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Classical Rhetoric and the 2016 Presidential Campaign

The ancient Greeks and Romans considered persuasive speaking and writing essential skills for citizens engaged in public discourse and civic life.   But what do ancient theories of rhetoric have to do with the wild tweets, negative campaign ads, and news commentary associated with the current presidential campaign?  That’s a question students are exploring in Curtis Dozier’s Greek and Roman Studies Freshman Writing Seminar, Classical Rhetoric and the 2016 Presidential Campaign.

Curtis Dozier, visiting assistant professor of Greek and Roman studies, with students in his Freshman Writing Seminar

Just before the second presidential debate, the students in the class had been assigned to read Cicero’s treatise on “Issue” theory.  The day after the debate, they had a field day using Cicero’s treatise to analyze Trump’s attempt to diffuse the furor over the 2005 video in which he bragged about groping and kissing women without their consent.

“Yes, I’m very embarrassed by it,” said Mr. Trump at the debate. “I hate it. But it’s locker room talk, and it’s one of those things. I will knock the hell out of ISIS….If you look at Bill Clinton, far worse. Mine are words, and his was action.” 

Cicero calls this strategy the Deprecatio, a plea for pardon.  The person who uses it will want to show, if possible, that his good deeds are “of greater weight than these present mistakes” and that “he did what he did, not out of hatred or cruelty, but through folly or the instigation of someone....Then he may hold out the hope that at some great crisis he will be able to help those who have done him this favor….Then he should cite the example of others who have had graver errors pardoned….He should also make light of the offense so that it may appear that very little harm resulted from it.”

Hillary Clinton, of course, used the same strategy in responding to the criticisms of her use of a private email server for official business when she was Secretary of State.  What’s surprising isn’t that politicians use rhetorical strategies but that ancient rhetoricians like Cicero and Plato and Aristotle can give contemporary audiences the tools to recognize and analyze those strategies.

“I’ve taught this course for each of the three presidential elections we’ve had since I started teaching here,” says Dozier. “One of the main values of studying antiquity is what it helps you to notice about contemporary experience, not just contemporary political life but our literary and artistic cultures and the way our society is organized and even just our own lives and how we relate to our own experiences.  So this class gives students at the very beginning of their Vassar career an opportunity to `try on’ that way of looking at the world.”

The course also gives students an opportunity to develop their analytical skills as well as their own powers of persuasion.  Ben Papsun ’20, who is considering possibly majoring in political science or English or both, says that the class has definitely had an impact on the way he has listened to the political discourse during the campaign.  “Persuasive speech falls into three broad categories--appeals to emotion, to authority, and to logic,” says Papsun. “Trump uses a lot of appeals to emotion, and Clinton uses a lot of appeals to logic.  Both candidates also use appeals to authority, Trump by emphasizing his wealth and his success and Clinton by emphasizing her political experience.”

Both candidates are also, he points out, foiled by their own rhetorical limitations.  “It’s really the audience that determines the success of a rhetorical strategy. There’s nothing innately good or bad about any particular strategy.  It’s only useful if it helps you succeed in persuading your audience. When Trump is talking to rallies of his own supporters, statements like `Hillary should be in prison’ or `Hillary and Obama founded ISIS’ appeal to their emotions of fear and outrage. But that obviously doesn’t work the same way if you are trying to appeal to a bipartisan audience.” 

To broaden his appeal, Trump could attempt to make more effective use of logic in putting forth his policy proposals.  “I’m not a Trump supporter and I usually disagree with things that he says,” says Papsun, “but during the first quarter of the last debate, he was more restrained and reasonable. He held back for a little bit, and I found myself more able to understand and agree with things that he was saying. I was experiencing the effects of rhetoric working on me as I was analyzing them which was really kind of a profound experience.  Different strategies work in different situations with different audiences, so it’s all very contextual.”

Similarly, and conversely, Clinton’s nearly exclusive reliance on logic has alienated many voters emotionally. “When you listen to Hillary Clinton speak, it may not be as immediately resonant with your emotions,” says Papsun. “She might sound like a sterile politician, giving you facts and numbers, but that’s not always what you want to hear.”  

Delivery and style also come into play.  “Clinton uses higher forms of speech with metaphors and complicated wording, and that’s more typical of politicians because they’re well educated and they’re trying to make cerebral arguments about policy.  But Trump uses a more accessible speaking style, and that appeals to working class voters, even though he comes from a background that is distinctly removed from the working class.”

With shenanigans likely to continue up until the eve of the election, and maybe even beyond, Papsun says he is looking forward to post-election class discussions. “The most important thing I’ve learned so far is just that analysis matters and that you can’t accept anything at face value.  We all have our own beliefs, and when we listen to a politician speak, those beliefs shape what we hear.  But to understand how someone might be using your beliefs to make what they’re saying more persuasive is a really useful tool, no matter what political denomination you belong to.”

One of the first writing assignments that Dozier gives the class is an informal essay on who they’re going to vote for and why, or, if they’re not eligible to vote, who they would vote for and why.  On the eve of the election, he gives them back that first assignment and asks them to read it and reflect on what role rhetoric played in their choice. “People write amazing things on this assignment,” Dozier says. “Some of them say that, looking back, they realize that nothing that happened during the campaign could have changed their minds.  And that’s an interesting thing to realize in a class where you’ve been studying persuasion.  They ask themselves how they became so committed to their choice that neither candidate can persuade them to change it, and they start to realize that they are the products of persuasion that goes back much farther than this campaign.  They start thinking about their parents and how their parents raised them and about where they get their news and who they sit with in the dining hall.  And there’s this realization that rhetoric goes far beyond what Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump says, that we are all the products of a lifetime of rhetorical devices being applied to us.

“And to me, that kind of self-discovery is what a Vassar education is all about.  If I can set that up, then I really think I’ve done something important for them.”

--Julia Van Develder

Photo: Karl Rabe