Tuesday, March 29, 2016

What Trump Knows that the Establishment Doesn't and How it Explains Why He's Winning

One of the problems with the national Republican Party today is that they don't know why people vote the way they do. This problem has been on clear display in the complete miscalculation of the strength of Donald Trump, not to mention the miscalculation about how well Jeb Bush would do.

Here's the problem: The Republican Party thinks that people vote with their heads, when, in fact, they vote primarily with their hearts—or, we might say, their gut.

The trend in the national Republican Party has been to increasingly shun the kinds of issues that are helping Democrats to win. As Democrats ramp up their social agenda, Republicans are dialing theirs down. Their increasing inclination to downplay social issues means that they are knocking out the third leg from the set of political pillars that Reagan established: smaller government, stronger defense, and traditional values. 

This is where the national Republican Party seems bent on going wrong and why they will continue to lose elections. They now sit on a two-legged stool, and wonder why it keeps tipping over.

The Republicans increasing tendency to abandon the field on social issues leaves only one party with any gut appeal—with the exception, of course, of one candidate: Donald Trump. Trump is an anomaly because not only does he emphasize gut issues, but they're about the only ones he does emphasize.

Aristotle devised a whole lexicon for this. In his book Rhetoric, he spoke of the three modes of persuasion: ethos, logos, and pathos. These are the three ways in which we are persuaded: the first is that we accept what the speaker says because of the speaker's character, his ethos. We believe him because he convinces us that he is good, or trustworthy, or knowledgeable, or credible in some way. This appeals to our wills. We believe in the man; the second is that we accept the rational appeal of the speaker, his logos. His arguments are rational and his evidence convincing. This is an appeal to our intellects. We believe his logic; the third way is that we desire to believe him—we are drawn by his pathos. H excites our passions. We believe in him because we want to believe in him. This is an appeal to our hearts, to our emotions

Aristotle, like the Christian thinkers who followed him hundreds of years later, believed that man's soul was made up of an intellect, a will, and an imagination. Each of the above appeals targets one of these, but it is the last one, pathos, that seems to give the speaker the greatest advantage. This is the lesson of Antony's funeral oration in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: The ethos-based appeal of Brutus is completely overcome by Antony's appeal to his audience's emotions.

It is a principle that goes way back. St. Augustine said it over 1,500 years ago: Most people do what they want to to do. It is not rational arguments that determine their decisions. They don't do what they do because they have come to a logical conclusion that that's what they should do. Nor do they do what they do because they should do it. They do what they do primarily because it is what they desire to do.

This is why Bill Clinton, who felt our pain (pathos) beat the sturdy, dependable Bob Dole, a war hero (ethos). This is why Obama, the first Black president, who stressed social justice (pathos), beat Romney, all of whose rhetoric consisted of abstract argumentation about economics (logos).

In other words, pathos Trumps both logos and ethos. Pun intended.

Ronald Reagan implicitly understood this, which is why, while he offered arguments for his positions and exploited his affable, seemingly sincere personality to impressive effect, he never shunned emotional appeal. The introduction into the State of the Union address of the hero in the audience (which also exploited ethos) is just one example of this. I don't know that it is true to say it, but it at least seemed as if Reagan made mention of the abortion issue in almost every State of the Union speech. Abortion for him was a heart issue, and it was only one in an array of ways in which he was able to capture the hearts of his listeners.

The reason Reagan was the Great Communicator is because, rhetorically, he didn't leave anything out. 

Contrast Romney, the response of whose spokesmen was to change the subject whenever social issues like abortion came up, with Obama, whose party wore their social issues (a woman's "right" to abortion, gay rights, same-sex marriage) on their sleeves.

One could argue that the Democrats talk about economics as much as Republicans, but it works for Democrats in a way that it doesn't work for Republicans because, for the Democrats, economics has been converted into a social justice issue (support for a minimum wage and welfare programs, opposition to predatory lending, capital accumulation in the 1 percent, etc.).

In other words, even economics, traditionally a logos issue, is a pathos issue for Democrats.

This is why Hillary, who is fundamentally a boring technocratic liberal (similar, in her way, to Jeb Bush), is able to gain the benefits of pathos politics: Because the Democrats have positioned themselves on the moral high ground on even economic issues at a time when now equally technocratic Republicans aren't even contesting the moral high ground.

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently drew attention to a study by Pelin Kesebir and Selin Kesebir which found that moral words are slowing being eliminated from our political vocabulary and being replaced by economic words.

The study found that

general moral terms like “virtue,” “decency” and “conscience” were used less frequently over the course of the 20th century. Words associated with moral excellence, like “honesty,” “patience” and “compassion” were used much less frequently.

... Meanwhile, usage of words associated with the ability to deliver, like “discipline” and “dependability” rose over the century, as did the usage of words associated with fairness. The Kesebirs point out that these sorts of virtues are most relevant to economic production and exchange.

