“Anti-Intellectualism and the Correction to Aristotelian Rhetoric”

Marshall Richardson


Aristotle created one of the primary bases for rhetorical studies: The Modes of Persuasion, also known as the Aristotelian Triad. The Modes of Persuasion can be broken up into three areas of thought: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos. While Logos and Pathos are strong aspects of rhetoric today, Ethos has become outdated. A rhetorician’s credibility is no longer as important because powerful people have created an artificial layer of Ethos around them. Because of this, we need to take Aristotle’s rhetorical theories and change them to fit modern-society. The Presidential Election of 2016 will act as a frame of reference for this discussion.

When someone casts their vote for President of the United States, they are making a conscious decision that requires a certain amount of thought behind it. Since humans have an emotional base that builds up their psychological framework, emotion can have a role in decision making. Classical Decision Theory helps express these ideas. In Classical Decision Theory, says that the process of decision making can be broken down into three tracts: 1.) opinions or actions 2.) beliefs and expectation of achieving goals 3.) positive or negative outcome expectancies (Gutnik).

Since decision making is critical to the function of a person, Classical Decision Theory can be extended to the discussion of Pathos. It is also vital to understand how emotions play a role in the Presidency. A President should capitalize people’s emotions to get more votes. A President uses emotions to simplify his ideas for people, who have little knowledge of the concepts involved, can make decisions. For example, President Trump condensed his opinion on America’s immigration policy into one phrase: “Build a Wall!” For many political figures, this simple anecdote was without substance; however, to millions of Americans, it burned in their hearts.

Trump employed Pathos by using Classical Decision Theory. The anecdote “Build a Wall” has an option behind it, and it certainly wouldn’t be done by voting for his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Based on Trump’s confidence, most of his followers believed that he would follow through on his promise and voted for him. Without Classical Decision Theory, Pathos would have no impact because emotion is needed for a decision to have power. For cases, such as medical issues, unless the patient has decided to “trust their doctors to make the right choices for them…health professionals know more about their condition than they do” (Health Talk). This emotional brand of thought is also used in Presidential elections. The American voter is making a conscious decision to give their leaders the chance to guide the nation, just like how a patient is entrusting their doctors to lead them to better health. It is up to an orator, such as the President, to frame his words around Pathos and Classical Decision Theory.

The impact that Pathos places on decision making carries onto Logos. Logos is defined as an appeal to reason. Oliver Holmes, in his book The Common Law, helps further the idea of reason by stating that “the life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience.” Experiences can be artificially created by following the Stasis Theory. Stasis Theory was created by Cicero, a Roman politician who served as Counsel of the Roman Republic in 63 BC. Cicero illustrated the Stasis Theory in four parts: establishing the facts (conjecture), finding the meaning of the issue (definition), understanding how important the issue is (quality), and taking action about the issue (policy).

An example of this is when F.B.I. Director, James Comey, opened a new investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email account that she used when she was Secretary of State. Trump capitalized on this scandal, by the making the case about her credibility. First, in a speech on October 30th, 2016, Trump set up the situation by saying, “[N]ow the F.B.I. has found–you’re not going to believe this one, this just happened–another six hundred and fifty thousand emails. I think that’s called the mother lode. I think they found them all” (Lavery). In this speech, Trump exaggerated the number of emails found to incite more aggressive reactions from his followers, employing a high amount of Pathos while also using logical proofs.

Once Trump’s audience understood the basics of the Clinton email investigation, he defined the issue. During another speech, Trump went into more detail about Huma Abedin, Clinton’s aide. He asked if Clinton was “going to keep Huma? Huma’s been a problem, do we agree?” Trump implied that the main issue was the number of people that were involved besides Clinton herself. By defining Clinton’s aide as part of the problem, Trump made his audience think that if someone around Clinton could be corrupt, she could be as well.

Next, Trump frames this issue around why his audience should care by disagreeing with the F.B. I’s analysis that many of the new emails found were duplicates of old ones. He screamed into his microphone at Selma, North Carolina on November 3rd “Well, how can they be duplicates when six hundred and fifty thousand is even more than all of them that are missing, right? Hillary, therefore, committed perjury, absolutely, because of her statements in addition to all her other crimes.” America has a significant amount of disdain for people in the political sphere that could be considered criminals. When President Nixon was accused of authorizing the wiretapping of the Democratic National Committee during the Watergate scandal, his approval ratings were at “twenty-four percent” (Coleman). By Trump hitting on the issue of Clinton being a potential criminal, he is employing a strategy that historically has tanked approval ratings. By saying the word “perjury” repeatedly, Trump makes his audience associate Clinton with people like Richard Nixon. Since Nixon is still a disgraced President to this day, having those kinds of connotations placed upon a political rival could only be a positive thing.

