This post has been updated in light of Donald Trump's comments Monday on banning all Muslim immigrants.

Political rhetoric is a term that has come up a lot this year — certainly a little more often in recent weeks. But why?

Well, in the last two weeks of November alone, an armed group gathered outside a Dallas mosque where they menaced worshipers and threatened to "publish" their addresses. The next day, a man threatened to blow up a Virginia mosque and then lobbed smoke bombs and a Molotov cocktail at the facility. In Birmingham, Ala., a group of white Donald Trump supporters surrounded, knocked down, kicked, hit and had to be encouraged by another supporter not to choke a black man there to champion the Black Lives Matter cause. The following day, a group of shooters injured five other BLM protesters in Minneapolis who were there to object to a police shooting. And the day after Thanksgiving, a gunman shot and killed three people and wounded nine at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado.

In response to all of this, many have suggested the following: American political rhetoric has grown so pointed, so coarse, so very toxic that the kind of citizen-on-citizen, politically motivated violence described above is an almost natural result.

The man at the center of much of the debate over our rhetoric, of course, is the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Trump, who on Monday went so far as to call for a ban on all Muslim immigrants.

But the idea of historically ugly political rhetoric is one of those ideas that's often repeated but not quite proven. We, after all, often think the here-and-now is particularly unique, even when sometimes our memories simply fail us.

So we reached out to people who know quite a bit about political rhetoric to find out if that notion stands up to scrutiny.

The experts

Peter Lawler is a professor of government at Berry College and the author of the 2014 book "Allergic to Crazy: Quick Thoughts on Politics, Education and Culture, Rightly Understood."

Timothy McCarthy is a historian of political and social movements and teaches at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. His 2010 book, "Protest Nation: Words That Inspired a Century of American Radicalism," examined the role of language in protest and political change.

Colleen Shogan is an adjunct professor of government at Georgetown University. Her 2006 book, "The Moral Rhetoric of American Presidents," examined the long history of moral presidential appeals, turns toward religious language and related political outcomes.

Jennifer Wingard teaches rhetoric, composition and women's studies at the University of Houston. Her research centers around what she describes as the effects of global economic issues on civic debate. Her 2013 book, "Branded Bodies, Rhetoric and the Neo-liberal Nation-State," examines the ubiquity of political branding and the way that this shapes the lives of immigrants and LGBT Americans.

Three big questions

THE FIX: Let's start with something basic but important: How would you describe what political rhetoric is?

LAWLER: Political rhetoric is the attempt to apply fundamental principles to the circumstances a particular people now face. At its best, it’s both elevating and realistic and is effective at both mobilizing immediate popular political support and making an enduring impact on our self-understanding. A fine example is Martin Luther King’s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," which was addressed mainly to white moderates who know what is right but prefer order to justice. And so who want to do what’s right, but not right now.

In a country such as ours, with a written Constitution and a complicated political/literary tradition based on it, rhetoric is just as likely to be written as spoken, and the spoken word endures in its written form. The Gettysburg Address was boring to those who listened to it, but it was the foundation for a reformulation of our national devotion. Presidents Clinton and Obama, by contrast, are riveting and often inspiring speakers, but typically their words aren’t so memorable when read.

Another key form of American political rhetoric is the Supreme Court opinion, which can sometimes be criticized for falling short of adequately defending landmark decisions concerning the meaning of the Constitution.


SHOGAN: Rhetoric is about persuasion. In politics, persuasion is either achieved by using rational, empirical arguments or appeals to emotions or tightly held beliefs. Rhetoric isn’t restricted to scripted speeches. It’s also about prose and conversation.

MCCARTHY: I define political rhetoric as the use of spoken or written word to weigh into the debate — to take a stand on a particular issue — within the realm of contentious politics. This would include speeches, debates, manifestos or party platforms, opinion writing, artistic or cultural forms, social media postings, and the like. I tend to define political rhetoric broadly, encompassing both “insider” (or institutional) politics and “outsider” (or protest) politics — from the left to the right.

More often then not, this will take the form of public expression, though we certainly use political rhetoric in more private interactions, too. I tend to believe that almost anything can be political. To claim that something is without politics — objective rather than subjective — is a politics of its own.

WINGARD: I think the popular or most recognizable aspects of political rhetoric are writing and speech that analyzes, argues, or debates a particular position about a political and/or economic issue that affects local and national audiences. In this conception of political rhetoric, you get everything from presidential speeches, legislative debates, filibusters, news, punditry, media discussions and analyses, and even comedy shows such as "The Daily Show" or "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver." Often these discussions are dismissed as biased, uncivil, or mere infotainment. And all too often they can produce a well-circulated meme – think of the Howard Dean “scream” – that influences the debate or dominates the media cycle.

