Political Rhetoric



Kelsey Hanson

If the 2016 election were the boxing match that most political cartoonists suggest it is, it would be quite a spectacle. In one corner is a reality TV personality whose recent commentary is sending the GOP into a tailspin. In the other corner, a candidate whose scandal has her on the ropes alongside an unapologetic socialist. 

With a line-up as distracting as this, it can be hard to remember that politics really is more than a game and that, more often than not, the direction of our political spotlight reveals a great deal about the climate of our nation.    

The natural question floating through the minds of most Millennials is this—why is Donald Trump still on my newsfeed? The answer—he’s a reality TV tycoon who knows how to play the ratings game. But it takes more than opinionated airtime to maintain the staying power that Trump has seemingly secured. Matthew Kerbel, the head of Villanova’s Political Science department honed in on what’s behind Trump’s popularity. “Trump is an ‘anti-candidate’ who is tapping into a uniquely American discontent present on both sides of the political spectrum.”

Republicans are growing increasingly frustrated by the GOP’s lack of stance on social issues. The Republican Party is one that, historically, speaks more to tax reform and less to the empathy behind issues like immigration and marriage equality; more to businessmen and less to a discontented Millennial Generation. The Republican Party has been on an apathetic decline, and Donald Trump seems to be the only GOP left standing that has the courage to speak his opinion, even if that opinion is unarguably arrogant and highly controversial.  

Trump knows how to play to the pop-culture crowd and, because of that, he has made himself indestructible as far as the media is concerned. No matter what he says or does, Trump will end up in a headline. That’s the definition of “shock-value.” Trump isn’t a politician, he’s a reality television host. And that is his appeal.

Emory Woodard, a professor of rhetoric within Villanova’s Communication Department, highlighted Trump’s uncanny ability to play to the peripheral of the American people. According to Woodard, and what those in the field of Communication call the Elaboration-Likelihood Theory, people are more likely to rely on their peripheral senses than on their direct senses. In other words, we respond to those controversial and brazen comments more readily than we do a live-stream on CSPAN. When we vote, we call to mind all those candidates who caught our attention and made us feel something—whether positive or negative. And here is where the Trump card is played. 

There are other important implications to the peripheral theory. When asked about those Republican candidates who have the unfortunate lot of sharing airtime with Trump, Dr. Kerbel spoke of a trend we are already seeing. As highlighted by recent stunts like Mitt Romney’s recent boxing battle against former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, the GOP ring is growing desperate in Trump’s publicity shadow. The result? A GOP pool becoming increasingly outrageous in their political tactics in an attempt to stay above water. 

But the GOP is not the only party floundering in this political battle as it plows forward to 2016. The Democratic Party has its fair share of stunts, scandal and socialism. 

If Trump is the one distracting the GOP, Hillary Clinton is the Democratic equivalent. Dr. Kerbel, alongside much of the American population, agrees that Hillary has lost her authenticity. Replacing it is a strange sense of humor and a pervading secrecy that, whether she means it to or not, is also catering to the American periphery. 

“Hillary Clinton to Show More Humor and Heart, Aides Say,” reads one recent New York Times headline. “Re-Re-Re-Reintroducing Hillary Clinton,” says another. Clinton’s reinvention tactics include cultivating a sense of humor (arguably in poor taste) and an attempt at connecting with Millennials by way of vague student loan-alleviating gestures. All of these are of the same fair as Trump’s outlandish reality-show maneuvers, which place a spotlight on the fact that, in this current campaigning period, presence is more important than the issues. 

Then, there’s a candidate who seems of a different cut entirely. Bernie Sanders is a unique presence amongst his opponents and is equally deserving of analysis. His fanning of the peripheral flame is found not so much in his comic-relief style debates as in the buzzword with which he chooses to define himself: socialist. 

Sanders has set himself apart from the traditional Democrat, and this is catering to unsatisfied Democrats in the same way that Trump’s outlandishness is catering to unsatisfied Republicans. In a country growing increasingly loud with disgruntled and progressive Millennials, Sanders is speaking words of wisdom. His peripheral appeal is high, leaning so far left that he seems to fall off the political spectrum. 

No matter where you side in this election, it is clear that there is a latent unrest within the American population and the tactics employed by the current candidates evidence this. The people are growing weary of politics and distrustful of politicians and the candidates can sense that they are running out of time to win their constituency back. Both Dr. Kerbel and Dr. Woodard agree that there is a pervasive feeling of expectancy and that this election, no matter how it pans out, is going to be one for the books.