In Defense of Cheap Rhetoric

I agree with Meghan McCain’s recent eulogy of her father on whether Donald Trump partakes of “cheap rhetoric.” I would go further, though, and say his style is the cheapest kind of cheap. But I am also compelled, as an academic that studies rhetoric, to defend the word ‘rhetoric’ and even ‘cheap,’ when used to describe rhetoric.

Rhetoric as a word comes from ancient Athens, where philosophers such Plato and his student Aristotle, among many others, were deeply interested in how Athens’s democracy functioned through public persuasion, which they called ‘rhetoric.’ It had a bad name then, too, as empty and deceptive discourse, but some, such as the philosopher Isocrates, thought skill at rhetoric was at the very core of being a citizen. After all, it is hard to govern, especially in a citizen-state like Athens that chose its public officials by lot (random, essentially) if you cannot get people to accept your positions and ideas.

Aristotle recognized rhetoric as happening only in specific venues such as the assembly (Athens’s thousands-strong forerunner of our Congress), jury trials, and the eve of battle. Most rhetoric and communication scholars today have expanded upon these categories, though, and subscribe to some version of a “big rhetoric” concept, which states all communication is rhetorical, or, in other words, persuasive, down to the simplest “hello” or “how are you doing?” asked in public. Every instance of communication, according to this model, is trying to get its audience to do something, even if just to pay attention and accepting what the speaker or writer is saying to think is important. Modern advertising is probably the easiest to understand manifestation of this idea. Rhetoric is always a curator, selecting and deciding what to present.

But we do not need the “big rhetoric” perspective to see Meghan McCain is a wielder of rhetoric herself, and her powerful eulogy is a great example of what rhetoricians like myself use a ten-dollar Greek word to describe, epideictic, a ceremonial rhetoric that “praises or blames” at occasions like funerals or church services. An epideictic speech like a eulogy celebrates the values we hold and assaults the ones we detest. Mrs. McCain does both with her carefully chosen words. The subject of her blame is obvious.

Watch the video of her speech online. Her rhetoric is not cheap. Like her father, who had earned a massive amount of ethos – a Greek word that blends character and reputation – through his biography and statesmanship, Mrs. McCain has her own powerful ethos simply as a daughter who has lost a father.

I could mention the rhetorical techniques she used in her speech – her use of repetition to stress McCain’s fatherhood, her impassioned delivery, her stinging rebuke of Trump’s lame fundamentalist slogan – but I will not. I will just mention paralipsis, the technique I just used, where I said I would not say something, but did anyway. It is one of Trump’s favorite devices – an inherently dishonest maneuver. In other words, cheap rhetoric.

Unlike Donald Trump, who has acquired everything that he has with money, John McCain, while far from poor himself, or perfect, had many qualities that cannot be purchased with money. These qualities were learned through painful experience, won through tough conflict, and expressed through measured deeds. But the one I want to mention here, which ties most closely to the Athenian idea of rhetoric, is his renowned ability to be bipartisan in Congress. Like Isocrates, who I mentioned earlier tied skill in rhetoric directly to ideal citizenship, McCain understood better than perhaps any currently serving member of Congress that government cannot function effectively without eloquence that aims to help all (or at least most) and not some.

In this political age, ideas are rarely viewed on their merits. They are automatically checked for approval against one’s party line. Whether or not the idea is helpful or not is irrelevant. Good rhetoric, in the Isocratic view, is to be employed in support of the citizenry, not in the maintenance of power. And that is the difference between John McCain and Donald Trump – one sought to help Americans and embody virtue; the other seeks to defraud Americans and embodies vice. That’s another Greek device, antithesis, of course.

Perhaps I am reading too much into Meghan McCain’s remarks. Perhaps she subscribes to the usual view of ‘rhetoric’ as always being deceptive and cheap. But her father stood for decades in Congress as an example of how rhetoric is supposed to work. So, I hope she does not think only that. And, by writing this, I hope you do not think only that either.

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