Donald Trump’s speechmaking style during his presidential campaign has been blamed for coarsening America’s politics conversation and poisoning children’s minds. It’s been criticized as idiotic, despicable, invincibly stupid, reckless and dumb, ridiculous and unhinged.
But quite often, what the Republican nominee says works. In part, that’s because Trump is using many of the same rhetorical strategies of one of the greatest orators in all of recorded history: Cicero.
Marcus Tullius Cicero won his share of elections. He moved up the ranks of the Roman republic until he became consul, the highest office in the land, at a younger age than anyone ever had without coming from a politically connected family. Urbane, educated, literary, prolific – he was the John F. Kennedy or the Barack Obama of first-century-B.C. Rome.
And he sounded a lot like Trump.
Cicero wrote books on speechmaking strategy, including “On the Orator,” which is still read as a handbook today. He knew his rhetorical devices.
Take preterition. The word might not be familiar, but we’ve all become familiar with the concept this year. It goes something like this: A speaker says he won’t mention something, usually something unsavory. And by naming the thing he won’t mention, of course he’s already planted the idea in his listeners’ minds.
When Cicero was attacking the corrupt governor Gaius Verres, for instance, he went on for several sentences about everything that he was supposedly not mentioning. “Nothing shall be said of his drunken nocturnal revels; no mention shall be made of his pimps and dicers,” Cicero said about Verres. The list went on. Cicero rounded it out by saying, “The rest of his life has been such that I can well afford to put up with the loss of not mentioning those enormities.” Not mentioning, indeed. If listeners didn’t know before about Verres’s liking for alcohol and prostitutes, they did now.
Speaking of another opponent, Cicero said, “I pass over his murders, I omit all mention of his acts of lust.”
Does this sound familiar? Listen to Trump in the first presidential debate: “I was going to say something extremely rough to Hillary, to her family, and I said to myself, ‘I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. It’s inappropriate. It’s not nice.’” And talking about the sound of Hillary Clinton’s voice, Trump said at a rally in Fresno, Calif., “I refuse to say that I cannot stand her screaming into the microphone all the time.”
That’s the exact opposite of refusing to say something. That’s preterition, and Trump’s a master at it.
Preterition often falls short of full honesty. In his book “Cicero’s Style,” classics scholar Michael von Albrecht called this tactic “a stylistic device especially useful if you want to mention things you cannot prove.”
Similar is Cicero’s tactic of asking the audience a leading question – stirring up their enthusiasm as participants, and suggesting an answer that he cannot state himself. That sort of question is formally called anachinosis. Defending his friend Rabirius, who had a role in the death of a populist political figure, Cicero laid out the chaotic situation and asked, “What would you do in such a crisis? …. While the consuls were summoning you to uphold the safety and liberty of your country, which authority, which invitation, which party would you prefer to follow, whose command would you select to obey?” Cicero led his listeners to believe that, amid the tumult that led to the death, any one of them might well have acted just like Rabirius.
Isn’t that what Trump did when he asked that anyone who was not a Christian conservative at an Iowa rally last month raise their hands, and then queried the crowd, “I think we’ll keep them, right? Should we keep them in the room?” Trump didn’t outright state that non-Christians deserve a different fate than anyone else in the room but, just like Cicero, he led his audience to fill in an answer.
Then there’s ecphonesis. You’ve been seeing this form of exclamation at the end of Trump’s tweets for months.
“O tempora! O mores!” Cicero wrote in one of his most famous expressions, evocatively proclaiming his distress about society in just a few punctuated words. “The times! The customs!”
Trump deploys ecphonesis effectively and memorably when he ends his tweets, “Sad!”
Trump shares many of Cicero’s other tactics. In fact, the two have so much in common that an Amherst College professor is teaching a course on political rhetoric this semester called “Cicero to Trump: Political Rhetoric and the Public Fashioning of the Self.”
In his course, classics professor Christopher van den Berg points out further similarities in the two men’s speaking styles. For example, one of Trump’s most distinctive speaking patterns is his repetition, with just enough variation to make the lines memorable. “We don’t win anymore. You understand that, we don’t win,” he says. Another time: “It’s wrong. They were wrong. The New York Times, they’re always wrong. They were wrong.” Similarly, in a famous speech against Roman senator Catiline, Cicero repeated the word “nihil” (meaning “nothing” or “not at all”) in six phrases in a row.
Both Cicero and Trump, van den Berg says, purposely appeal to listeners’ emotions. “Cicero, that’s really his specialty, creating a persona for himself that people are willing to recognize as something that they identify with,” van den Berg said. “In some sense, Cicero really did precede Trump.”
And yet, for all his expertise on rhetoric, Cicero also knew that what you say is far more important than how you say it.
In “On the Orator,” Cicero imagined a dialogue among men who are all concerned with what makes an orator truly great. In the midst of their academic discussion, one of the men pays another an unexpected compliment: “Though I have always seen in you my ideal of an orator,” he says, “I have never given you greater credit for eloquence than for courtesy.”
Yes, even Cicero knew that kindness and respect matter more than any verbal jab. And on courtesy, Trump will never measure up.
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