Countering Trump’s Claims about COVID-19—A Rhetorical Pathway for Democrats
By Richard Cherwitz, Ph.D.
The coronavirus pandemic and how our nation is responding to it no doubt will be a major factor in the decisions of voters in the 2020 presidential election. As many political pundits and the media have observed, the outcome of the 2020 election likely will be a referendum on how well President Donald Trump has responded to this crisis.
The issue is primarily a rhetorical one because it involves how the referendum about the response to the pandemic will play out in the competing discourses of presidential candidates. Let me suggest one possibility that draws on the work of rhetoricians going back to George Campbell and those adhering to Thomas Reid’s notion of faculty psychology, which views the mind as an entity that is subdivided into multiple centers of functioning, rather than as a completely integrated function.
As a matter of history, some claim that the United States needs more clearly to memorialize and archive the COVID-19 pandemic and all those who have died and will die. From a partisan perspective, Democrats contend that we cannot allow the Trump Administration to normalize the severity and unprecedented nature of this tragedy, nor can we forget or minimize his many failures to respond in a timely manner—failures that arguably have cost thousands of lives.
Consider an analogy: Historians often make reference to how Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) in a rhetorically brilliant move came up with the label “Hoovervilles” to describe and make vivid the thousands of shantytowns that existed as a result of President Herbert Hoover’s inability to provide relief to the hundreds of thousands of Americans living in those slums during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Prior to “Hoovervilles,” Democrats coined less rhetorically effective terms to document Hoover’s failure, including “Hoover blanket,” “Hoover flag,” “Hoover leather,” and “Hoover wagon.”
What can be learned from this analogy? It might be surmised that the challenge for the Democrats and Joe Biden in 2020 is to develop and employ a host of vivid (and hence persuasive) rhetorical images to prevent a minority of voters from reelecting Donald Trump. This is a challenge that Communication scholars have the capacity and expertise to help meet.
First, research in rhetoric documents that language matters, especially in our current political environment, where facts and truths often are perceived to be relative and open to conflicting interpretations. Second, we teach our students how to make appropriate and fitting language choices that will empower them to be successful speakers and writers. Finally, many in our discipline work as consultants, advising politicians about why words matter and how the choice of language and imagery might impact the outcome of an election and the ability to govern effectively.
Allow me to offer an example: Part of the rhetorical strategy by Democrats—including Biden—might include the use of visual rhetoric (photos of food lines, bodies being stored in refrigerated trucks, and relatives who could not be with their loved ones at the end of life). This could be supplemented with what 18th century Scottish philosophers George Campbell and David Hume called “the lively idea.”
Campbell defined rhetoric (eloquence) as the art or talent by which discourse is adapted to its end. For him, all the ends of speaking are reducible to four: to enlighten the understanding, to please the imagination, to move the passions, or to influence the will. It is in this rhetorical context that Campbell’s concepts of “vivacity” and “resemblance” might be applicable today, allowing people to experience the pandemic in a manner similar to how they experience the five senses, and hence as more real.
How so? The concepts of “vivacity” and “resemblance” are a way, as Hume argued, to “copy nature” by presenting a cause-and-effect relationship in the “natural order.” Drawing on Hume, Campbell wrote specifically about rhetoric; he expanded the traditional understanding of the imagination as an image-making faculty that responds to lively images and pictures.
This image-making power of rhetoric, I suggest, may have the persuasive potential to enable voters to become more cognizant of and feel the health and economic pain that many Americans now are suffering—realities that Trump constantly denies, ignores, downplays or, to use a term from the President’s favorite pastime, “plays through.”
In short, while it is often said that a picture itself is worth a thousand words, words themselves name what the picture shows, or rather, what we think we see in it. The ultimate impact of the type of visual rhetoric I am proposing, therefore, is that a larger number of voters—regardless of ideology or party preference—will show up and cast a ballot to defeat Trump.
Campbell, George, The Philosophy of Rhetoric, Ed. by Lloyd Bitzer (Southern Illinois University Press, 1988).
Cherwitz, Richard. “The Power of Visual Rhetoric—A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words.” Capital Times, April 4, 2020.
Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Ed. by Tom L. Beauchamp (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).
Olson, Lester, Finnegan, Cara and Diane Hope, Visual Rhetoric: A Reader in Communication and American Culture. (Sage Publications, 2008).
Reid, Thomas. Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man. Ed. by Derek Brookes (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002).