The deliberate study of how to use language effectively, to my knowledge, has only been invented once, by the ancient Greeks. When the Romans began absorbing Greek culture and Greekifying themselves, they fell in love with rhetoric. The Romans thought of rhetoric more in terms of speaking than writing, and the ability to be a good orator was very important.
Rhetoric was important in the Roman republic, when elections were held, and the ability to be persuasive could be a factor in gaining office. One of the basic tenets of persuasion is convincing people that you have the truth, but later, in the empire beginning with Augustus, political power was concentrated in the ruler, and all “truth” came from the emperor. Truly free discussions about what was true were dangerous, so public rhetoric became less important.
I studied rhetoric as a graduate student, and my own definition is that rhetoric is the use of language to influence what someone is thinking and to persuade them to agree with what you want. From that point of view, even children use rhetoric, assiduously looking for every possible angle to convince their parents of things. In my definition (which I grant is broad), every person uses rhetoric, because we’re all after something, and using language is part of how to get it.
In analyzing political rhetoric, we can carefully examine what a politician is saying, to see, for instance, what underlying ideas they’re trying to connect with the audience on. Examining the words of a normal politician assumes that a certain amount of thought has gone into what is said, and analysis also assumes that some important things are not said (because politicians want to be elected and are careful).
What if a politician, however, seems to speak like a child, blurting out things that appear not to have been thought about at all? What if a politician also appears to have no foundational ideas that unify what is said, so that his or her speech makes no sense in any consistent way?
We can take a statement from President Trump and examine it in the way we would normally look at political rhetoric, but which statement to choose is like dipping a cup into the ocean. The vastness of this madness creates a problem with attempting to analyze the rhetoric of such a president. Is childish ranting the same as rhetoric?
Let’s look at a phrase Trump has made so common that dictators around the world have gleefully grabbed it with both hands: “fake news”. As we use the word “news” it means “something which has happened”. By implication, news also means something of interest (people went to the store today to buy food—something that did happen—but we don’t call that news).
The word “fake” means false, but the connotation is more than false, implying something that is not merely wrong, but is intended to be tricky, such as a fake designer handbag. For thousands of years things have been reported as news, later to be discovered as wrong. We already have a word for this—we call it a “mistake”, and most news organizations admit their mistakes and correct them. When Trump created the phrase “fake news” he did not mean that a news services had made a mistake. He meant they were trying to trick us with deliberately false information.
Such a phrase could be rhetorical, but what takes this discussion into dark authoritarian territory is that the President only uses the phrase “fake news” for reports that he just doesn’t like, even claiming “fake news” in support of ideas that are widely known to be false. It is difficult to believe that President Trump is actually so stupid or emotionally deranged as to believe things any rational person can see is false (such as the number of people in a photograph).
Thus it seems that he must be lying, and by now we’ve seen many examples of his breath-taking lying, such as claiming he did not call Africa “shithole countries” when other people standing there in the room have told us he did. Is lying the explanation for the “fake news” claims? And yet, incredibly, is it possible he believes what he is saying?
Stupid? Deranged? Lying?
Whatever the case may be, that is not rhetoric, and the emperor does not have the truth.