To the editor: Messaging matters. Since before his election as president, Donald Trump had a documented record of unethical behavior, racist discourse and disregard for the truth. Many Americans and much of the mainstream media remain perplexed that President Trump gets away with this, wondering why Congress refuses to rebuke him. For those of us who study communication, the answer is obvious and more rhetorical than ideological.
In “Rhetoric,” Aristotle wrote about “the available means of persuasion.” Say what you will about Trump’s incompetence as well as his despicable words and deeds. That may not matter when we have a president who understands, arguably more than any of his predecessors, that survival and success often are linked to controlling what language infiltrates the public sphere.
Several years ago, I published research introducing the concept of “language-in-use.” I argued that ascertaining the rhetorical effect of presidential discourse by analyzing public opinion poll data and votes may not always be the only or best metric. Instead we also need to know whether and how a president’s language is disseminated and utilized by others, including the media. After all, the use and internalization of even a few of a president’s carefully chosen words may reflect the internalization and acceptance of his larger narratives.
Not only is Trump astute about the power of language-in-use (what he calls branding), but he has mastered the art of utilizing that power. His employment of phrases like “witch hunt” and “spygate” — along with their dissemination by Trump surrogates — have had an impact, being internalized and repeated by others, thus eroding confidence in the eventual outcome of the Russia investigation.
Until Trump’s critics understand this rhetorical source of his influence, he may continue to escape accountability.
Richard Cherwitz, Austin, Texas
The writer is a professor of rhetoric and communications at the University of Texas.
To the editor: As I sort through the president’s latest spate of lies on “spygate,” I have concluded that his consistent mendacity has become even more outrageous and desperate. Without Fox News to amplify his false statements and the support of his fellow Republicans, Trump’s attempts to deceive would probably be considered laughable by a majority of Americans.
But it frightens me to contemplate what the response of the White House would be to a true and dangerous national emergency.
Would we hear the truth from the president regarding what we should do and who is responsible for our peril? Or would he just blame the situation on Democrats, immigrants and the media while chaos and confusion are allowed to spread?
Steven Schilling, Sierra Madre
To the editor: Recently I visited monuments that honor our nation’s greatest leaders. Now, I ponder what traits they have in common to appeal to “our better angels.”
These leaders inspire hope, not fear. The best presidents do not cater to our fears and conspiracies, but conquer our fears with a higher vision. They speak to all Americans, not just their tribe.
They stand as a moral example for the nation by word and deed. They are accountable and take responsibility for their actions. They are devoted to the truth rather than “alternative facts.”
We as citizens need to hold our leaders accountable based on the facts, respect for the law, and civility when discussing opposing opinions. Only then can we become “the shining city” that Ronald Reagan envisioned.
Ruth Larson, San Diego