Trump's Immigration Address, The Democratic Response, and Rhetorical Criticism


When Donald Trump speaks most of us do not want to listen, we feel annoyed or horrified by his attitudes, his policies, and his presence. Yet when he does speak, ignoring it is not an option. Being part of an audience is not as voluntary as we would assume it should be. Many times orators “audience” us by speaking in our name, about our values, or suggesting what we think or believe. More importantly, when politicians speak and make arguments they are making implicit suggestions as to how we reason, think, and feel about issues through they way they put their arguments together. What they say quite literally can be read as their understanding of what appeals to us and what our motives are.

This requires some response, even if we feel the response is too obvious to perform. Rejection cannot be silence in relation to the text. We must use the text as a point for the invention of other rhetorics, those which push against how we have been “audienced” by the rhetor.

The term “audienced” I first encountered in James Crosswhite’s book A Rhetoric of Reason. He points out that most of the time we are not consensual audience members. We are being argued at, persuaded at, and rhetoric-ed at all the time. The idea of choosing to be part of an audience must primarily come from consumerist entertainment, where we can choose to pay for or consume media. This makes sense to me as many college students feel that one of the most legitimate modes of political engagement there is is to refuse to watch or listen to media created by “problematic” people - people who have vastly different attitudes about sex, race, gender, and class than you do. This form of political protest is highly questionable. This form of protest assumes that being in an audience is a fully consensual act done willingly. But in the case of politics, our officials speak in our names all the time. Simply not consuming the discourse of the President doesn’t seem to have much impact at all.

But when we engage in Donald Trump’s rhetoric we have to consider a lot of preliminaries. What’s different about the general critique of Trump’s speeches compared to other presidents is the sheer lack of depth in this analysis, with the greater bulk of criticism and commentary going toward how few facts Trump knows, respects, or uses. Traditional Presidential rhetorical criticism is much less about factacity or correspondence to facts, and much more about models of audience and how those models are deployed by Presidents.

The problem is easy to see in the tendency of the journalist to giggle and shrug and say, “There’s never been any President like this.” This is not only to dismiss the majority of the history of the Presidency, where we simply do not know how they processed or engaged with information of a vastly different kind, time and distribution, but also to give Donald Trump a pass in his rhetoric. He is not expected to conform to normal Presidential rhetoric, he does not conform, therefore he’s fine. He’s normally abnormal. Kenneth Burke called this “gashouse piety.” He’s being correctly incorrect and most importantly to the NPR crowd, it sparks the appropriate angry/frustrated attitude. They would prefer a polite articulation of violence rather than a stupid and rude one. Pointing out how off he is does not engage why he should not be appealing, merely it shows that he is not traditional.

Neither the NPR-giggle critique nor the sharp listing of factual errors will expand possibilities of understanding why Donald Trump is speaking the way he is, or who it might be that he imagines he is addressing. Kenneth Burke: “Any articulation of reality is simultaneously a selection and deflection of reality.” Chaim Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca on the Universal Audience - all rhetors construct their messages imagining that any reasonable person who encounters them will be persuaded by them. This theory tells us little about the audience and a lot about the rhetor’s conception of who they think is out there. What realities are pushed away and which are pulled into the frame? What realities are selected for presence and amplification and which ones are cooled in the background? The gestalt created by rhetoric tells us very little about facts and truth and a ton about how the speaker positions us, who they think we are, and “what works” for convincing us.

Rhetorical criticism is a perspective that does not nail down understanding but expands potential ways to understand a text. With Presidential speeches it can reveal possibilities in the invention of the speech based on assumptions made about the audience. Are these possibilities ones we would wish to accept? Each speech a President gives (or for that matter, any elected figure) is a referendum on reasoning. Is that the sort of reasoning we wish to adopt? Is that who we are? Is this how we think and judge?

We should not be interested in the speech being bad or good, but what about it appeals to us to agree with the policy, idea, or action suggested? Sadly, most observers and commentators - even those who teach and study rhetoric - are based on a simplistic “conformity to real reality” test. Elected official lies and deception are not new. They are usually not this sloppy, but they are not new. This isn’t a revelation. Criticism should hope for more. It should deliver more.

Trump’s speech and the responses by Sen. Shumer and Rep. Palosi have one very clear and totalizing common element that detracts from their appeal: Facts do not matter. They are not self-persuading, nor are they the end of a conversation or the punctuation to a claim. Facts have always been and will continue to be information with a special social status meant to generate conversation and the production of reasons and explanation. Facts generate rhetoric, they are places less like touchstones and more like flint and steel, sparking engagement. But this is dangerous if you don’t have confidence in your words. It’s also dangerous if you have no confidence in your audience’s ability to reason (read: believe me without much work).

President Trump’s address was a list of facts, a big surprise to those who expected him to speak in an impromptu manner, or off the cuff as he often does. He presented a ton of claims that I’m sure the fact-checkers enjoyed Googling:

Our southern border is a pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs, including meth, heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl. Every week, 300 of our citizens are killed by heroin alone, 90 percent of which floods across from our southern border. More Americans will die from drugs this year than were killed in the entire Vietnam War.

In the last two years, ICE officers made 266,000 arrests of aliens with criminal records, including those charged or convicted of 100,000 assaults, 30,000 sex crimes, and 4,000 violent killings. Over the years, thousands of Americans have been brutally killed by those who illegally entered our country, and thousands more lives will be lost if we don't act right now.

Last month, 20,000 migrant children were illegally brought into the United States — a dramatic increase. These children are used as human pawns by vicious coyotes and ruthless gangs. One in three women are sexually assaulted on the dangerous trek up through Mexico. Women and children are the biggest victims, by far, of our broken system.

These claims are an obvious attempt to generate concern in the audience for “victims” of illegal immigration - women, children, and drug addicts. They are also an attempt to appeal that is quite common today, the use of startling or stunning statistics or overwhelming numbers. Trump, and the writers of this speech whoever they are, assume that this information alone should trigger the audience to want to put up a barrier or some block to stop these terrors. There is no explanation as to how this information means we require a wall and not a host of other ideas, many of which the divided audience will bring to mind without any prompting: Better border process and procedure, better advocacy with foreign governments from Mexico south, better screening processes, etc. Unfortunately anyone with even cursory rhetorical or debate training can easily defeat this information as being essential to the construction of the wall. But President Trump believes these horrifying numbers should be enough by themselves to make us want a wall, instead of perhaps a better process of vetting or including immigrants in American society in fiscal and social programs.

But this says more about the importance of a general rhetorical education imbedded in curricula rather than the dominance on STEM that makes us pretty useless in public affairs like this, particularly in the ability to judge political discourse. We can only take minor issue with the facts as the low-quality response from the CBS journalists indicated. One journalist talked about the importance of facts and how Trump “distorts” the record. His proof? That trump was about 9,000 people off in his assessment of how many minors come across the border. “Facts matter,” he concluded. How does this engagement do anything to help the audience understand whether they should agree or disagree with the President?

Most journalists are interested in reinforcing a binary to please viewers. They reinforce that binary as the only way - not even a choice - in how to view a persuasive speech from a politician. Incorrect information is not a reason to dismiss a plan. It must be explained what the bad information means. Rhetorical criticism helps us understand what model of audience and what appeals the speaker thinks will work on us. Those appeals form the basis of an ethical model of the audience members. Do we want to assent to this model or not? Are we OK being “audienced” like this?

Throughout modern history this critique has rested on a very simplistic model of whether or not the speaker’s list of facts are similar enough to our own. But there’s a much richer and deeper way to do this that is as powerful as it is ancient: Do we want to think, feel, and be citizens in the way that the speaker calls us to be? Is this who we are? Is the agency and the subjectivity constructed here adequate to how we think, feel, move, and be in the world around us? These questions were at the root of Roman rhetoric, where one’s identity as a Roman was one of the most important things that had to be kept in mind when addressing an audience. One had to be careful to marshal a vision of citizenship that did not waver from what was right and appropriate.  We are not constrained as much as the Roman orators were (thank God!). But these constraints do exist and should be taken seriously. As audienced people we have an obligation to push back against types of thinking and reasoning, constructions of how we should feel and act, and other models in a speech, implicit or explicit, that we would reject on grounds that go well beyond the particulars of the particular topic. We should be more concerned with topoi rather than whether the topic is good or bad. Are the topoi being shopped here ethical? Do they push us to be better thinkers and feelers or do they appeal to a very base model of thought and feeling? Is this who we are, is this how we think?

Donald Trump seems to believe that these numbers, and some narrative evidence about criminal behavior are enough to justify the presence of the wall and its cost. He feels no need to describe or discuss the connections between these stories of criminal behavior and the wall. We are left with the idea that illegal immigration is a big problem in relation to drugs and violent crime, disproportionately against women and children. But there’s no suggestion that we deserve any explanation as to how this is the best solution.

The border wall would very quickly pay for itself. The cost of illegal drugs exceeds $500 billion a year — vastly more than the $5.7 billion we have requested from Congress. The wall will also be paid for, indirectly, by the great new trade deal we have made with Mexico.

This is an attempt at arguing for cost, but it’s full of eliding statements that equivocate, and are not worthy of our essent, even if true. The reasoning is the thing that we should identify with when we are being audienced by a speaker. If we are being made to listen, if we are being drawn into a speech as a matter of public discourse, we can’t simply ignore it or wish it would go away. We should consider it from the perspective of identification and what kind of citizen, what kind of thinker is being conjured here. Again, we are meant to assume the wall would simply work. It would stop 90% of drugs - but how? I believe that there must at least be some explanation offered as to how the information fits the judgement offered. Facts do not suggest conclusions.

The oddest moment in the speech is Trump’s appeal to understand walls as keeping loved ones safe, not because outsiders are deserving of hate. He frames this within the idea of “wealthy politician” walls and gated communities. This is a terrible choice, and accidentally makes us think that poor people are not deserving of such protection. Another comparison might have been better, such as protection of children, the vulnerable, the weak - as he did at the start in his fact-list opening. But there’s no explanation as to how the wall would deter people making $500 billion dollars in the drug trade, nor why the wall would discourage needy people - the destitute and poor, those who are persecuted by their own government - from making the dangerous journey to the United States for help.

Trump really needed to talk more about the wall in direct terms and make that case rather than the case that criminals who enter the country illegally are bad or that it’s dangerous to try to make it to the southern border. These are things the United States could help solve by many different methods. Why the wall? Then secondly, Trump needs to defend the shutdown as something the Congress has forced him to do. This seems relatively easy: The facts indicate an untenable situation that threatens thousands. It’s like a war. We are losing. We must go to extremes. Why he doesn’t try these arguments is somewhat confusing to me. He ran away from direct explanation as to why the wall is necessary when this was his one shot to really defend it.

Obviously the audience can agree that people should be kept safe and that immigration should be monitored. What’s missing is - how does the wall accomplish this? It should be easy to get this response from Pelosi and Schumer, but again we only get rhetoric that frames us - the audienced - as incapable of critical evaluation and thought.

Nancy Pelosi has no understanding of what a fact is. She seems to think it’s something that is not her perspective:

The fact is: On the very first day of this Congress, House Democrats passed Senate Republican legislation to re-open government and fund smart, effective border security solutions. But the President is rejecting these bipartisan bills which would re-open government – over his obsession with forcing American taxpayers to waste billions of dollars on an expensive and ineffective wall – a wall he always promised Mexico would pay for!

This is wildly ineffective. Rhetorical history is rife with examples of very effective speeches of rejoinder where the rhetor agrees with the majority of the claims of their opponent, then asks questions about their proposal in dealing with those claims. It would have been so easy to start with: “Fact: We need increased border security and protection. We agree.” Or something like: “The President and Congress agree the border is rife with problems. He believes a wall will fix it. We believe a comprehensive slate of actions are needed. The only difference between us is cost and perception.” Pelosi seems to believe we can be tricked into thinking her perspective is a fact. This is not something that will work, or should work, for us making the decision. Why not point out that there’s no evidence the wall will address any of these issues?

The fact is: We all agree we need to secure our borders, while honoring our values: we can build the infrastructure and roads at our ports of entry; we can install new technology to scan cars and trucks for drugs coming into our nation; we can hire the personnel we need to facilitate trade and immigration at the border; we can fund more innovation to detect unauthorized crossings.

The fact is: the women and children at the border are not a security threat, they are a humanitarian challenge – a challenge that President Trump's own cruel and counterproductive policies have only deepened.

This is a lot more on the right track, but still lacking. How does a wall not honor our values? How does it harm our security? One or two specifics would be good here to help make the case. In the end, we are only given ethos to decide who to believe. Again, agreement with the framing - the humanitarian challenge of having borders, having wealth, and having been responsible for some of the reasons people are forced to try to cross - would help make a good case against a wall. There is no offering on how to decide here except to believe that she knows things. That’s not good enough.

Chuck Schumer comes close to something good but also misses the point:

There is an obvious solution: separate the shutdown from the arguments over border security. There is bipartisan legislation – supported by Democrats and Republicans – to re-open government while allowing debate over border security to continue.

There is no excuse for hurting millions of Americans over a policy difference. Federal workers are about to miss a paycheck. Some families can't get a mortgage to buy a new home. Farmers and small businesses won't get loans they desperately need.

If Trump appeals with narratives of violence caused by illegal immigrants, why not marshall a few stories of those who work to protect us not being able to pay rent or buy food? That seems to be a good way to push back a bit on his examples.

Even better would be the creation of a rubric by which we could evaluate threats to the country. How do we know when something is a threat? This discussion could connect to the role of the wall as synonymous with U.S. attitudes, something that Schumer hints at but doesn’t develop.

The response should have been easy. Where is the evidence that a wall will stop violent offenders, drug traffickers, human traffickers, and the suffering of peaceful people at the border? Does the presence of a wall harm our international perception? These obvious questions are left out of Pelosi and Schumer’s response because, just like President Trump, they have little confidence or faith that the audience is capable of such reason. None of the three speakers are worthy of assent. They believe the audience to be swayed by authority and uncomplicated statement. Their motives are to get agreement with their perspective-as-reality and not the “best policy.” The methods and models used assume an audience that has extreme deference to authority, that views other people as problems, and that believes in a model of facts that is untenable for democracy - a model where a fact proves itself, ends conversation, and is better than the perspectives of the millions who live under the same laws that they supposedly help create.

If anything, this address should spark concern for our national level of rhetorical ability, and we should redouble our efforts to include rhetorical practice in all curricula at all levels. An audience that can recognize being “audienced” would be a powerful weapon against such politicians who have little to no respect for those they are supposedly representing.