But political rhetoric is more than just what is “number one on The [Colbert Report] Threat Down,” (although I do admit that bears are often quite scary). For me, political rhetoric includes all speech or writing that engages with power, either as a means of representation or intervention.

[An] example of a seemingly less powerful political rhetoric is that of grass-roots organizations. Often it is their actions and/or presence, like Occupy Wall Street, more than their words that are written about and circulated.  Like Marshall McLuhan said, the medium is the message. But there are documented instances across history where grass-roots rhetoric has affected key legislation both locally and nationally. The recent flap around the movie "Selma" was interesting in this regard, since some political pundits argued that it showed Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership group as having too much power over legislation, and President Johnson being given too little credit for the Civil Rights Act. But where did power, in this broader sense, actually lie?

THE FIX: Are there any public figures who, at present, stand out as particularly skilled in the rhetorical arena?

LAWLER: I would say that Donald Trump is very skilled. He knows how to focus attention on particular themes.  He reminds Americans that a country is a country, and that the most important job of the president is to make sure our country wins and others lose. He’s countering President’s Obama’s claim to be a citizen of the world, and alleging that the president is not sufficiently attuned to what’s best for our citizens. My own view is that Trump’s first principle is followed up by wrong or excessive policies. A focus on citizenship should be followed up by a way of making everyone in our country citizens in the fullness of time.

I also admire the authenticity of Bernie Sanders, who tries to turn the focus of the Democratic Party away from a combination of crony (Wall Street/Silicon Valley) capitalism and identity politics toward a genuine concern for the effect recent economic change has had on the security and dignified autonomy of ordinary Americans. The trouble is that he doesn’t go far enough. Hillary Clinton responded to his charge that she was in the thrall of her Wall Street donors by reminding us that 60 percent of her donors are women. Sanders might have said: But they’re mostly rich women. The trouble with Sanders, of course, is that nostalgia for socialism is strictly speaking reactionary, but there’s no denying that it resonates with those in the middle of the middle class, whose working conditions are suffering when it comes to compensation, security and spontaneity.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, speaks during a candidates' forum held by Fox Business Network in Milwaukee on Nov. 10. (Jim Young/Reuters)

Well, one more thing:  Although nobody much has been taking him seriously, Chris Christie has been eloquent and precise in laying out the truth about the future of entitlements. Demographic issues alone make them unsustainable. They need to be mended in order that they don’t get ended. Other Republicans tend to the extremes of thinking that the very existence of entitlements is an unconstitutional offense to our liberty or to saying that some new birth of prosperity caused by tax cuts can save them as they are now.

SHOGAN: I was always impressed by Steve Jobs when he did his Apple product launches. Jobs understood his job was to persuade the potential customers that they simply could not live without the new product his team had designed. He spent hours thinking about his speeches and orchestrating his every moment. It took dedication, devotion and passion to execute in this way.

Apple chief executive Steve Jobs shows off the new iPad during an event in San Francisco on Jan. 27, 2010.  (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)

MCCARTHY: I came of age politically during a time — the 1980s and 1990s — when Mario Cuomo, Ann Richards, Ted Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Tip O’Neill, Pat Buchanan, Barbara Jordan, Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson were all prominent figures in American politics. Each, in their own way, provided excellent models of skillful and effective political rhetoric. Now, this doesn’t mean I always agreed with what they were saying, but I was struck by how they said it, which is why I include all of them on my “Arts of Communication” syllabus at the Harvard Kennedy School. As a New Yorker and a Catholic, I was especially moved by Mario Cuomo’s Democratic Convention keynote address and his speech on abortion, religion, and politics at Notre Dame, both in 1984. At his best, Gov. Cuomo was able to use political rhetoric in a way that achieved both eloquence and moral clarity.

More recently, I think Barack Obama — as a candidate and as president — is particularly skillful in the way he uses language to translate, persuade and inspire, which to me are the three hallmarks of great political rhetoric. Notwithstanding the criticism he has gotten about not doing more for the black community in terms of civil rights and social justice, President Obama has been fiercely eloquent whenever he has spoken on issues of race and racism, as he did in his “More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia in the spring of 2008, in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin murder and, more recently, in the wake of the mass shooting in Charleston, S.C.

