On Feb. 9, the historic second impeachment trial of Donald Trump will commence in the United States Senate, where a common theme running through the impeachment articles centers on the inciting power of speech used by the former president.
The trial will vividly portray the tragic consequences of inciting speech with accompanying cries for accountability and calls to lower the temperature on incendiary rhetoric. Church leaders can play a critical role by modeling and teaching a biblical ethic of responsible speech governed by the guardrails of gospel values.
Those who participate in the same kind of rhetoric modeled by Trump fuel Christian nationalists with hate, mocking, bigotry, authoritarianism, coercion and conspiracy theories. No claim of being “prophetic” can justify these strategies, especially in light of how Jesus conducted himself.
“Those who participate in the same kind of rhetoric modeled by Trump fuel Christian nationalists with hate, mocking, bigotry, authoritarianism, coercion and conspiracy theories.”
A better biblical imperative is found in Colossians 4:6 — May our speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that we may know how we ought to answer everyone.
What’s at stake here
Legal cases often turn on the meaning of words. Perjury charges during the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton famously turned on what the meaning of the word “is” is. But this impeachment will be the first to explore the persuasive power of words and the legal culpability for public speech by a president.
From a legal perspective, discerning the causal relationship between that speech and, in this case, mob actions that imperiled American democracy and resulted in loss of life, will be paramount. Far beyond a simple parsing of words, this impeachment suggests the need for a thorough understanding of the rhetorical strategy used by Trump and how his followers heard his words and acted on them.
Those who see the impeachment simply through a political lens, however, may have little interest in such analysis.
In the articles of impeachment, house managers tied the impeachable offence of high crimes and misdemeanors to charges of “incitement of insurrection.” In criminal law, incitement is the encouragement of another person to commit a crime.
Specifically, pre-trial arguments point to: (1) Trump’s repeated assertions during the 2020 campaign of a rigged election and a refusal to affirm the peaceful transition of power if he lost; (2) Trump’s post-election rhetoric that promoted conspiracy theories of election fraud and a “stolen” election, which agitated his followers; (3) Trump’s public rhetoric that summoned his followers to Washington on Jan. 6 for a “Stop the Steal” rally where house managers assert “President Trump incited a violent mob to attack the United States Capitol.”
While Trump’s defense team has indicated its primary strategy will be to assert that the impeachment is unconstitutional since Trump has left office, it also claims the First Amendment protects Trump’s speech.
“Critical to a claim of First Amendment protection is a concurrent denial that his speech bears any responsibility for inciting the mob that stormed the Capitol.”
Critical to a claim of First Amendment protection is a concurrent denial that his speech bears any responsibility for inciting the mob that stormed the Capitol or for obstructing the finalization of election results. House managers will argue speech that incites insurrection is not protected speech. The pre-trial arguments of the defense also claim insufficient evidence to determine whether Trump’s claims of election fraud are false or true.
President or demagogue?
Professor Jennifer Mercieca likely has invested more time than anyone studying the rhetorical strategy of Trump. The associate professor of communication specializing in rhetoric and public affairs at Texas A&M University spent countless hours studying every speech of Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Her analysis, Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump, contends that one of the most distinctive aspects of Trump is that he communicates more like a demagogue than a president. By that, she means he exploited pre-existing and widespread distrust among the electorate and chose rhetorical strategies that intentionally increase suspicion of government, other leaders and the media while avoiding his own accountability and transparency.
Considering two definitions for a demagogue, Mercieca observes that while his followers may see Trump as “a heroic demagogue” in the sense of being a leader of the people and for the people, his detractors see him as a “dangerous demagogue” who appeals to the passions and prejudices of the mob in order to gain power or further his own interests.
Writing prior to the Capitol insurrection, Mercieca concluded that Trump’s rhetorical strategies are dangerous because they “violate the norms of democratic political discourse.” In her opinion, Trump did not cause the conditions of an alienated, polarized and distrusting electorate but “he did take advantage of them.”
In the book, Mercieca explores six strategies Trump used during the 2016 campaign to “weaponize” rhetoric to ingratiate himself to supporters, gain their compliance, separate himself and his supporters from opponents, and to avoid accountability. All these strategies are designed to prevent critical thinking by distracting or polarizing listeners, shifting authority to the crowd, dehumanizing opponents, exciting emotions or overwhelming audiences or opponents with intimidating or provocative remarks.
“Demagogues and internet trolls use this ironic strategy of saying and not saying, which allows them to say two things at once, so that they can’t be held accountable for what they’ve said.”
One of Trump’s most potent and confounding strategies is known by the rhetorical term “paralipsis,” which means “to leave to the side.” Mercieca explains: “Demagogues and internet trolls use this ironic strategy of saying and not saying, which allows them to say two things at once, so that they can’t be held accountable for what they’ve said. It’s a tricky strategy because if you’re not a part of that discourse community you might not understand that the ironic ‘wink’ is just that.”
In other words: The insiders know exactly what is being said, but the outsiders can’t be quite sure.
Here are examples of Trump’s six rhetorical tactics cited by Mercieca:
Argumentum ad populum, an appeal to the crowd. In saying, “I don’t, frankly, have time for political correctness,” he positioned his aggressive style as giving voice to the people who had been suppressed by political correctness. And the same in saying, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Or, “It’s so nice that the shackles have been taken off me and I can now fight for America the way I want to.”
