George Wallace

The rhetorical brilliance of Trump the demagogue

George Wallace

George Wallace

By Jennifer Mercieca
The Conversation

Donald Trump’s December 7 Statement on Preventing Muslim Immigration has attracted worldwide disdain. Nearly 500,000 Britons have signed a petition asking their government to prevent Trump from entering their country. In the US, Trump’s comments have been denounced by Democrats, Republicans, the media and religious groups.

Yet a recent poll has found that 37% of likely voters across the political spectrum agree with a “temporary ban” on Muslims entering the US.

Trump possesses an arrogance and volatility that makes most voters recoil. So how has he maintained a grip on a segment of the Republican base that – at least, for now – seems unshakable?

And how has his support persisted, despite the fact that some have called him a demagogueand a fascist, or that political observers have found parallels between him and polarizing figures like George WallaceJoseph McCarthyFather Coughlin – even Hitler?

As a scholar of American political rhetoric, I write about and teach courses on the use and abuse of rhetorical strategy in public discourse. Scrutinizing Trump’s rhetorical skills can partially explain his profound and persistent appeal.

The rhetoric of demagoguery

The Greek word “demagogue” (demos = people + ag?gos = leader) literally means “a leader of the people.” Today, however, it’s used to describe a leader who capitalizes on popular prejudices, makes false claims and promises, and uses arguments based on emotion rather than reason.

Donald Trump appeals to voters’ fears by depicting a nation in crisis, while positioning himself as the nation’s hero – the only one who can conquer our foes, secure our borders and “Make America Great Again.”

His lack of specificity about how he would accomplish these goals is less relevant than his self-assured, convincing rhetoric. He urges his audiences to “trust him,” promises he is “really smart” and flexes his prophetic muscles (like when he claims to have predicted the 9/11 attacks).

Trump’s self-congratulating rhetoric makes him appear to be the epitome of hubris, which, according to research, is often the least attractive quality of a potential leader. However, Trump is so consistent in his hubris that it appears authentic: his greatness is America’s greatness.

So we can safely call Trump a demagogue. But one fear of having demagogues actually attain real power is that they’ll disregard the law or the Constitution. Hitler, of course, is a worst-case example.

Amazingly, one of Trump’s very arguments is that he won’t be controlled.

On the campaign trail, he’s harnessed his macho businessman persona – crafted through social media and years spent on TV (where he was often the most powerful person in the room) – to make his case for the presidency. It’s a persona that rejects restraints: he speaks of not being constrained by his party, media, other candidates, political correctness, facts – anything, really. In a sense, he’s fashioning himself as an uncontrollable leader.

Using speech to demolish detractors

But most voters would never want an uncontrollable president. So why do so many remain adamant in their support?

First, Trump draws on the myth of American exceptionalism. He depicts the United States as the world’s best hope: there is only one chosen nation and, as president, all of his decisions work toward making America great. By tying himself to American exceptionalism – while classifying his detractors as “weak” or “dummies” – he’s able to position his critics as people who don’t believe in, or won’t contribute to, the “greatness” of the nation.

Trump also uses fallacious and divisive rhetorical techniques that prevent him from being questioned or backed into a corner.

He often uses ad populum arguments, which are appeals to the wisdom of the crowd (“polls show,” “we’re winning everywhere”).

When opponents question his ideas or stances, he’ll employ ad hominem attacks – or criticisms of the person, rather than the argument (dismissing his detractors as “dummies,” “weak” or “boring”). Perhaps most famously, he derided Carly Fiorina’s appearance when she started to go up in the polls after the first Republican debate (“Look at that face!” he cried. “Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?”).

Finally, his speeches are often peppered with ad baculum arguments, which are threats of force (“when people come after me they go down the tubes”).

