The Volokh Conspiracy

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Rhetoric, Polarities, and Trump

Rhetorical power isn't about one thing; it's always about two.



This week I've been posting about principles of style that made the writing of Lincoln, Churchill, and Holmes so potent. The posts are all taken from this new book that I hope you will check out if you've found the discussions interesting. (Otherwise I just thank you for your patience.)

The examples this week have all involved the choice between different kinds of words: Latinate vs. Saxon, simple vs. complex, abstract vs. visual. The book also talks about many other issues: the lengths of sentences, active vs. passive voice, cadences, etc. It shows how great writers have made use of contrast in working with those variables, and how the contrasts have lent power to their words.

Those examples are part of a general argument that I mentioned on Monday and to which I'll return here in brief. It is that our culture of advice about good writing is inadequate. Don't get me wrong: usually being clear and concise is the best thing a writer can do, and sometimes it's the only thing a writer should worry about. But if you want your words to do more than just convey information—if you want to move others to action, or even just hold their attention—there is more to know. The "more" is the study of rhetoric.

To put it differently: conventional books about writing often talk as though you get better by pushing as far as you can in one direction: toward more simplicity. But rhetorical force requires two things, not one. The two things might be plain and fancy words, long and short sentences, high or rich substance and low or simple style (or vice versa), the concrete and the abstract, the formal and the informal, or other pairs. If you want your writing to cook, learn how to play with those polarities.

You might wonder what relevance rhetoric can have in the age of Trump. But Trump confirms the importance of all this. He is a user of polarities. Put dignified language into his mouth and he amounts to nothing; put his undignified language into the mouth of someone with ordinary status, and he too would amount to nothing. But such a casual lack of dignity in a tycoon, television star, and presidential candidate—this was something! A more vivid collision of high and low would be hard to devise, and many people have found it compelling or refreshing or amusing enough to make all objections seem trivial.

My book isn't quite about that sort of rhetorical polarity—not principally, anyway. It's about other polarities that have been effective in the hands of talented writers and talkers. The methods of earlier eras may not be working as well as the methods of Trump under current conditions (but don't jump to conclusions; Trump hasn't been challenged by a Lincoln). Even if so, however, the comings and goings of such appeals run in cycles. The principles of rhetorical power are always worthy of study—or, failing that, fun to know about—no matter what shape they're taking at the moment.

If you're interested in these themes, here's a last link to the book that goes into detail about them; it's part of a series on rhetoric that also includes this one and this one.

I'm very grateful to Eugene and his crew for letting me visit their great blog and talk about all this. I've posted about other books here before—one about thinking like a lawyer, another about the law of restitution, another about Stoic philosophy—and have made good friends among those who found them here. Keep up the good work, Eugene!