Donald Trump’s tweeting style is well known and widely recognized by the media and casual observers alike. What very few people realize is that Trump is following rhetorical theory first laid down by Aristotle. Far from being a buffoon or a simpleton, Trump is using timeless techniques to influence his followers. Once you learn what Trump is doing with his tweets, it is impossible to forget it, and you will understand something 99% of the population hasn’t picked up on.
A typical example of Trump’s style:
The failing @nytimes is truly one of the worst newspapers. They knowingly write lies and never even call to fact check. Really bad people!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 13, 2016
So what’s going on here?
I was fortunate to be reading Aristotle’s Rhetoric during Trump’s rise last fall. Rhetoric is a text about persuasion. Most of the time you are trying to persuade someone, it is something that cannot be proven through formal logic. Persuading someone to accept your suggestion for dinner is outside of formal logic; persuading someone you possess stellar qualities in a job interview is outside formal logic; persuading some one to assign blame is outside formal logic. (NB: These are examples of Aristotle’s 3 realms of persuasion: political, oratory and forensic). Even if formal logic is on your side, you will usually need effective rhetoric in order for another party to accept your arguments. If you’re trying to convince the citizens of your country to elect someone to the highest office who does not have a conventional resume, you need to possess excellent rhetorical skills.
Aristotle bases his discussion of rhetorical arguments around a construction known as an enthymeme. He defines an enthymeme as a syllogism where the premises are not all included. Aristotle introduces the term syllogism in Prior Analytics, his theory on formal logic. A syllogism consists of two or more premises which directly leads to a conclusion. Here’s a simple example: A Toyota Camry is a car. All cars have wheels. Therefore, a Toyota Camry has wheels. Pretty simple stuff, but it has a particular name to describe it. As an enthymeme, this might simply be: A Toyota Camry is a car, therefore it has wheels.
At this point, you should see where this is going. Trump tweets in very well defined enthymemes with two premises followed by a conclusion. His choice of two premises is particularly useful, as it feels like the construction of a simple logical argument, even though it clearly isn’t. If you accept his two premises, you feel like you ought to accept his conclusions.
This deliberate construction and its relation to classical rhetoric makes it plain that Trump has studied rhetorical technique. His use of it on Twitter is especially interesting and innovative. Normally, 140 characters isn’t enough to formulate an argument. However, by sticking to a formula, Trump is able to blast out a complete rhetorical argument in a single tweet. This is what makes him so effective on the platform, and what makes him stand out.
It should be very easy for anyone to pick up on and utilize Trump’s technique. However, everyone knows about it now and will recognize this formulation as his, even though its origins date back millenia. It is worth understanding and learning from, however, as doing so will improve your rhetorical technique. I would encourage each and every person reading this to read Aristotle’s Rhetoric for your own benefit. The topics discussed here are only the beginning of the theory that has been developed for persuasion.