Because demagogues make arguments based on false claims and appeal to emotion, rather than reason, they’ll often resort to these devices. For example, during his 1968 presidential run, George Wallace declared, “If any demonstrator ever lays down in front of my car, it’ll be the last car he’ll ever lay down in front of” (ad baculum). And Senator Joseph McCarthy resorted to an ad hominem attack when he derided former Secretary of State Dean Achesonas a “pompous diplomat in striped pants with a phony British accent.”

Trump will also employ a rhetorical technique called paralipsis to make claims that he can’t be held accountable for. In paralipsis, the speaker will introduce a topic or argument by saying he doesn’t want to talk about it; in truth, he or she wants to emphasize that very thing.

For example, in New Hampshire on December 1, he said, “But all of [the other candidates] are weak and they’re just weak – I think that they are weak generally if you want to know the truth. But I don’t want to say that because I don’t want to…I don’t want to have any controversies, no controversies, is that okay? So I refuse to say that they are weak generally, okay?”

Trump’s ultimately fallacy

Let’s return to Trump’s December 7 2015 statement about Muslims to analyze which rhetorical techniques are in play:

Without looking at the various polling data, it is obvious to anybody the hatred is beyond comprehension. Where this hatred comes from and why we will have to determine. Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life. If I win the election for President, we are going to Make America Great Again.

In this statement, Trump immediately makes two things axiomatic (or unquestionable): American exceptionalism and Muslims’ hatred for America. According to Trump, these axioms are supported by the wisdom of the crowd (ad populim); they are “obvious to anybody.”

He also defines Muslims in essential terms as people who believe only in jihad, are filled with hatred and have no respect for human life. Trump uses Reification – the treatment of objects as people and people as objects – to link his axioms together and support his case: “Our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in jihad.”

Here, he personifies “our country” by presenting the nation as a person. Meanwhile, he uses “that” rather than “who” to signal that Muslims are not people, but objects.

His underlying logic is that our nation is a victim of these “objects.” Objects need not be treated with the same amount of care as people. Therefore we are justified in preventing Muslims from entering the country.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Trump’s use of evidence is incomplete and biased toward his point of view. His announcement cites a survey of American Muslims “showing 25% of those polled agreed that violence against Americans here in the United States is justified.”

The polling data came from the Center for Security Policy (CSP), which the Southern Poverty Law Center has called an “anti-Muslim think tank.” Furthermore, Trump fails to report that in the same survey, 61% of American Muslims agreed that “violence against those that insult the prophet Muhammad, the Qur’an, or Islamic faith” is not acceptable. Nor does he mention that 64% didn’t think that “violence against Americans here in the United States can be justified as part of the global jihad.”

Unfortunately, like a true demagogue, Trump doesn’t seem all too concerned with the facts.

Editor’s note: Jennifer Mercieca is an Associate Professor of Communication and Director of the Aggie Agora, Texas A&M University. Her views are her own.



Rasheed Wallace the Lone Muslim Remaining in NBA Playoffs


By Parvez Fatteh, Founder of,

And then there was one.

A handful of Muslim players had brought their teams to the National Basketball Association playoffs. But, Nazr Muhammad and DeSagana Diop could not get their Charlotte Bobcats out of the first round. And while Mehmet Okur’s Utah Jazz team is still alive, battling the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round, Okur himself is out for the remainder of the playoffs due an Achilles tendon injury incurred in the first round. So, Rasheed Wallace now stands alone as the only Muslim still playing.

Rasheed Wallace is in his first year with the Boston Celtics, but he has achieved success at every step of his career. The 6 foot 11 inch Wallace had spent the previous 5 ½ seasons with the Detroit Pistons, having led them to an NBA title in 2004 and an NBA runner-up spot in 2005. Prior to that, he starred for the Portland Trailblazers, and took them to the Western Conference finals in 1999 and 2000. He has been a four time NBA all star. And, in college, he led the University of North Carolina to the Final Four in his sophomore season.

Wallace and the Celtics currently have their hands full with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round of the playoffs. But, Rasheed has seen all situations at this point in his illustrious career. There is no reason not to expect continued success.