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The Lunatic We've Been Looking For?: Evaluating the Rhetoric of Donald Trump

Timothy Muehlhoff

Does a speaker’s style of communication add to or lessen our fears of mounting incivility?

Professor of Communication Studies, Biola University
May 26, 2016

A friend of mine living in Canada creatively expressed his exasperation toward the Trump faithful by quoting a Billy Joel song: “You may be right, I may be crazy. But it just might be a lunatic you’re looking for.” Whatever you think of Donald Trump’s unlikely rise to political notoriety he evokes powerful emotions from supporters and detractors alike. Is he a political outsider who eschews political correctness in verbalizing what we all feel, or a xenophobic isolationist who will ruin our country in an attempt to save it? Tempers quickly rise when formulating an answer. Is there a way to evaluate Donald Trump’s rhetoric that goes beyond mere preference and surging emotions? Scholars studying rhetoric—public attempts at persuasion rooted in the political sphere—have utilized two simple rhetorical standards to judge speakers—the internal standard and the external standard. Can these standards help Christians gain clarity in how we should view Mr. Trump as a viable candidate?

The Internal Rhetorical Standard

This standard focuses on the persuasiveness, logical consistency, and practicality of the speaker’s argument. Is the given argument supported by facts and logically consistent? How does the rhetor’s arguments and evidence compare to counterevidence presented by those equally informed?

The External Rhetorical Standard

This criterion asks: If everyone adopted your form of rhetoric what type of communication climate would be created? In the last few years communication scholars have become concerned with increasing levels of incivility. They are not alone. A nationwide study found that each generation in America believes we are becoming increasingly uncivil. “More than nine in 10 of each adult generation—Millennials, Gen Xers, Boomers and the Silent Generation—believe that civility is a problem… The generations are also in agreement that incivility has reached crisis proportions in America” (Civility in America 2014). Does a speaker’s style of communication add to or lessen our fears of mounting incivility?

Intellectual Humility

In light of the rise of vitriol and incivility in today’s communication climate, communication scholars and educators have linked the external standard specifically to promoting intellectual humility. Embracing intellectual humility does not mean that individuals lack confidence, or will change their position at the slightest challenge. As Phillip Dow, educator and author of Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Development, asserts, ““It only means that they are submissive to the truth and are, therefore, capable of expanding their understanding of the world in a way arrogant people are incapable of doing.”1

Evaluating Donald Trump with the Internal Standard

Utilizing these two standards allows us to gain clarity in forming an opinion. First, while Mr. Trump presents his ideas with great passion, how do they stack up to the internal standard?

If you’ve followed this year’s political process then you no doubt are aware of Mr. Trump’s ideas for fixing our national ills. A partial list includes the following:

  • Stopping illegal immigration—particularly flowing from Mexico—by building a wall along our southern boarder that is not only “huge” but more importantly, paid for by the Mexican government;
  • Deporting approximately 11.3 million undocumented immigrants;
  • Imposing a 20 percent tax on all imported goods and a 15 percent tax on American companies that outsource;
  • Dramatically reconfiguring or disbanding an obsolete NATO and replacing it with a cohort of countries that can more effectively combat global terrorism.

The internal standard prompts us to ask, “How realistic are these policies?” What evidence can be offered in support? How do comparable experts in the field assess the rhetor’s plan?

For example, the American Action Forum estimates it would take 20 years to deport 11.3 million illegals, while the
Center for American Progress argues
that it would cost $10,070 per person resulting in a final bill of over 114 billion dollars to complete the job. Mr. Trump counters that his plan has historical precedent evidenced by Dwight Eisenhower moving 1.5 million illegal immigrants beyond the US boarder in the 1950s. America’s response to such a bold move? “We like Ike!” states Trump. Determining who’s plan is logically consistent, or practical is at the heart of this standard.

Evaluating Donald Trump with the External Standard

Now how does the rhetoric of Mr. Trump shape our national communication climate (using external standard)? In eschewing what he calls “political correctness” Mr. Trump often verbally addresses others in ways that make many uncomfortable. Here is a sampling:

  • “I like people who weren’t captured” (addressing war veteran John McCain);
  • “She had blood coming out of her wherever” (describing Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly);
  • “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? (referring to Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina); and
  • “Absolute scum” (addressing reporters in South Carolina).

“[W]hat these ancient writers want us to understand most about language is that the tongue is ‘literally a lethal weapon—to others and ourselves.'”

