Changing Conventions

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Aristotle defined a rhetor as a good man skilled in speaking. What we are teaching and you are learning when you study argumentation is rhetoric—the use of words to move listeners—or, in this course, to move readers. Aristotle taught the concepts of logos, pathos, and ethos, and we still do.

Campaign season is usually a good time to look for timely examples of speeches that illustrate logos, pathos, and ethos. The presidential campaign of 2016, however, has rewritten the rules about balancing the three appeals—logical, emotional, and ethical.


Few would deny that Trump has won supporters through the power of personality, or ethos. In classical times, a speaker won over an audience in part through the ethos he projected, convincing his listeners through his demeanor and his words that he was a good man and thus should be believed. Ironically, Donald Trump has stood that idea on its head by winning supporters by being brash, rude, and crude. His supporters are sending a message that the relative decorum of past campaigns is a part of the political system that they would like to see dismantled. The fact that Trump has gone from being entertainment to being the nominee of his party shows just how effective his unorthodox tactics have been. His most recent campaign manager has clearly tried to get him to use a teleprompter rather than talking extemporaneously, but the jury is still out as to whether coming across as more reasonable and thoughtful will lose more supporters than it will gain. (And as to whether Trump can change that much.)


Analysts covering the two political conventions this summer were quick to point out the difference in tone between the two, and what they were discussing was pathos. Pathos is appeal to the emotions. It was quite noticeable that Trump was using fear tactics, painting a dark picture of all that is wrong with America. In order to sell the slogan “Make America Great Again,” you have to prove that it is not great now. He played on his audience’s fear of terrorism, crime, and illegal aliens. Clinton took the opposite approach and had an upbeat convention, stressing what is already great abou142943_84543977_d0c8ffb8de_o.jpgt America.


Trump has been criticized for lack of substance in his speeches. Before, during, and since the convention, he has depended on fear to replace detailed plans. One of the most specific proposals he has offered is the wall he would build between the United States and Mexico. The promise of a wall to block the arrival of illegal aliens and the crime that he attributes to them is enough to make his supporters forget to ask how he is going to make Mexico pay for this wall, which he has consistently said that he will do. He plays on the fear of terrorist attacks when he proposes to deport hundreds of thousands of “bad dudes,” even if these “bad dudes” are American citizens. The harshest criticism he has received the whole campaign came when he criticized the parents of a Muslim soldier who died in battle. Even then he tried to turn the attention away from what many saw as disrespect for a dead soldier and his Gold Star parents (and the threat of taking away rights of immigrant groups) to say that what he was fighting was the type of people who killed the son.


There is no denying that Trump’s tactics have worked amazingly well. Back when more than a dozen candidates were competing for the Republican nomination, few took him seriously. Hillary Clinton has had to take him very seriously because many Americans find what he has to offer appealing. Some tried-and-true means of predicting political success just haven’t worked this time because Trump has broken from what is expected—and it has worked.

Source:  Anthony Majanlahti, Cicero, on Flickr 

About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.