Bumper Crop: Scholar Explains How Presidential Election is Ripe for Rhetorical Studies

By Tom McLaughlin

For students of rhetoric, this year’s presidential election is a “bumper crop” of rhetorical strategies and devices, posits Bill FitzGerald, an associate professor of English at Rutgers University–Camden.

“The candidates present a study in contrast the like of which we haven’t seen in many, many years,” says FitzGerald, an expert in rhetorical studies with particular interests in stylistics and speech.

The Rutgers–Camden scholar explains how Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are employing vastly different rhetorical appeals to reach different voting blocs – with varying degrees of success – this presidential election season.

What are some of the rhetorical devices – or even ploys – that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are using on the campaign trail these days and what are the desired effects?

In this election, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are already well-known brands who must still re-introduce themselves to the public. Trump clearly draws on his reputation to “tell it like it is” but also as a larger-than-life personality. He appeals to those who see him as a fantastically successful version of themselves and an embodiment of the American dream. At one point in his convention acceptance speech he said, “I am your voice.” His basic strategy is to identify himself with his imagined audience, to speak their language, and to voice their passions, beliefs, and even resentments.

In contrast, Hillary – who has now become a first-name brand, while Trump is a last-name brand – has to overcome her perceived character as a Clinton, distancing herself strategically from her husband, Bill Clinton. She wants to be perceived as her own person; not a return to a Clinton White House. In this effort, her appeal is largely ethical. She presents herself as experienced, capable, studious, ready on day one, and at 3 a.m.  She presents herself as everything “The Donald” is not.

How does the current racial climate in the U.S. influence the candidates’ rhetoric?

Race has been the not-so-hidden force in this election, perhaps even more so than in 2008 when President Obama was a candidate. In the past few years, we have had to deal with the discomforting fact that America is far from being a post-racial society. In an era of increasing inequality, the downward pressure on many working-class whites and blacks has exacerbated racial tensions. The Trump campaign, in particular, is fueled by anxieties about race. Trump appeals to a predominantly white electorate in ways that are both subtle and not. By contrast, Clinton appeals to the coalition of Obama voters who see America in terms of racial, ethnic, and religious diversity.

How does being the first female nominee for president influence Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric?

Eight years ago, Hillary’s opportunity to be the first female president loomed much larger as it played against the possibility of a first African-American president. This time, Hillary’s gender is less of a factor but it’s still there. She has largely overcome any perceived deficit imposed by gender, even as she is attacked in sexist terms by Trump supporters. Yet she must still tread carefully to combat claims about weakness or illness that are “dog whistle” arguments about gender.

What are some ways in which rhetoric is negatively impacting the perceptions of candidates in the minds of voters?

Bill FitzGerald. Photo by Bob Laramie

This election reinforces all the negative associations of the word “rhetoric” that many people have, including the belief that everything politicians say is a lie. Each of the candidates is working hard to “define their opposition” and make the other candidate unacceptable to the voting public. Many are discouraged by the debased language and even worry that the result of this election is a president who is regarded as illegitimate by a large portion of the electorate. Neither candidate nor the media is perceived as doing what is needed to elevate the public discourse.

What are some words of advice that you would have for the candidates on how to use their rhetoric more effectively to their advantage?

If Hillary Clinton loses the election, it will be because she is seen as remaining in a defensive posture about claims of poor judgment and ethical impropriety. To some extent, Clinton must accept responsibility in ways that humanize her. Right now, her opponents are demonizing her.

The most positive thing Donald Trump has done in recent weeks is to portray himself as regretful for his words and to suggest a degree of humility in the process. Even if he is back to his old ways a day later, this form of confession and the ability to admit a mistake is a powerful rhetorical move. He has to demonstrate that he has the character to be president through his words. Everyone says he should stick to this script – and they’re right. But can he?

Ultimately, why is rhetoric so important in this – or any – election?

If any election offered an opportunity to see how vital the study of rhetoric is to a functioning democracy, it is this one. Politicians are only as good as the publics they seek to persuade. We must learn to be a demanding audience.

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