WINGARD: Most presidents are skilled orators. It is difficult to admit that if you didn’t vote for a particular president or if you disagree with their policies, but both Republican and Democrat presidents alike have excellent speech-writing teams and typify the Quintilian notion of “the good (or bad) man speaking well.” Take for example, George W. Bush post-9/11. Whether you agree with his policies or political positions post 9/11, he made keen use of his speeches to the American public. One of his first speeches delivered by bullhorn on a pile of rubble spoke to the collective grief and fear the U.S. was experiencing. It was also the point where he declared the war on terror, the ever-present, yet invisible threat we are still fighting today. We all know that when we see something, we say something.

As rescue efforts continue in the rubble of the World Trade Center in New York, President George W. Bush stands with firefighter Bob Beckwith on a burnt fire truck in front of the World Trade Center during a tour of the devastation on Sept. 14, 2001. Other people in photo are undentified. (Doug Mills/Associated Press)

In his next formal speech a few days later, Bush encouraged the U.S. public to return to work, school and to shopping as a way to “not let the terrorists win.” Again, he was able to rally the American public not through hate but through a shared commitment to fighting terror, and each citizen had a way to do it in his or her daily lives. Both “see something/say something” and consumption became rallying cries in fighting terror, and Bush was able to succor the U.S. public without engaging in war-hawk rhetoric. (That would come later, but we did not know that yet.) Instead, he focused on solidifying the U.S. “way of life” as best he could.

And his manner as a “folksy,” neighborly orator helped deliver that message. It has been argued that Bush was an ineffectual leader up until 9/11, but that changed after the twin towers fell. And one of the reasons was his ability to unify the American public with his speeches post 9/11. But here is a moment where additional political rhetorical texts become important as a point of contrast. Although Bush’s speeches emphasized a continuity with American life pre-9/11 with phrases such as “business as usual” and “they can’t take away our freedom,” the legislation he supported and signed in response to 9/11 (the USA Patriot Act) and the invasion of Iraq actually created a new normal within the U.S.

On the Democratic side, President Barack Obama is also a skilled orator, but he, much like President Bush, is acutely aware of how to utilize a photo opportunity or image.

President Obama sits on the famed Rosa Parks bus at the Henry Ford Museum following an event in Dearborn, Mich., on April 18, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Rosa Parks sits toward the front of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. (Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

Obama’s photo is not only reminiscent, but almost identical to that of Rosa Parks’s photo from 1955. The same type of bus; the same gaze out the window; but the juxtaposition of the subject being both a male and the president of the United States calls into stark relief how much things have changed (or how much they have remained the same) in the U.S. The photo is powerful in that it speaks volumes without the president even saying a word. Obama is a skillful rhetorician in that he knows that images often speak louder than words, especially images that draw direct parallels to history.

THE FIX: Have there been any events or public developments that you would link to the tenor, tone and content of the country’s current political rhetoric? And what do you make of the claim that the current state of American political rhetoric is driving or fueling citizen-on-citizen, politically motivated violence? 

LAWLER: Well, one sign of the decaying quality in the basic classiness of American political rhetoric is the innovative use of expletives (curse words) in speeches. This works for Trump. His Jacksonian brand is to show he can say anything -- things that are not only politically incorrect but offenses against common decency -- and get away with it. It’s pathetic when the other, more nerdy candidates attempt to spice their speeches to be more manly and “energetic.” Bernie Sanders displayed the proper use of profanity in political rhetoric. His “damn” in connection with wanting to hear no more about Hillary Clinton’s email was righteously indignant and an obvious exception to the way he usually speaks.

What’s mostly missing from political rhetoric (often even as it flows from the Supreme Court) today is any real attempt to educate Americans on their constitutional rights and responsibilities.

There's no denying the very heated rhetoric now. Some say that Democrats facilitate baby killers, others that Republicans are racist homophobes who hatefully psych up mass murderers. Political rhetoric almost always includes a tendency to demonize the other guys. What's more lacking that usual right now is the balance of the generous inclinations to see political controversy as rooted in reasonable or at least understandable disagreement, and to seek political reform through persuasive conversation and compromise. One reason for this imbalance is our political process as it now operates leaves too little room for legislative deliberation, for experiences that would show each side that the other isn't driven mainly by callous indifference or irrational animosity. Another reason is the niche-y nature of our various media outlets, which allow people only to listen to commentators who reinforce their prejudices and fuel their self-righteousness.

