Zagacki and Cherwitz: The Importance of Rhetorical Norms | Opinion
The fabric of American democracy is intertwined with timely and responsible discourse. Rhetorical norms governing public discourse derive from and facilitate democratic processes and institutions.
As communications scholar David Zarefsky has written, these standards have served Americans well, allowing them “to analyze issues of public interest, articulate [our] ideas and relate them to others, listen carefully and critically to other points of view, weigh and evaluate arguments and evidence, and bring [our] better judgment to questions that do not have easy or automatic answers.
American presidents have at times strayed from these standards and varied in how they have applied them in their rhetorical styles and situations. Yet presidents have used these standards primarily to bolster democracy when faced with internal and external threats.
Consider, for example, Franklin Roosevelt’s soothing bromides during the Great Depression and Ronald Reagan’s morally inspiring eloquence about the Cold War. However, given four years of controversial presidential rhetoric from Donald Trump and more recent testimony from Republican officials in recent January 6 hearings regarding how he used his public speech to lie about the 2020 election results and n failed to defuse the January 6 insurrection. , Trump has inflicted serious damage to the standards.
Unlike any other president, Trump has elevated misinformation, mistrust of government institutions, and vitriol in order to undermine democracy. In the case of Jan. 6, his public remarks so enraged his supporters that many attempted to overthrow the presidential election through violent means.
Trump rarely spoke to the public in a consoling way, as did, for example, Reagan after the Challenger disaster or Bill Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing. This is all the more remarkable since Trump’s failure is due to the very irrevocable political divisions that he himself has sown.
Many Americans continue to support Trump precisely because of these violations of norms. Yet one must consider, as the Republican members of the January 6 committee warned in particular, what dangers lie in leaving Trump’s violations unchecked.
One of the dangers is that because of Trump’s contempt for the opposition, his supporters in local, state and federal governments could try to stifle, or even aggressively suppress, the freedom of speech and assembly of those who disagree with them. During his tenure, Trump called for the use of such tactics against American citizens who protest police brutality and advocated the imprisonment of his political opponents. His attacks on free speech have already had chilling effects on the press, public education and other important democratic institutions.
Another danger is that, given Trump’s alliance with many right-wing religious conservatives — some linked to white nationalist groups — supporters could work to bridge the divide between church and state. Indeed, these Trump cronies could apply a Christian version of political theocracy and use this religious framework rhetorically to target and demonize opponents as enemies of Christianity, as we now see among many culture warriors. of right. In short, future Trump supporters might call for changes to the US constitution to insulate them from any form of democratic restraint.
Whether Trump will be successfully prosecuted for his role in instigating the Jan. 6 insurrection remains to be seen.
Voters, of course, can help restore democracy by supporting candidates to prevent Trump-like surrogates from taking political control. However, the real responsibility for saving democracy lies with Republicans who must defeat Trump supporters who violate rhetorical norms. Republicans can do this, in part, by demanding that other members of the GOP uphold those standards endemic to American political culture and promulgated by respected Republican presidents like Dwight Eisenhower, Reagan and Abraham Lincoln, but now left in tatters by Trump and his allies.
— Kenneth Zagacki is a professor of communication at North Carolina State University. Richard Cherwitz is a professor emeritus at the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin.