Aristotle, Trump and Plato – and the merits of rhetoric

Aristotle thought rhetoric was good for democracy. Donald Trump has proven him wrong – and Plato right.
Aristotle thought rhetoric was good for democracy. Donald Trump has proven him wrong – and Plato right. NYT

When it comes to rhetoric, Plato was right and Aristotle – not so much.

Distilled, Aristotle thought rhetoric good for democracy, though his definition of “by the people” was closer to our Founding Fathers’ intent of only certain people than to today’s more-the-merrier model. Given this assumption of a narrow, educated, self-governing populace, Aristotle likely envisioned that those practicing rhetoric would be guided by rules of argument and engagement, emphasizing ethos (trust and credibility), pathos (appropriate use of emotion) and logos (logical argument and facts).

Plato, Aristotle’s mentor, thought otherwise – that rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, in the wrong hands was dangerous and likely to be abused to appeal to people’s base motives. He foresaw the unethical, dishonest uses a skilled but immoral speaker could put his persuasive powers to, with credulous people eager to buy whatever he was selling.

Which brings us to Donald Trump, as if you hadn’t guessed.

We at least owe Trump thanks for bringing these two ancient philosophers back into the conversation. Trump also has inspired reconsideration of rhetoric’s rightful place in the classroom, where it was once considered an essential component of “a gentleman’s” education.

One such classroom can be found at the University of Virginia Law School, where I was recently a guest lecturer. What better time to be reviewing rhetoric’s ancient rules and modern applications than during a presidential election that features one of the most blazing examples of unsavory rhetoric.

So, the question for today’s class: Is Trump the huckster that Plato predicted would someday organize an angry mob into a proud army of anti-intellectual patriots inoculated to facts and reason?

Why, yes! But don’t take my word for it. Consider the appraisal of UVA law professor Robert Sayler, who co-wrote a book, “Tongue-Tied America,” as a template for high-school rhetoric teachers. Using Aristotle’s aforementioned framework, Sayler divined the Greek philosopher’s answer to the question: “Trump’s buffoonery and unhinged chatter reduces to utter catastrophe.”

Let us count the ways.

First, in the matter of ethos, or earning the trust of one’s audience, Trump is as big a prevaricator as he accuses “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz of being. PolitiFact gave Trump its 2015 award for the most fibs.

Second is pathos, which Sayler defines as the sparing appeal to emotions. For Trump, another “F.” Says Sayler: “Trump routinely rages, flush-faced, anger-spewing, sputtering, especially when challenged.”

Lastly, Trump also flunks logos. Rather than advance positive proposals, Trump spends his time railing against what he opposes: the Geneva Conventions, NATO, world trade, the United Nations, the president, “experts” and, of course, “the establishment.”

Otherwise, he operates in a substance-free zone of narcissistic fantasy.

Sayler describes several of Trump’s other anti-logos traits, with amusing categories such as “The Bonkers,” which covers the mogul’s remark about Hillary Clinton’s “disgusting” bathroom break. Trump, concludes the professor, is a world-class demagogue and blunderbuss.

It’s little wonder that the “Stop Trump” movement has gained traction, leading recently to an obstructionist partnership between Cruz and John Kasich. It is also highly unlikely that Trump supporters give a hoot. Plato, Aristotle and Sayler are all elitists, aren’t they? But what should be plain to everyone else is that the study of rhetoric is essential to an educated populace, lest rising generations fall prey to future demagogues and the perilous fates that await the unwitting.