Logos, Pathos, Ethos, and Twenty-first Century Presidential Politics

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Surely it was the first time in the history of American presidential elections that a candidate had made such a statement: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” The American public has heard so many outrageous statements from Donald Trump that this recent one wasn’t even the lead story on the evening news. In fact, it produced hardly a ripple in the press. Even though the statement is a bit of an exaggeration, Trump’s comment comes closer to the truth than some might like: He can at least say such a thing and not lose voters. Why? What has happened to the classical definition of a rhetor as a good man skilled in speaking? What has happened to the notion that a successful argument is a blend of logos, pathos, and ethos?


Source: Ninian Reid on Flikr

Some fact-checking organizations have claimed that 75% or more of what Trump says is not true. Facts—or lack thereof—would be a large part of the logical component, or logos, of his argument. A Washington Post article near the end of 2015 posed “4 theories why Donald Trump’s many falsehoods aren’t hurting him”: 

  1. People simply believe him—or at least want to.
  2. People don’t care that he’s not accurate.
  3. It’s Trump’s word against the media’s.
  4. People just aren’t paying attention.

Others can analyze Trump’s veracity compared to the media’s. Considering the fourth theory, people who just aren’t paying attention and thus haven’t decided whom to vote for, or just won’t vote, are not being reached by any argument by any candidate. Those who are paying attention but who say they will vote for Trump anyway are responding to the pathos and/or the ethos of his argument, which is the basis for the first two theories in any case. People who simply believe a candidate based on who he or she is (or appears to be) are responding to how that candidate presents himself or herself as an ethical being. Those who don’t care if a candidate is accurate or not are responding emotionally and not logically. Books will be written in coming years about the emotional hold that Donald Trump has over a diverse segment of the American public. It would take an examination of the American psyche to explain what needs Trump fills for which of the various groups who flock to his rallies and who indicate they plan to vote for him. Trump has shaken up American politics for the very reason that he has an emotional hold over American voters that outweighs reason.

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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.