American exceptionalism, an appeal to white Christian nationalists in particular. American exceptionalism—presented as American greatness— was the underlying logic behind the “Make America Great Again” campaign theme. Another example: “There are so many scary enemies out there … they are taking our country away but … I will put you first. I will put America first.”
Paralypsis, the effect of saying something that you claim you aren’t saying. “I’m not saying that he conspired; I’m just saying he was all over the place.” Trump frequently defended his re-tweets of dubious news stories, such as the association of Ted Cruz’s father with Lee Harvey Oswald, by claiming he “wasn’t saying” they did anything wrong (because someone else wrote the story) but “somebody ought to look into it.” Trump also re-tweeted a large number of white supremacists while denying or equivocating on their support when pressed. Their own posts confirm they understood the “wink-wink” strategy of Trump as affirming them.
Argument ad hominem, an “appeal to the person” that attacks the person instead of the issue. “Low-energy Jeb!” “Lyin’ Ted Cruz.” “Liddle Marco.” “Crooked Hillary.”
Argument ad baculum, an “appeal to the stick” using threats of force or intimidation. Consider Trump mocking disabled Washington Post reporter Serge Kovaleski, who challenged Trump’s claims of post 9/11 celebrations by Muslims: “Now the poor guy. You gotta see this guy.” Or his frequent railing against media: “It’s going to be like this … I’m going to continue to attack the press.”
Reification, treating people as objects. Trump frequently reified refugees, Muslims, immigrants and women, reducing them to objects to be hated, disregarded or used. For example: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best … They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
A closer look at Trump’s “Stop the Steal” speech
Fast forward to the fateful “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6. Application of Mercieca’s approach to Trump’s rhetoric finds the same strategies at work. He stoked the crowd’s ego with repeated attention to the crowd’s size, their “extraordinary love,” this “amazing movement,” and how “smart,” “strong” and “real” his followers are compared to how “stupid,” “weak,” “pathetic” and “crooked” his opponents are. Trump used variations of the word “fight” 22 times, while defenders will point to his single use of the phrase “peaceful protest” as evidence of his plausible deniability.
“Trump used variations of the word ‘fight’ 22 times, while defenders will point to his single use of the phrase ‘peaceful protest’ as evidence of his plausible deniability.”
He sought to overwhelm his audience with purported “evidence” of election fraud that has been refuted by all states and the judiciary in 6o failed lawsuits. And he attacked Mike Pence at five different points in the speech, telegraphing how disappointed he would be and how the crowd should never forget what Pence did, if he didn’t fulfill Trump’s demand that Pence refuse to certify the electors and send them back to the states for recertification.
Some may argue that Trump’s speech was perfectly appropriate and not sufficiently emotionally charged to satisfy a definition of incitement. In recent conversations with the author, Mercieca pointed out: “While demagogues can certainly take advantage of emotion, they also take advantage of our cognitive weaknesses — like our addiction to us/them polarization and outrage and our mind’s desire to find confirmatory information or use motivated reasoning. Demagogues attract our attention, shift it to topics that they want us to attend to, and refuse to be held accountable for their words and actions.”
In rhetorical analysis of the rally speech, the professor finds disturbing use of war rhetoric with enough persuasive force to constitute incitement. Mercieca finds the following strategies at work:
- Exterminationism, meaning a plague must be removed to be pure again.
“Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore, and that is what this is all about.” “Our country has been under siege for a long time.” “Our country will be destroyed, and we’re not going to stand for it.” “The radical left knows exactly what they’re doing. They’re ruthless and it’s time that somebody did something about it.”
- Ad baculum, threats of force. “These people are not going to take it any longer.” “Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us. And if he doesn’t, that will be a sad day for our country because you’re sworn to uphold our constitution.” “And Mike Pence, I hope you’re going to stand up for the good of our constitution and for the good of our country. And if you’re not, I’m going to be very disappointed in you. I will tell you right now. I’m not hearing good stories.” “And I’m going to be watching, because history is going to be made.”
- “We” are good, strong, pure, sure of victory. “Hundreds of thousands of American patriots are committed to the honesty of our elections and the integrity of our glorious Republic.” “We will never give up. We will never concede. It doesn’t happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved.” “We will not be intimidated into accepting the hoaxes and the lies that we’ve been forced to believe over the past several weeks.” “It’s never going to be the end of us, never. Let them get out. Let the weak ones get out. This is a time for strength.”
- “We” are innocent victims. “Unbelievable, what we have to go through, what we have to go through and you have to get your people to fight.” “You’re stronger, you’re smarter. You’ve got more going than anybody, and they try and demean everybody having to do with us, and you’re the real people. You’re the people that built this nation. You’re not the people that tore down our nation.”
What he said, what they heard
At the end of the day, rhetorical analysis may be lost on lawmakers in the impeachment trial. What is inarguable is what Trump’s followers report they heard him say and how that motivated what they did.
Among those 180 or more rioters who already have been charged in federal court, many of their preliminary defense strategies involve claims that they were acting on orders from their president. By their own accounts, these followers heard and understood a message of violent insurrection as the president’s wish and command. Video recordings made by rioters, such as those aggregated by Pro Publica and made available by Just Security, provide evidence of exactly what they understood they were doing and why.
Brad Russell serves as vice president of a marketing research firm focused on smart technologies. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin, a master of divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a doctor of ministry degree from Austin Presbyterian Seminary. Previously he served a variety of Baptist churches and institutions in Texas.
- Mercieca, Jennifer. Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2020.