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[COMMENTARY] Trump’s Rhetoric Wasn’t Inconsequential, and We Should Not Act Like It Is

[COMMENTARY] Trump’s Rhetoric Wasn’t Inconsequential, and We Should Not Act Like It Is

In 1170ce, King Henry II opined, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest” in reference to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett. Someone did. Four of Henry’s knights assassinated Beckett.

At a glance, Henry’s utterance was a rhetorical question, meant to be contemplated but not acted upon. But for more than eight and a half centuries, it has been understood as more than mere rhetoric.

Henry’s “meddlesome priest” exemplifies the power of indirect language to incite direct action. The four knights heard Henry’s rhetorical question as a command, and they acted.

Unfortunately, Henry’s example is freshly relevant in 2021.

In the lead-up to the Senate impeachment trial to determine Donald Trump’s culpability in the January 6th Capitol insurrection, the former President’s lawyers filed a pre-trial brief outlining their defense strategy.

Their key argument was that “Mr. Trump’s metaphorical ‘fighting’ language” was taken out of context and that “a closer examination of the text of Mr. Trump’s speech reveals he makes references to ‘fighting’ in a plainly figurative sense.” They pursued the strategy during the trial.

No one, Trump’s lawyers insisted, could misconstrue his words as an order. They even casually dismissed the entire speech as “plainly political,” as if political speech were itself inconsequential.

As a rhetoric professor for more than 15 years and someone who studies authoritarian and extremist rhetoric, let me be the first to say Trump’s defense was plainly faulty. It relied on the assumption that only a direct command can be inciting.

But Henry’s knights knew that wasn’t true 850 years ago, and it isn’t true now.

In the Capitol attack, looking at three basic elements of rhetorical analysis — audience, purpose, and context — is enlightening.

Trump’s audience was sympathetic — their main expectation was to hear things they already believed. The audience didn’t come to the rally to learn new information or be convinced. They came to be strengthened in their conviction that the election was stolen. They came, as many crowds do, to be emotionally stimulated.

The purpose of the event was ostensibly to gather in support of Trump, but if we take Trump at his word, the rally was the prelude. The real purpose was marching on the Capitol.

“We have come to demand that Congress do the right thing and only count the electors who have been lawfully slated, lawfully slated,” he said. “I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.”

Here Trump was on his most solid legal ground. After all, he directly called for peaceful protest. But contrary to his lawyers’ assertion, the context does not support Trump’s case.

For one, there was nothing the crowd could legally do to prevent the certification of votes. All they could legally do was gather and chant.

If we look at his speech, however, it’s unlikely Trump meant the crowd should make their voices heard through chanting.

Trump repeatedly claimed his true supporters — “real people” — had courage, had guts, and were willing to fight. The insinuation, however indirect, was that gathering and chanting may be fine for his opponents, but not for his true supporters.

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Trump’s opponents were not just Democrats, either. He denounced “weak Republicans” who “turned a blind eye” to Democrats’ corruption. So Trump defined his opponents as corrupt or weak and positioned his supporters as willing to do whatever it took to “stop the steal.”

In case his audience was unsure what he meant, he told them, “When you catch somebody in a fraud, you’re allowed to go by very different rules.” The corrupt and weak aren’t protected by normal rules.

In context, then, Trump didn’t have to directly tell his crowd to attack the Capitol. He stoked their anger, aimed them at the Capitol, and encouraged them to do whatever was necessary to keep him in power.

His message was as plain as Henry II’s grievance against the meddlesome priest. Whether he meant for his audience to become a violent mob is beside the point because his rhetoric encouraged them to attack. No surprise, then, that his knights acted as if they’d been directly commanded.

No one believed Henry II’s rhetoric was inconsequential. Following Beckett’s murder, Henry faced serious consequences for his inciting role, and there were genuine constraints put on his power to prevent future violence.

Trump has been acquitted by the U.S. Senate, but that does not mean he cannot be held to account. In this regard, the case of the “meddlesome priest” should be adopted as a guide. Cultural commentators, business associates, U.S. lawmakers, and even world leaders can ensure Trump’s incitement doesn’t slip from view. Likewise, all the legal avenues for holding Trump to account should be pursued. And for their part, every American must refuse to treat Trump’s “plainly political” speech as inconsequential.


Ryan Skinnell is an associate professor of rhetoric at San José State University, the author “Faking the News: What Can Rhetoric Teach Us about Donald J. Trump,” and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

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