am not the only one to notice Hillary has problems.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Yes, he's surpassed all expectations and won the Republican primaries summarily, which, let's be honest, is overwhelmingly white. That is not even remotely what the general election's constituencies are made of. Which of the key demographics has he not offended during the primaries? Hillary has the black and Hispanic votes locked up. Millennials and women will follow suit once the dust is settled after the convention in July, once the immensely popular incumbent starts campaigning for her, once the electorate as a whole gets a chance to witness the emptiness of Trump's candidacy when juxtaposed next to hers at the first presidential debate. Yes, nothing is a sure thing. And Hillary has obvious weaknesses. But Americans are a proud people. I doubt they could resist the pride of making history again with the first female president.

    5. The incumbent is not hugely popular.
      There is no doubt that The Donald has offended lots of folk -- I make that point. But to think the various groups will just fall in line according to your script is assuming rather too much. I don't think either candidate is remotely a sure thing, just that The Donald is a much more formidable candidate than many folk are assuming.

    6. You're conflating two different things.

      But I will grant you your last point.

    7. Under no construction does the evidence make the incumbent "hugely popular". Reagan was much more popular, for example. Which helped get Bush Snr over the line against a weak opponent (the only case of the same political Party for three terms in the White House in the postwar period).

      Al Gore managed to blow Bill Clinton's popularity away, doing considerably worse than the "Peace and Bread" equation would predict because he did not have the nous to what Bush Snr did. (Bill Clinton 1996 and Al Gore 2000 are the major outliers, which goes to the political skill of the former and the political clutziness of the latter.)

      Is Hillary a better politician than Al Gore? We shall see.

    8. Consistent net positives in favorability ratings for over half a year means he's at least "pretty popular" for the general public. His favorability among the people who make up the Obama coalition which elected him twice? Off the charts, hence "immensely popular." And that coalition is really all that matters to Hillary. That coalition is now still split between her and Bernie -- with the minority votes going to her and the white, young, and women's votes going to her primary challenger -- hence her current predicament. The woman is a centrist establishment figure fighting a war against two populist men on two fronts, so of course the polls taken around this time wouldn't be kind to her. As for Al Gore, he would have won if Nader hadn't run. A fifth grader could do the math with the votes in Florida and figured that out.

    9. "Immensely popular among Democrats" (which Obama clearly is) is not the same as "immensely popular".

      And Obama's net positives are pretty narrow net positives, so "somewhat popular" among the wider electorate is about as far as one can go. It is true that having an incumbent of your Party whose favourables are higher than their unfavourables is an advantage, but it is not enough to, for example, weather any economic downturn.

      And Bush Snr would have won again in 1992 if Perot hadn't run. Nader did not get a lot of votes: given the state of the economy and Bill Clinton's popularity, Gore should not have been so vulnerable that Nader made a difference. I would also point out that Secretary of State a term ago is less direct connection with the incumbent than VP for two terms.

      It is possible than Hillary will join Bush Snr to create the only other three terms with one Party sequence in the postwar period, but that is still a lot more doubtful than lots of people seem to think.

  3. Nice post. Not PC to say today: President Ronald Reagan's trade protectionism in practice was far more aggressive than anything Trump has proposed. Ronald Reagan's soaring rhetorical nationalism exceeded anything Trump has ginned up (Trump is by far the inferior speaker).

    I still am puzzled by the GOP establishment reaction to Trump. Do they fear he will actually change foreign policy? They will lose access to federal spending programs? Does the GOP love cheap illegal immigrant labor?

    The Donks are equally suspect for different reasons btw....

  4. Thanks for this post Lorenzo!

    The cultural appeal of Donald Trump is very recognizable from a Western European perspective.

    The media in Belgium - like most Western media - are terribly politically correct/'liberal' as well, basically telling their audience that Trump is a warmongering buffoon.

    So I'm glad to find serious analyses like yours online. (I also appreciate your posts on Islam).