The policy of the Stasis Theory is implied through many of Trump’s statements, including on television, and Twitter. Twitter is a medium for Trump to carry his messages across the nation. This medium allows Trump to speak without a reporter putting a spin on his words. Recently, Trump admitted that he would not be President without Twitter since social media was a “tremendous platform” that allowed him to bypass what he claimed was unfair media coverage and speak directly to voters (Baynes). Trump communicates his plans as he views it by tweeting statements such as, “Everybody is asking why the Justice Department (and FBI) isn’t looking into all of the dishonesty going on with Crooked Hillary and the Dems…” (Trump). Tweets, such as the one above, require only a few seconds to write and do not go through the red pen of a journalist, before crossing the eyes of millions of Americans. It only took the President seconds to damage the Ethos of his opponent.

The logical flow of the Stasis Theory is essential to the discussion of Ethos. Ethos is not relevant anymore because Trump has proven that Ethos can be faked. It did not take much effort for Trump to follow Stasis Theory to bring down his rival. According to Clinton, in her post-election memoir What Happened, Trump’s rhetoric worked great. Clinton states that “The final week of the 2016 campaign was dominated by swirling questions about my emails and talk that the prayers of Trump supporters might finally be answered, and I’d somehow wind up in prison…[James] Comey sent another letter announcing that the “new” batch of emails wasn’t really new and contained nothing to cause him to alter his months-old decision not to seek charges…The rest is history” (Clinton 318). Americans would not have cared about the email scandal as much if Trump had not shaped his words about the scandal around hurting his opponent’s character.

A good rhetorician who implements Classical Decision Theory and Stasis Theory into their rhetoric has the potential to achieve their goals as a speaker without considering their Ethos. Instead, they focus on the destruction of the character of those who oppose them. Dr. Aaron Ben-Zeev of Psychology Today states that “a major reason for being pleased with the misfortune of another person is that this person’s misfortune may somehow benefit us; it may, for example, emphasize our superiority.” Ethos does not work in modern day rhetorical practices because it does not highlight superiority. Pathos and Logos do accentuate superiority because they allow a rhetorician to use Classical Decision Theory and Stasis Theory.

If Ethos, is removed from the Modes of Persuasion, there must be a replacement for it: Anti-Intellectualism. Anti-Intellectualism is a new theory that could replace Ethos. The theory is defined as “a person who is [opposed] to intellectuals or an intellectual view or approach” (Merriam-Webster). An example of Anti-Intellectualism would be if someone went up to their college professor and refused their advice on a topic because they were intimidated by their doctorate. The first surge in Anti-Intellectual rhetoric was during the 1948 Presidential Election between President Harry S. Truman and Thomas E. Dewey. Truman was known for studying the individual communities he visited and including information about them in his speeches. These inclusions helped Truman connect with his audience, and Truman won the election in a surprising victory that mirrored the 2016 Presidential Election.

Both Truman and Trump followed the principles of Antonius, a Roman politician and grandfather of the famous Mark Antony, in their campaign speeches. Antonius states in On the Ideal Orator, that “For this oratory of ours must be adapted to the ears of the crowd, [to] please them, stir their emotions, and prove things which are weighed in no goldsmith’s balance, but, so to speak, in common scales” (2.160, p.165). Considering what Anti-Intellectualism means, Antonius is a great advocate for it. He places a large focus on employing emotion and speaking colloquially in rhetoric. Truman and Trump prove this statement to be true, by winning such elections against popular expectations. Ethos did not play a significant role in their rhetoric.

Arrogance also feeds directly into why Anti-Intellectualism should replace Ethos. In most social circles, people do not like to associate themselves with those who are pretentious. Instead, people talk to those who are like them, not “above them.” During the last few weeks of the campaign for the 2016 Presidential Election, Clinton kept a “leisurely pace [which] fed into the perception that she thought she was marching to an inevitable coronation.” (Ball). The argument can be made, that because Clinton won the popular vote that traditional rhetorical practices she used were successful. Exemplifying her strong experiences as a First Lady, Senator from New York and Secretary of State helped build up her credibility as a politician. However, because America elects Presidents based on the Electoral College, Clinton’s rhetoric was not successful. This distinction is what helped Trump relate to the people in his audience more, and ultimately it is what placed Trump in the White House over Clinton.

If Antonius were alive today, it is likely that he would agree with removing Ethos and replacing it with a focus on Anti-Intellectualism. Politicians obtain their power through their appeal to the nation at large. Because of the rise of focusing rhetoric on speaking to communities and less on the abstract thoughts, discourse is changing.

Non-fiction piece by Marshall Richardson

References for this piece available in an extended version of this publication.