On Political Words

In her November 5, 2015 review of two stage adaptations of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Ingrid Rowland remarks on a fascinating bit of history. She writes, “On the day of Martin Luther King’s assassination, Robert Kennedy found the right words to break the news of his death to a poor, largely black audience in Indianapolis by harking back to ‘my favorite poet…Aeschylus.’”


She then quotes the words of the Greek poet that Kennedy used to console his audience:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

Rowland notes that “Kennedy’s words diverge slightly but tellingly from Edith Hamilton’s translation, his evident source (her third line reads ‘and in our own despite’).”

Reflecting on that, she thinks that the word-change suggests that Kennedy had long lived with those words, using them as he grappled with the sufferings and tragedies striking the Kennedy family.RFK We all know how a beloved poem or song, memorized long ago, and lovingly repeated to ourselves over the intervening years, can undergo small changes as we internalize them, making the lines our own.

But Rowland goes on to make another point. She says that it’s “unexpected, too, that a political figure would feel free to address an audience of ordinary people in the lofty language of Greek poetry rather than talking down to them with mock folksiness.” And Kennedy was in a heated presidential campaign contest with Eugene McCarthy at that moment, the campaign in which he too would soon be assassinated.

I’m fully aware that Winston Churchill reminded us that “comparisons are odious” (or as Dogberry in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing says, “comparisons are odorous”), but let me take the chance and give a couple of examples of another kind of political speech.

Shakespeare's "Dogberry"
Shakespeare’s “Dogberry”

I’ll start with the woes of the health care system in the United States, which are many and serious, not least of which is the dire plight of the uninsured. There is much to be fixed in the Affordable Care Act, and honest people can disagree with its provisions. A fruitful and welcome dialog could take place between the candidates and the parties about the important issues with reforming health care. Instead, Dr. Ben Carson, speaking on the stump, offers us this:

And [Obamacare] is in a way, it is slavery in a way, because it is making all of us subservient to the government, and it was never about health care. It was about control.

Obamacare is “slavery in a way.” Slavery. A law that attempts to help some of the poorest and sickest members of our society is likened to slavery. What an offensive comparison, both to the Affordable Care Act and to the millions of slaves and their descendants (which include Dr. Carson) who endured that national ignominy. Does Dr. Carson realize whom he is insulting?

Unlike the depth and compassion in Kennedy’s speech—remember, he was quoting Aeschylus to a largely Black audience on the night Martin Luther King was assassinated—other candidates use attacks on minority people to advance their campaigns, especially people whose lives are perhaps the most precarious in our nation: the undocumented immigrants. Take this from Donald Trump on July 5, 2015:

What can be simpler or more accurately stated? The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.

Instead of speaking to immigrants from his heart (which is where Trump says his speeches come straight from), he vilifies 11 million people for a round of right-wing applause. It is as if Kennedy had, instead of quoting Aeschylus, told his Black audience not that their suffering and grief may transform to wisdom, but that Dr. King’s death proved the futility of their struggle for political, civil, and economic rights.

Perhaps I am being unfair to contrast today’s political speech with that of Robert Kennedy. But really, the level of rhetorical nonsense coming from the right has overflowed the bounds of comedy and is becoming a national tragedy, an embarrassment. Perhaps we need an Aeschylus to give voice to that.

Here’s a line that the Greek might use to do so:

It is an easy thing for one

whose foot is on the outside of calamity

to give advice and to rebuke the sufferer.

– Aeschylus, Prometheus Unbound

Political Rhetoric in an Era of Division: Republicans Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln.

Political Rhetoric is a Literary Form


In this blog, I reflect on many things gathered under the rubrics of “Psyche, Story, Spirit” – the wide range of psychological, literary, and spiritual issues that concern me. To me, the rhetoric of the emerging presidential campaign, especially on the Republican side, presents quite a story, its field littered with psychological intrigue – and maybe pathological intrigue. From my conversations with people, many Americans feel disspirited when we hear or read the debate. Since my chief interest in this blog is about writing, a form of rhetoric, I’ve been reflecting on what the campaign is doing to the language of our public conversation. This in turn brings me to two exemplars of political rhetoric in eras of deep division: Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln.


Trump                                           Lincoln

The Contexts Facing Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln

First, let’s consider the fact that Mr. Trump’s and Mr. Lincoln’s approaches to political speech emerged in two politically very similar epochs. The first was the period 1846 -1865. 1846 was the year Dred Scott first sued for his freedom, and 1865 was the year of Lincoln’s second inaugural address. At that point, the bloodied nation was concluding the Civil War. Even more consequentially, the soon-to-be-reunited states needed to reconcile after three generations’ conflict over states’ rights and slavery. In March 1865, although the Confederacy was losing the war and the issue of slavery was settled, the Reconstruction loomed contentious. People both honest and cynical, on both sides of the issues, fully and loudly voiced opinions about the role of government, states’ rights, and the status of the newly freed African Americans. There was great tension in the air.

