If we look at many of Trump’s comments, however, we can see illustrations of one of Aristotle’s basic principles of persuasion, though maybe not like you think. In order to talk about this, let’s have a little rhetorical background, but if you’ll stick with me for a moment, I’ll get back to the big mouth with loud hair.
The ancient Greek philosopher said there are three basic ideas that can be used to persuade, which we can translate as logic, emotion, and credibility (or we can get a cool Greek thing going on here with the original words: logos, pathos, ethos).
Since we’re talking about politics, we can quickly throw that “logic” nonsense out the window. I mean logic? In politics? This is the American people we’re talking about. As to emotion, hell yes, you can back up another dump truck full of that and unload it right here.
But that’s not why I’m here. Mr. Donald Trump has brought me around to a discussion of ethos, or credibility. As Aristotle correctly noted (and I paraphrase him), if people don’t trust you, it doesn’t much matter what you say. It totally doesn’t matter how smart you are, how honest you are, or how much you really do know what you’re talking about, if the audience thinks you’re lying or stupid.
Thus, if you’re able to fuck up someone’s credibility, there’s not much they can say at that point, because now we don’t trust them and aren’t listening. Moving from Greek to Latin, there’s a phrase to describe attacking someone’s credibility: ad hominem. It means attacking the person (trying to damage their credibility), rather than responding to the actual thing they said.
An ad hominem argument (or attack) is both a lazy and cowardly method, since it implies that the speaker doesn’t want to bother—or isn’t able—to respond to what was said, so they just attack the other person instead. Let’s put this back into a political context. Not only is politics 90% emotion, but suppose your opponent unexpectedly makes a serious argument, with real facts, to your disadvantage. What if what someone says about you is true?
That’s where an ad hominem argument is so great! Oh yeah, well you’re mama’s fat! And your brother lived in Sweden! And you used to be a Democrat before you became a Republican, and… and… So we’re back to Donald Trump and others, and I thank you for your patience, which come to think of it, has been magnanimous.
For an illustration here, I’ll use an example from the last Republican “debate” in Las Vegas. Ohio Governor John Kasich said that both Trump and Ben Carson are not qualified to be president, saying, “Folks, we’ve got to wake up. We cannot elect somebody that doesn’t know how to do the job. You’ve got to pick somebody who has experience, somebody that has the know-how, the discipline.”
Trump’s response was not to say anything about why he is indeed qualified. Instead, he said Kasich “was such a nice guy. And he said, ‘Oh, I’m never going to attack.’ But then his poll numbers tanked. He has got—that is why he is on the end” (meaning the end of the stage).
By implying that Kasich only attacked him from desperation to gain attention, Trump completely avoided responding to the issue of qualification. Of course in Trump’s case it’s easy to find ad hominem spewing, something he does so often he’s become famous for it. You can probably cite things he has said, sitting right where you are.
Naturally someone so pathologically insecure as Donald Trump would use the most cowardly form of argument. He isn’t the only one to do this, of course. This technique is amazingly popular in politics. Lazy, cowardly, and common. Don’t you love the smell of democracy?
For the record, by the way, my mama ain’t that fat.