Yet in spite of this Democrats have retained a moral vocabulary while Republicans have abandoned their own moral voice. This allows them to push forward on their social agenda, often by taking positions that are ahead of their constituency. Republicans, on the other hand, almost never get out in front of their voters on heart issues, but almost always stay behind voter sentiment. Democratic leaders lead their voters when it comes to social issues; Republican leaders, fixated on abstract economic issues, follow theirs.

A case-in-point of this was a recent vote in the state legislature of my own state of Kentucky. A socially conservative bill was passed by the more conservative chamber. But while opponents of the bill spoke out openly and strongly against it, only the bill sponsor and one other lawmaker spoke up in its favor. It passed by a relatively wide margin, but an opportunity to articulate why such legislation is needed was missed. Next time, such a bill might still get by, but the liberal voices against it will get louder, and the conservative voices in its favor will get quieter. And when the voter sentiment for it appears to diminish (because no one is making the public case for it, even in victory) the voices in favor will finally be silenced completely, until finally such legislation will stand no chance at all.

Or ask yourself about the last survey you received in the mail from your Republican congressman or state lawmaker. Of the issues it gave you to choose which was the most important to you, did it include a single values issue? Did it even include the abortion issue?

Compare the Democrats fortitude in passing Obamacare, a vote that many Democrats had to know would cost them their seats—as well as pushing feminism and gay rights—to the continued conservative retreat on marriage, religious freedom, and traditional values in general.

Democrats move ahead and their voters follow them. Republican voters, in response, move backward and their political leaders follow in retreat. This creates a backward ratchet effect (to use George F. Will's analogy) for Republicans.

This is why the abandonment of pathos-based traditional values by the national Republican Party is a mistake, probably a fatal one. Which brings us back to Trump.

Trump is the Republican's pathos candidate. There is very little that is appealing about his arguments. In fact, he hardly seems to have any. His rhetoric is fractured and many times nonsensical. He is almost a logos-free candidate. Likewise,  his personal character is plainly not his strong suit. He shifts positions, insults his opponents, demeans women, and smears whole racial and religious groups. In short, he seems devoid also of ethos.

Trump's allure is pure pathos. His appeal is almost exclusively to the gut. As Mary Anastasia O'Grady recently pointed out, Trump has numerous similarities with the caudillo, the Latin American strongman, whose appeal is purely visceral. He's strong, fearless, seemingly independent of all outside control, and expert at exploiting the passions of his audience.

By comparison, the other Republican candidates have seemed bland and dispassionate. Bush is the best exemplar of this. He is boring. And even Cruz, who still talks about social issues, does not feature them prominently in his rhetoric.

For several election cycles, Republican voters have experienced pathos deprivation, and since the moderate/libertarian Republican establishment is doing nothing to cure it—and, in fact, seems bent on enhancing it—Trump is exploiting his own party's weakness to take control of it, and to put it in a better position to defeat the Democrat he will face in the fall.

Trump is like the monster in the movie Alien: He has insinuated himself into the body of the Republican Party, and after feeding off his political host, has now dramatically emerged onto the national stage, killing the Party in the process.

Unfortunately it is Republicans themselves who created the Political Immune Deficiency Syndrome (which I hereby deem "PIDS") that Trump is now exploiting. They destroyed whatever immunity they had from such a candidate through their own abandonment of the kinds of social positions that could have protected them. Yes, they vote for prolife bills when they come up. But try to get them to actively push back on the marriage issue or fight for religious freedom laws without conservative voters looking over their shoulders and see what happens.

There are some brave souls still out there (the State Senate in my home state of Kentucky, for example, has them in abundance). But the unwillingness of many of today's Republicans to fight for the traditional values positions that have characterized the Party since the Civil War is killing them. While liberal political leaders fight for the heart issues—even when they are unpopular and out of the mainstream, ostensibly conservative leaders tend to cut and run at the faintest whiff of opposition. 

Liberal leaders will fall on their swords for their cause if necessary; conservatives abandon theirs in their panicked flight from the front.

Now they are faced with a candidate for their own party's nomination who—even when he makes what to any political analyst (or common sense voter) would be considered a fatal mistake—never backs down. What Trump lacks in intellect and character, he more than compensates for in sheer audacity. His lack emphasis on logos and ethos will eventually catch up with him, but right now his pathos-fueled campaign has captured a pathos-starved voter base.

Had the Republican leaders had half the fortitude in fighting for the heart issues they inherited from Reagan that Donald Trump is now displaying in doubling down on politically toxic positions, they wouldn't be in the position they are in.


God help them.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I agree with the points you made even though I would have never used Aristotle to make them.
In your opinion, is it the times we are living in or just the weakness of the main players on the conservative side that is making this so?

Martin Cothran said...

I think the answer to your question is, both. Just out of curiousity, would you not have used Aristotle to make the same points because you wouldn't have thought of it or on principle (or something else)?

Anonymous said...

Since my education is limited to public schools and a state university, I have had limited exposure to Aristotle and rarely try to apply his thought to the problems of today.
That is why I read Vital Remnants.

Keith Buhler said...

Great article!

Thanks,