Ours, the second period, I somewhat arbitrarily date from 1980, when the “Reagan revolution” began, through the present. Now, we can observe its second generation, the Tea Party TeaPubicanParty and it’s heroes Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, and the rest, promoting the politically divisive and racially controversial attitudes reminiscent of the pre- and post-Civil War era. I say the dating is arbitrary because although the Reagan revolution, bent on overturning the New Deal, achieved power in 1980, it had been brewing since the 1930s. Even in 1980, however, the debate was a conversation about ideas, not persons; it was sometimes calm, occasionally contentious, but usually civil. Reagan, for all his rhetoric (“guv’ment is the problem”), grew the government, and he collaborated with his opponents, led by Tip O’Neill, Democrat Speaker of the House.

Key Rhetorical Approaches from the Two Eras: Mr. Trump’s and Mr. Lincoln’s Speeches

Mr. Trump’s Political Rhetoric

Against this background, it is instructive to look at key rhetorical approaches from these two eras. For that comparison, I offer the rhetorical styles of Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln on the salient issues of their day. Let’s consider first a quote from Donald Trump’s website, concerning Latino immigrants to the United States:

In recent weeks, the headlines have been covered with cases of criminals who crossed our border illegally only to go on to commit horrific crimes against Americans. Most recently, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, with a long arrest record, is charged with breaking into a 64 year-old women’s home, crushing her skull and eye sockets with a hammer, raping her, and murdering her. The Police Chief in Santa Maria says the “blood trail” leads straight to Washington.

(Note: If you follow the link to the phrase “blood trail” in Mr. Trump’s statement reveals quite a different, and more complicated, story than his statement implies. I don’t have space here to go into the rhetorical sloppiness – or dishonesty – of his implication, but I will suggest that his use of the police chief’s opinions adds no rigor, but does cheapen, his arguments.)

Or consider this, from Mr. Trump’s stump speech against the Iran nuclear agreement:

“We are led by very, very stupid people.”

On his website, Mr. Trump continues, “It was amateur hour for those charged with striking this deal with Iran, demonstrating to the world, yet again, the total incompetence of our president and politicians.”

You’ll notice in all these quotes, which I think fairly represent the overall rhetorical tactics of Mr. Trump’s campaign, the approach is to attack the persons, not to discuss the issues. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the terms of the Iran nuclear agreement, the issue for discussion is the terms, not the intellectual adequacy of the diplomats from the six major Western powers. The old-fashioned word for this is the ad hominem argument – if you cannot win debate on the issues, attack the character of your opponent.

The other Republicans offer nothing else than rehashes of Mr. Trump’s talking points, Repub.Debate which raises an interesting side question about his rhetoric: Did Mr. Trump create the talking points himself, or did he borrow someone else’s? Is he as independent as he likes to claim? Moreover, aside from personal attacks, do the Republican candidates have any ideas to offer?

In short, Mr. Trump’s (or his colleagues’) rhetoric seems designed to promote anger, division, and contempt for those who disagree with him – a tactic borrowed by Tea Partiers from many strains of radical politics before them. On other issues such as immigration and women’s health, his talking points, and those of the other candidates on the right, follow the same plan.

Mr. Lincoln’s Political Rhetoric

In contrast, let’s turn to the speech of a politician who suffered personally for opposing the very sentiments espoused by the proto-Tea Partiers of the 1850s and 1860s, a politician who exactly one month after his speech would be assassinated for it, the ultimate ad hominem argument. Abraham Lincoln, who had every reason to feel profound anger with his opponents in both the Confederacy and in his own Congress, refused to speak harshly about them in his Second Inaugural Address. Instead, he sought the common ground.

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. … The prayers of both could not be answered—that of neither has been answered fully. …

Then Lincoln ended his address thus:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.

“With malice toward none; with charity for all . . .”: No ad hominem appeals, no calling forth the baser emotions of anger and hatred, and indeed, a firm rejection of them as a national ideal.

Would that the Republican politicians of 2015, 150 years after their party’s first great hero, could adopt his rhetorical style. That is, would that they could accept the burden of healing our divided nation, bringing mutually wounded opponents to the table of reconciliation. Our political psyche, our national story, and our community spirit would be profoundly changed, and richly nourished.

But if they cannot manage this, can you and I?