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Rhetoric, Justice and the Pursuit of Power

Intentions matter in life and in politics. It is one thing, for example, for a family member or house guest inadvertently to knock a prized vase or antique to the floor and break it. It is quite another for that individual to pick up the object and deliberately cast it down with an eye to destroying it. Likewise, most would find it easy to forgive two children playing catch and one overthrowing the baseball accidentally and having it crash through a window. Regrettable, people might say, and it should be set right, but surely forgivable. But the matter would be perceived quite differently if the youngster had intentionally thrown the ball at the window in the hope of breaking it.

This point suggests that we must often try to discern intentions, when those are not always self-evident or obvious, by contextualizing what has occurred. We know intuitively that intentions matter, but are not themselves sufficient to ordain or explain outcomes. If that were so, all for which we might wish would come to fruition. But we learn early in life that such is not the case. Yet, this question is still more complicated, as our debates concerning criminal intent often reveal. In many cases, the issue is not only a need to understand the facts of what transpired when an alleged crime occurred, but also how to make sense of those actions in coming to that judgment, so as to be fair, if possible. When someone is killed, for example, our laws distinguish between a death arising from a prior intent and one that occurs accidentally (as say, in a hunting mishap).

As difficult as these factors may make it to render such judgments, they are made more complex by the reality that we often must also seek to discern whether what perpetrators report has occurred actually happened as described, or whether they are misleading or lying to us concerning the issues or events in question. Culturally, our working assumption is that individuals will typically act with honorable intentions and with good will. We act on that belief daily when, for example, plumbers make repairs or appliance installers assist us, first providing their services and expecting compensation only thereafter. These examples could easily be multiplied as they are a commonplace in our society.

But matters get considerably more opaque when we no longer can proceed believing in the good will and honest intentions of actors, or when we come to believe that they will work to mislead us into accepting versions of reality that accord with their desired interests rather than our mutual benefits. We are typically taken aback and set at sea when encountering such individuals. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd recently suggested that our country has now dealt for nearly four years with a president undertaking precisely such actions and willing to employ rhetoric with impunity to characterize events as he might wish, regardless of the relationship of his claims to reality.[1] That is, the nation has been beset by a regime dedicated to artifice and lies in the name of power and willing to say and do virtually anything to ensure attainment of its selfish and corrupt ends. This situation completely upends our daily cultural assumption that we may generally trust others as we proceed, even as it violates the otherwise sacred bond that our elected officials, whatever their ideological differences, vow to uphold to serve the people collectively and honestly and with the genuine aspiration of securing the public good.

Here is how Dowd, in her typically plain style, put the matter:

As it turned out, the founders created a country painfully vulnerable to whoever happens to be president. They assumed that future presidents would cherish what they had so painfully created, and continue to knit together different kinds of people from different areas with different economic interests. But now that we have a president who takes those knitting needles and stabs the country mercilessly with them, we can see how fragile this whole thing really is. All the stuff we took for granted — from presidential ethics to electoral integrity to a nonpolitical attorney general — is blown to smithereens. The president who does not believe in science has been conducting a science experiment for four years: What happens to a country when you have a president who is doing everything in his power to cleave it?[2]

As Dowd also pointed out in that same essay, Trump has taken not only to seeking to divide Americans from one another, but also has gone further to contend that some citizens ought not to count because they are inherently less than or contemptible. Those assertions appeal to fear, prejudice and hate and they are not true, even as they “blow to smithereens” our reasonable expectations that our leaders and fellow Americans act as friends of freedom and civil rights. More, these contentions tear at the sinews of the ties that bind us as nation.

My purpose here is not to rehash the countless and continuing lies, the malevolence and the well-known incompetence of Trump and too many in his party, but instead to highlight that the intentionality and purposes of rhetoric are as important as the arguments and assertions it embraces. This is hardly a new idea. Plato took up the question of the role of rhetoric in social and political life in his dialogue, Gorgias, some 2,400 years ago.

