We The People vs. I The Candidate

Rhetorical scholars are among those least surprised by the success of Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Trump and Sanders are doing what teachers as far back as Aristotle said successful speakers do: Make the audience believe the speaker is one of them.

Consider this passage from the Christian scholar Saint Augustine in the fourth century AD:

[a man is persuaded if] “he likes what you promise, fears what you say is imminent, hates what you censure, embraces what you commend, regrets whatever you built up as regrettable, rejoices at what you say is cause for rejoicing, sympathizes with those whose wretchedness your words bring before his very eye, shuns those whom you admonish him to shun…an in whatever other ways your high eloquence can affect the minds of your hearers, bringing them not merely to know what should be done, but to do what they know should be done.”

In 1950 rhetorical scholar Kenneth Burke expanded on this in his book A Rhetoric of Motives:

“you persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, ideas, identifying your ways with his.” 

For Burke and others, identification is the key to persuasion because rather than speaking at your audience you are speaking with them. Burke goes on to draw on Saint Longinus (first century AD):

“that kind of elation wherein the audience feels as though it were not merely receiving, but were itself creatively participating in the poet’s or speaker’s assertion. Could we not say that, in such cases, the audience is exalted by the assertion because it has the feel of collaborating in the assertion?”

If the speaker and the audience are in it together, if they are facing the same demons and hold the same things dear, then persuasion is easy. In such cases as an audience I am not being told what to do by the speaker, rather the speaker and I agree on what should be done. The speaker will not do for, but rather will do with.

Which brings us to candidates Trump and Sanders, and by extension, candidates Clinton et al.

Trump and Sanders are angry. They do not just understand our anger, or get our anger, or hear our anger. Trump and Sanders ARE angry. And they are channeling that anger at groups Americans don’t like – Wall Street, political insiders, immigrants, etc., etc. Trump and Sanders are not standing on podiums in front of us, explaining the world to us, and tell us what they will do for us. Trump and Sanders are in the crowd with us, they tell us they agree with our understanding of the world, and they are pointing at parapets we all agree need to be stormed.

One need look no further than the candidates’ final speeches in New Hampshire for evidence of this approach. After the obligatory congratulating of opponents and thanking of hosts, the candidates get to their message.

Here’s Sanders:

“Nine months ago we began our campaign here in New Hampshire. We had no campaign organization, we had no money, and we were taking on the most powerful political organization in the United States of America. Tonight, with what appears to be a record breaking voter turnout, because of a huge voter turnout — and I say huge, we won. Because we harnessed the energy, and the excitement that the Democratic party will need to succeed in November…

Tonight, we served notice to the political and economic establishment of this country that the American people will not continue to accept a corrupt campaign finance system that is undermining American democracy, and we will not accept a rigged economy in which ordinary Americans work longer hours for lower wages, while almost all new income and wealth goes to the top 1%.”

Sanders says “we” eight times, and “I” only once. We are going to take on known villains attacking us – corrupt politicians and big money interests. In fact we are already winning. The next steps are easy: we keep supporting Sanders and sending him money so we can win.

And here’s Trump:

“But we are going to make America great again. But we’re going to do it the old fashioned way. We’re going to beat China, Japan. We’re going to beat Mexico at trade. We’re going to beat all of these countries that are taking so much of our money away from us on a daily basis. It’s not going to happen anymore. We have the greatest businesspeople right now in the world. They call me all the time. They want to be involved. We have political hacks negotiating our deals for billions and billions and billions of dollars. Not going to happen anymore. We’re going to use the finest businesspeople in the world. We are going to something so good and so fast and so strong. And the world is going to respect us again. Believe me.”

Nine uses of “we” and an “us” and an “our” with two “me” tossed in.

Now consider Clinton:

“You know, when I started this campaign last spring, I knew we were facing profound challenges as a country. The way too many things were going just wasn’t right. It isn’t right that the kids I met in Flint on Sunday were poisoned because their governor wanted to save money. It isn’t right for a grandmother here in New Hampshire or anywhere else to have to choose between paying rent and buying medicine because a prescription drug company increased the price 4,000 percent overnight. And it isn’t right that a cashier that I met here in New Hampshire is paid less than her son for doing the same work even though she’s been on the job for more years.

Now, people — people have every right to be angry. But they’re also hungry. They’re hungry for solutions. What are we going to do? And that is — that is the fight we’re taking to the country. What is the best way to change people’s lives so we can all grow together? Who is the best change-maker? And here’s what I promise. Here’s what I promise: I will work harder than anyone to actually make the changes that make your lives better.

In this campaign, you’ve heard a lot about Washington and about Wall Street. Now, Senator Sanders and I both want to get secret, unaccountable money out of politics, and let’s remember, let’s remember, Citizens United, one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in our country’s history, was actually a case about a right-wing attack on me and my campaign. A right-wing organization took aim at me and ended up damaging our entire democracy.”

Seven “I” with a “they” (are hungry for solutions) and a paragraph devoted basically to herself. Three uses of “we” – and those are in the service of Clinton.

Sanders and Trump are at the front of the angry mob, waving pitchforks and torches, and leading the way to the castle. Clinton is at the gates explaining she gets the frustration, but can’t we sleep on this, and she’s been persecuted too so she gets it, but now is the time for cooler heads to prevail, and would anyone like a cup of cocoa?

As voters we support candidates who share our fears and hopes, who are at some basic level “one of us.” As such, the success of Sanders and Trump is not surprising – and if Clinton (or Rubio, Bush, etc.) are to succeed they need step down from the parapet and join the mob.

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