Two results have ensued from Trump’s rhetoric. First, verbal aggression has morphed into physical violence. A Chicago rally had to be canceled when anti-Trump demonstrators clashed with police, security forces, and Trump faithful. Second, in an attempt to halt his rise in the polls others have adopted Trump’s attacking and belittling style. Though he would later apologize for his word choice, presidential candidate Marco Rubio—repeatedly described by Trump as “little Marco”—suggested that Trump’s small hands were indicative of the size of other parts of his anatomy. Rubio’s decision to respond in kind to demeaning rhetoric can be described as a negative communication spiral where one mirrors and accelerates the communication tone of another.

Either/Or Doesn’t Cut it

Recently I shared these two standards while being interviewed on a Christian radio station. During the call-in portion a perplexed listener asked me an interesting question. “As a frustrated Republican I like Trump’s fresh take on politics. As a Christian I am troubled by his harshness toward others. Can I still support him?” The listener was asking if we are justified in voting for a candidate that we think excels at one standard (internal), but fails the other (external)? In my estimation, the answer is no. As Christians we can only support a candidate who meets both standards. The listener disagreed and pushed back. “I’d rather have someone who can fix our country, even though he may get heated time to time. After all, I’m voting for a president, not a pastor.” His objection seemed to regulate the external standard to second-class status to the internal. The Scriptures disagree.

Words as Weapons: The Devastating Power of Violent Speech

The ancient writers who comprise the book of Proverbs utilize vivid metaphors to describe the potentially devastating power of words. “Reckless words” are presented as a “piercing sword” (12:18). A word, spoken in the wrong way, can “break a bone” (25:15). A person’s spirit is easily crushed by a deceitful tongue (15:4). Just as the “north wind” can bring driving rain, so a “sly tongue” evokes an angry response (25:23). In plotting evil, a scoundrel’s speech is like a “scorching fire” (16:27). Not only can negative words separate close friends (16:28), but a whole city can be disrupted by mockery (29:8). Old Testament scholar, David Hubbard, argues that what these ancient writers want us to understand most about language is that the tongue is “literally a lethal weapon—to others and ourselves.”2

The authors of proverbs also described an attribute that is as life giving in human communication as reckless words are destructive: humility. While the result of pride is destruction and disgrace, the humble person will experience honor, riches, and fullness of life (11:2, 18:12, 29:23, 22:4). The defining trait of a humble person is that he or she “listens to advice” (12:15). Notice the writer did not say the advice would always be followed, but rather, it would be humbly considered.

Taking the Scripture’s view of language, can we vote for a political candidate who prides himself or herself on using words as weapons?

Trump the Christian

Our evaluation of Mr. Trump in light of the external standard becomes even more complicated since he has made public claims of being a Christian (the Bible being his favorite book). By adopting the label “Christian” Mr. Trump places himself under the authority of Scripture. First, as a professed follower of Christ he will have to give an account for “every word” that proceeds from his mouth (Mt. 12:36). Why are words so significant? “For the mouth speaks,” asserts Jesus, “what the heart is full of” (Lk. 6:45). Second, as an aspiring leader who undoubtedly yields influence over fellow Christians Mr. Trump opens himself up to harsh criticism if he leads others away from the biblical standard for communication. How would the apostle Paul respond to Mr. Trump’s rhetoric?

Trump According to Paul

It is noteworthy that Paul seems to take different rhetorical postures when dealing with religious and non-religious people. When dealing with Greek stoics and philosophers on Mars Hill, Paul is respectful and even quotes particular stoic teachers. However, when he refers to Judaizers—converts who were holding on to the Law as the means through which people entered into the covenant community—he calls them “dogs” and “mutilators of the flesh” (Phil. 3:2). A key to Paul’s differing communication style and attitude is found in Acts 20:30 where he warns that people from within the Christian community will arise “speaking things to draw away the disciples after them.” It seems important to Paul to identify if he is speaking to religious individuals who should know better, or non-religious people who are ignorant of the Scriptures. If Mr. Trump is a follower of Christ then Paul might very well have chastised him for ignoring the apostle’s charge to put away all “unwholesome” language from our speech (Eph. 4:29). In the Greek unwholesome literally means rotted and was commonly used to refer to spoiled meat. If it is determined that Mr. Trump’s speech is rotted and thereby subsequently rotting and corroding public discourse by increasing levels of incivility, then he has failed the external standard.

Stranded in the Combat Zone

Our evaluation of political candidates must take into consideration both standards of communication. Does she or he present a message that is factually accurate, logically consistent, and practical? (These criteria represent the internal standard.) However, even if the answer is yes we must rescind our support if the candidate’s rhetoric is evidenced by derision, diatribe, and vitriol. (These factors are rhetorically external). If we ignore the external standard we risk further immersing ourselves in today’s toxic communication climate and ultimately finding ourselves, as Billy Joel vividly described, “stranded in the combat zone.”