In that famous work, Socrates encountered the rhetorician Gorgias, and more particularly, his student Polus and host, Callicles. The three engaged in a sustained discussion of the role of rhetoric in human society. In that exchange, Gorgias defined rhetoric as whatever persuaded its hearers. He agreed to Socrates’ summary of his position:

If I understand you at all, you mean that rhetoric produces persuasion. Its entire business is persuasion. The whole sum and substance of it comes to that. Can you in fact declare that rhetoric has any further power than to effect persuasion in the listener’s soul?[3]

In this view, rhetoric has no premise or foundation beyond convincing listeners to support the individual or group offering it. It is empty of morality, ethics or aims. Its sole aspiration, and that of those offering it, is to secure the desires of those propounding it. It surely has nothing to do and is not concerned with the interests of its targets or justice more generally. In sharp contrast, in what scholars have long considered a masterful argument, Socrates contended in the Gorgias that rhetoric must be linked to a conception of the common good, and for him, the ultimate good, if it is not simply to be an instrument of manipulation for its architects and purveyors:

Yes, in all our long discussion the other arguments have been refuted and this alone stands immovable: doing wrong must be avoided more sedulously than suffering it. Above all else, a man must study, not how to seem good, but to be so, both in public and private life. And if he grows bad in any way, he must be punished; for this is the good which is to be rated second after being just: to become so through making amends by punishment. … [R]hetoric, like every to her practice, is always to serve the ends of justice, and for that alone.[4]

Even if one does not accept a Platonic view of justice, this Socratic dialogue is a clear reminder of how far a share of our nation’s elected leaders have strayed from seeking to serve the commons and democracy, and how firmly, Gorgias-like, they have embraced the use of rhetoric as pure artifice designed and employed to persuade, so as to ensure power, whether or not that power is employed to serve those accepting the arguments on offer. This penchant of Trump and most in the GOP is now so enmeshed in our politics that it would be easy to miss its ubiquity. That cannot and should not happen if self-governance is to survive. Most recently, Trump’s misuse of rhetoric has taken the form of baseless claims that all mail-in ballots are corrupting and that such implies that the president should not accept a negative election result in November, should such occur.  Trump has, as a result, refused publicly to indicate he will concede should he not prevail and has indeed developed plans to contest unfavorable results, so as to remove the election’s final outcome from the voters.[5]

Trump and many other GOP officials’ constant lies and deliberate misuse of rhetoric in efforts to create false realities that accord with what they believe will appeal to their supporters symbolizes their break with the broader community they serve, as Dowd has suggested. In democratic terms, Trump and the largest share of his party’s elected officials have now publicly, repeatedly and continually made clear that they have no interest in serving America as a polity, but only in preserving their power and wielding it on behalf of a subset of their supporters as they divide America and Americans to secure that result. In Platonic terms, Trump’s rhetoric may be understood as the abandonment of all pretense to pursue, let alone to secure, the common good or justice for the citizenry.

Plato was right to point up that rhetoric can be powerful and that its misuse is therefore corrupt and corrupting. It must be harnessed to broader social claims and disciplined by justice if it is to serve the community.  Trump and those in the GOP who support him are today’s Gorgias or Polus—willing to argue anything that might persuade, regardless of its truth, implications for those addressed or purport for the community it nominally represents. Dowd was right that Americans have long assumed generally beneficent intentions of their leaders. That is manifestly and daily being shown no longer to be the case, however, as she also rightly argued. Socrates was also correct to contend that when political leaders decouple community and justice intentions from their rhetoric, they must be punished. In the present case, that suggests that Americans must vote, and vote massively, to repudiate Trump and his party in the coming national election. Should they fail to do so, Trump and GOP officials have made clear they will continue on their present course and thereby continue to degrade the nation’s political institutions and democracy, even as they divide its citizenry. Intentions and the rhetoric to which they are tied matter. 

Notes

[1] Dowd, Maureen. “Will the Election Turn on R.B.G.?” The New York Times, September 18, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/18/opinion/sunday/bader-ginsburg-trump-biden-2020.html, Accessed September 25, 2020.

[2] Dowd. “Will the Election Turn on R.B.G.?”

[3] Plato, Tr. And with an introduction by W.C. Hembold, Gorgias, New York: The Bobbs-Merrill, Co., Inc., 1952, pp. 10-11. 

[4] Plato, pp. 106-107.

[5] Gellman, Barton, “The Election that Could Break America,” The Atlantic Monthly, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/11/what-if-trump-refuses-concede/616424/, Accessed September 23, 2020; Epstein, Reid, Emily Cochrane and Glenn Thrush, “Trump Again Sows Doubt about Election as GOP Scrambles to Assure Voters,” The New York Times,  September 24, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/24/us/politics/trump-republicans-election-transition.html, Accessed September 24, 2020. 

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