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OP-ED | Has Eloquence Become A Thing of the Past?

by | Jan 22, 2017 10:21pm
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Posted to: Analysis, Media Matters, Opinion, White House

BARTH KECK PHOTO

A sign on display during the women’s march in Old Saybrook on Saturday


To be honest, Donald Trump’s inaugural address disappointed me. He’d been working on it for more than three weeks, after all, so my expectations were high. Not to mention, it was to be his masterpiece, and his alone.

Perhaps my thoughts are stuck in the past — a past where public oratory and discourse were more polished and eloquent. Clearly, those times are gone.

Welcome to public discourse in the age of Trump.

Among the most famous inaugural addresses was John F. Kennedy’s in 1961, still remembered today for the famous line, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” This clever turn of a phrase is known as chiasmus, “a rhetorical device that originates from the Greek chiazo” in which “the second half of an expression is reversed to mirror the first half.”

One of the few examples of classic rhetoric employed by Trump, meanwhile, was anaphora, the repetition of the same words at the start of successive phrases, a technique he used to conclude his speech:

“We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And, yes, together, we will make America great again.”

Effective? Sure. But totally predictable, considering it hinged on Trump’s shopworn campaign slogan. I had no doubt where Trump was headed as soon as he uttered the first sentence in that construct. Nothing new, nothing surprising.

Even more glaring — and enduring — was the dark tone of Trump’s address. Rather than the usually optimistic and hopeful tenor heard when a president takes office, Trump resorted to the same frightening imagery he found effective on the campaign trail:

“Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge; and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.

“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”

Wow. American carnage? Pretty grim. As a teacher, I especially noticed his description of greedy schools that “deprive students of all knowledge.” Really? You mean to say that every single student I’ve taught over the past quarter of a century has left my classroom with no knowledge whatsoever?

I get it; Trump is using hyperbole — another rhetorical device — to make a point here. Then again, maybe he intended these words to be taken literally, considering his fact-challenged view of the world. Either way, what a depressing vision!

If Trump uses any rhetorical device consistently, it is “pathos” — the appeal to emotions. In Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle, pathos is paired with “logos” — logic supported by facts — and “ethos” — the credibility of an author. Clearly, pathos is Trump’s go-to technique. And why not? In an age when most people get their news through a screen, when many people don’t bother to read, and — let’s face it — when an increasing number of people prefer to not even think, emotional shock has the most impact.

That’s why so many political posts on social media contain click-bait headlines, memes, and most tellingly, rant videos — two or three minutes of breathless whining designed to trigger “shares” among like-minded viewers who re-post them with labels like “nailed it!”

Perhaps the most popular video ranter is Tomi Lahren, the 24-year-old host of a segment called “Final Thoughts” on right-leaning Blaze TV. Lahren’s basic strategy is to call her targets disparaging names and blather on loudly through a string of snarky insults.

Aristotelian debate, it’s not. But not surprising in Trumpian times, which is not about fancy rhetoric, illuminating conversations, or even cold, hard facts. (Remember them?) Rather, discourse today is about jamming an idea down your audience’s throat and keeping it there via relentless repeat performances.

Apologists for Trump’s gloomy inaugural address explain that he merely gave his supporters what they wanted: authenticity. That’s code for, “sorry, but today people simply expect to be shocked.” And guess what? We now find out that Trump probably didn’t write the speech after all. So much for the ballyhooed build-up about Trump being the exclusive author.

Welcome to discourse in the age of Trump. Little wonder the guiding phrase is the artless, “Make America Great Again,” rather than, “Make America Think Again.”

Barth Keck teaches English, including Advanced Placement Language and Composition, and is an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

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