While right-wing talk show hosts and conspiracy peddlers like Alex Jones have claimed for some time that liberals are deranged and violent, the claim is now pouring out of the lips of a wider range of conservative media figures. Tomi Lahren recently claimed the average citizen who supports Trump is in danger. Laura Ingraham warned viewers about “marauding bands of frenzied leftists” (is she confusing footage of Kavanaugh protests with clips from “The Walking Dead”?).
More troubling, these claims are now being repeated by a number of government officials, including the President.
At recent rallies in Council Bluffs, Iowa and Topeka, Kansas, Trump continued to fixate on talking points about liberal mobs, suggesting that his political opponents be incarcerated (and encouraging his supporters to chant “lock her up”). While Seth Kahn has already addressed why the claims of the “Liberal Mob” are absurd here at The Daily Doublespeak, I’m interested in this “othering” of the “liberals” as a rhetorical strategy (by interested, I primarily mean “concerned” and “disgusted,” feelings which often serve as impetus for rhetorical inquiry).
Rhetorician Patricia Roberts-Miller describes this rhetorical tactic of demagoguery at length, describing how these kinds of claims work to simplify complex realities into questions of “us” vs “them.” In Trump’s repeated rhetorical framing of “liberals”, he paints “liberals” not as citizens of a country that he serves as commander-in-chief, but as an insurgency. These empty claims of widespread liberal violence–rooted in demagoguery–stoke fear and create divisiveness.
As Roberts-Miller points out, this kind of thinking can be downright dangerous. By reinforcing an “us” vs “them” mentality, this rhetoric gets in the way of having actual discussions about the complex realities and issues that need immediate democratic answers. Roberts-Miller writes:
Demagoguery is about saying we are never wrong; they are. If we made a mistake, they are to blame; we are always in touch with what is true and right. There is no such thing as a complicated problem; there are just people trying to complicate things.
When examining the nature of demagoguery as so central to these Trumpian rallies, their lack of actual content becomes apparent. In rallying his supporters against the “liberal mob,” he is able to divert attention away from other topics of interests he might want to avoid, like a wildly unpopular trade war he started with China that has been disastrous to Soybean farmers in the Midwest where the mentioned rallies took place. Demagoguery, besides being an inherently divisive strategy, is a rhetorical sleight of hand: name-calling instead of policy discussion.
But it also seems to be an attempt to subvert civic engagement, to try to delegitimize and undermine the civic right to protest (which the President has claimed should be illegal). If protesters are inherently violent (and Trump is suddenly no longer cool with violence?), then Trump can create the case to kibosh future protests.
While I take pause to point out the ethical disaster of Trump’s rhetorical demagoguery, it is eerily effective at a.) frenzying his supporters, b.) glossing over terrible policy, and c.) delegitimizing opposition.
Demagoguery is, Roberts-Miller would remind us, the rhetorical art of self-described “good” people convincing themselves (and each other) that they are, in fact, good. And they don’t have to interrogate their own perspectives on public policy and the realities created by those policies as long as they can convince themselves of that goodness.