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Trump’s rhetorical style again adds scrutiny to power of words

Why We Wrote This

What responsibility do US presidents have to set the tone of discourse? President Trump says his supporters don’t want him to ratchet it back – but critics say the presidential megaphone comes with a higher burden.

Andrew Harnik/AP
President Trump paused while speaking at a rally Oct. 27 at Southern Illinois Airport in Murphysboro, Ill. On Tuesday he visited Pittsburgh, where 11 worshipers were slain at a synagogue Saturday.

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In the annals of the American presidency, Donald Trump has been unique in his ability to dominate public discussion. But just as striking is the content of the message. “Trump’s rhetoric is a rhetoric of fear,” says George Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A&M University in College Station. From the opening moment of his campaign, President Trump has prided himself on stirring up hornet's nests. The mockery, the winking calls to violence, the provocative policy moves – these are not gaffes. They’re tools with an eye toward an end: winning. After all, Trump rode this rhetorical style all the way to the presidency. On Tuesday came another such move – word of a planned executive order targeting “birthright citizenship.” The goal, Trump told Axios, is to end the practice of bestowing citizenship on anyone born on US soil, regardless of whether his or her parents are citizens. Many legal experts were skeptical of the idea’s chances in court. But the timing seems plain: One week before the midterm elections – and on the same day he visited Pittsburgh following the mass shooting at a synagogue – Trump is fueling the divisive immigration debate, with an eye toward making sure his supporters turn out to vote.

President Trump’s rhetorical style, under intense scrutiny amid the tragedies and threats of the past week, is nothing new.

From the opening moment of his presidential campaign in 2015, Mr. Trump has prided himself on his practice of stirring up hornet’s nests. The mockery, the winking calls to violence, the provocative policy moves, the incendiary language seen by critics as fear-mongering – these are not gaffes. They’re tools with an eye toward an end: winning.

On Tuesday came another such move – word of a planned executive order targeting “birthright citizenship.” The goal, Trump told Axios, is to end the practice of bestowing US citizenship on anyone born on US soil, regardless of whether their parents are citizens. The idea sparked an immediate uproar, and argument over the 14th Amendment, which has long been interpreted to offer wide citizenship rights.    

Many legal experts were skeptical of the idea’s chances in court. But the timing seems plain: One week before the midterm elections, Trump is fueling the divisive immigration debate, with an eye toward making sure his supporters turn out to vote.

For Trump’s purposes, this rhetorical style – both in tone and substance – is effective. Or at least, it can be interpreted as such. After all, he rode it all the way to the presidency.

When asked Monday night on Fox News if he should dial back his rhetoric, in the wake of Saturday’s mass shooting at a synagogue and the discovery of pipe bombs mailed to prominent Democrats, he pointed to his supporters’ reaction.

“You saw the group saying, ‘No, don’t tone it down, don’t tone it down,’ ” he told Fox host Laura Ingraham, referring to his rally Saturday in Murphysboro, Ill., hours after 11 Jewish worshipers were fatally gunned down in Pittsburgh.

Trump has long faced calls to “tone it down” – even, he says, from his own family. At a campaign rally in Boca Raton, Fla., in March 2016, on the eve of the Florida primary, he spoke of how his wife and daughter Ivanka wanted him to act more “presidential.”

“I sort of like the other way better,” he said playfully.

As a candidate, Trump’s message often was, “Elect me, and you’ll see just how presidential I can be.” But in office, he has largely ignored that demand, opting to remain in campaign mode. At a rally last March, he mimicked “presidential style” as over-the-top boring, before reverting to his usual combative persona.

“The idea of being provocative is obviously something that’s been part of his personal doctrine for a while,” says Republican pollster David Winston, a longtime adviser to the Republican leadership in the House and Senate.

But “the thing about success is, it’s blinding,” Mr. Winston adds, both in politics as well as in other arenas. “Because you are successful, you assume everything you did was correct.” That can cloud a person’s ability to critique his own performance – or improve on it.

Some Trump supporters themselves make a similar point. In focus groups and in interviews at rallies, some wish out loud that he would cut back on the tweeting and strike a more presidential tone.

The president and his defenders, including White House press secretary Sarah Sanders and son Eric Trump, argue that some of the comments deemed to be overly provocative or offensive were just meant to be entertaining.

When the president praised a Montana congressman last week for body-slamming a reporter during a special election last year, and mimicked the incident, Trump faced criticism for seeming to encourage a violent act.

The president’s son begged to differ. “Stop, he wasn’t the guy who body-slammed anybody,” Eric Trump said when questioned about the Montana rally during an appearance on Fox News. “He can have fun.”

Moreover, that was “exactly why my father won,” the younger Trump added. The public is tired of “perfectly scripted” politicians who memorize sound bites and have no charisma, he said.

Experts on presidential rhetoric say there’s something to the argument that the president is just trying to entertain his audience.

“It might not be a very good excuse, but in some of those instances, it may actually be true,” says Martin Medhurst, a professor of communication and political science at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. “This man is nothing if not a showman.”

Still, he adds, “it’s hard to distinguish that from his everyday practices of belittling, and name-calling, and all the things that are clearly not meant to be humorous.”

On the more serious question of whether the president can be held responsible for inciting violence, following the Pittsburgh massacre and the pipe bomb incident, Mr. Medhurst and others say it’s impossible to draw a direct line between a president’s rhetoric and another person’s actions.

But presidential rhetoric matters – especially at a time of growing political polarization, a trend that long preceded Trump’s election. 

“When you inflame threats, you don’t do much to help Americans come together,” says George Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, and author of a book on the presidential bully pulpit. “You can mouth a few words about, ‘We need to come together,’ but when the rest of the rhetoric does not encourage that, it reinforces social divisions that have been rising since Ronald Reagan’s day.”

Republicans argue that Democrats have also been guilty of inciteful language, pointing to former Attorney General Eric Holder’s statement, “When they go low, we kick them.” Then there’s former Vice President Joe Biden, who boasts that if he and Trump were in high school, he’d “take him behind the gym” and beat him up.

Indeed, and when a disgruntled gunman burst into a newsroom in Annapolis, Md., last June, killing five people, Trump wasn’t blamed – despite his rhetoric repeatedly attacking the media as the “enemy of the people.” In the Annapolis case, the gunman was known to have a specific grievance with the newspaper.

To critics, the “both sides” argument is a dangerous form of false equivalency. And it minimizes the fact that the president has the biggest megaphone in the world.

In the annals of the American presidency, Trump is unique in his ability to dominate public discussion, says Edwards.

But just as striking is the content of the message.

“Trump’s rhetoric is a rhetoric of fear,” Edwards says. “He emphasizes threats to personal safety – claims that violent crime is soaring, that Islamic terrorists are a dire threat – and to personal economic status, from foreign trade, global warming, immigration, regulation, the Affordable Care Act. All of these are going to ruin your life.”

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