The most annoying and counterproductive part of Republican political rhetoric has been the polemic against liberal education found in the comments of Scott Walker and especially Marco Rubio. Rubio says we need more welders and fewer philosophers, and that there hasn't been a market for majors in "Greek philosophy" for a couple of millennia now. Aside from the empirical objection to the claim that most philosophy graduates don't do well today's competitive marketplace, as well as to the silly thought that the point in majoring in philosophy is to become a philosopher, some study of philosophy is indispensable for American "civic literacy."

SHOGAN: Linking rhetoric with events casually has been a debate intellectually since the times of ancient philosophy. This question is the stuff of Aristotle and Plato. Recent academics have tried to link rhetoric to actions empirically, using public opinion data or other measures. It’s a very difficult task to determine that someone acts in a particular way because of what has been argued by another person. It’s more accurate to think about rhetoric as setting scripts or frameworks that justify action, rather than inciting action itself.

MCCARTHY: I can think of two examples. It’s no secret that we’re living in deeply polarized — and polarizing — times here in the United States. This polarization is being fueled by growing economic inequality, on the one hand, and rising social ignorance, on the other. On the left, you have Bernie Sanders, who is making a pretty forceful case for a more progressive policy agenda. His recent speech on democratic socialism is a good example of how political rhetoric can speak to widespread discontent with the abuses and excesses of capitalism as well as corporate control of politics. On the right, you have Donald Trump, who is making an equally forceful case for a more conservative -- even reactionary -- policy agenda. His “Trump speeches” are bursting with political rhetoric that both speaks to and gins up the darker forces of fear and prejudice that exist in America.

In their own way, both men are appealing to populist sentiments — the good and the bad — while drawing huge crowds and even bipartisan support. It is interesting to me that both left-wing and right-wing political rhetoric are gaining real traction at this moment.

Republican presidential contender Donald Trump said that he was in favor of a "total and complete" shutdown of Muslims entering the United States. (C-SPAN)

It’s challenging to make a clear link between political rhetoric and violent practices. Often, there isn’t a smoking gun (so to speak), which makes it harder to establish a causal relation beyond mere coincidence. Is there a connection between Donald Trump’s increasingly racist, sexist and xenophobic rhetoric and recent instances of violence against immigrants, Muslims, black people and Planned Parenthood staff members? I suspect there is, but a clear link is not easy to establish, precisely because the perpetrators of violence don’t usually punctuate their actions by exclaiming, “Trump made me do it!” Still, the harshness and hatefulness of some political rhetoric clearly resonates with ordinary citizens who feel alienated or resentful or powerless in some way. It may also help to inspire violence. It certainly does nothing to quell it.

WINGARD: A key shift in our country’s political rhetoric over the past several election cycles has been to a focus on spectacle rather than reasoned debate. As I mentioned before, it wasn’t Dean’s economic or voting record that kept him from the White House, but instead it was his scream of excitement at a rally. [Ed. note: Dean's scream came after a disappointing loss in Iowa, which might have already sunk his campaign, but the scream certainly didn't help.] At [the University of Missouri], it wasn’t the reasoned and researched demands of the Concerned Students 1950 group that forced the chancellor and president’s resignations, but instead, it was the boycott of the football team. And I would argue it is not Donald Trump’s positions on any particular political issue that is affording him a lead in the polls. Instead, it is the spectacle that each of these examples provide that insures they remain at the top of each news cycle, and thus a veritable “cash cow” for advertisers.

Ever since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, any media conglomerate can own multiple stakes in any given market. Thus, only a few elite corporations (i.e. GE, Disney, News Corp, Viacom, Time Warner and CBS) own proprietary shares in all the news stations across the country. That means, when news is reported, it is seamlessly consistent across the country. This may seem to be a public good, but in fact, this limits the possibility of opposing viewpoints and research exponentially. Therefore, when activist, grassroots, or other non-mainstream groups attempt to effect the news cycle, they must create a spectacle in order to do so. And often, those spectacles turn violent.

[These questions are] similar to the claims in the 1990s about first-person shooter video games or “devil” metal rock music making teens more violent or murderers. On the one hand, it is absurd that a mediated text, no matter how well-circulated, could affect a person so strongly that they would commit violence. And when I read those words, my gut response is that rhetoric cannot make someone kill or commit violence. Rhetoric is just words after all.

But when I really consider what I have written about rhetoric, whether it be in my own body of work or here in this exchange, I have to admit that words and spectacle matter – they have material consequences and affect moods, states of mind, and beliefs of people. And it is documented throughout history that people commit many horrific acts against one another in the name of faith or their beliefs. So I do have to acquiesce that there is a tenor in the current political rhetoric that is dangerous, especially to those who are minorities or who see themselves as less than powerful.