Reading the redacted report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller on the Russia investigation was a relief. Not because what I read convinced me that the report contained “a complete and total exoneration”—as President Trump falsely claimed—but because the Donald Trump character in the Mueller Report was exactly the same as the Donald Trump character I had seen and written about for the past 3 1/2 years.
I’m a rhetoric professor who teaches classes on argumentation, propaganda, political communication, and other subjects related to democratic practice in America. Since November 2015, when Donald Trump was still on the campaign trail, I’ve watched and analyzed his rhetoric. While Trump has marketed himself as the apotheosis of American exceptionalism—as the nation’s hero—he uses rhetorical tactics more often associated with unheroic authoritarian leaders, tactics that are designed to gain compliance (which is a kind of force) rather than to persuade. The result of such behavior and communication in a democracy is the slow – or sometimes rapid – erosion of democratic norms.
To be sure, all presidential candidates run as heroes, trying to convince the nation that they are the right hero for the moment. Trump was no exception. As he campaigned, he described a nation in ruin, subverted from within by corrupt and “stupid” politicians. He proclaimed to the nation that he was so great and so successful that only he could deliver on the nation’s interests.
As he accepted the Republican Party nomination, for example, he said, “I have made billions of dollars in business making deals. Now I’m going to make our country rich again…To all Americans tonight, in all our cities and towns, I make this promise: we will make America strong again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And we will make America great again.” Many Trump supporters understood Trump in just this way—as a heroic and successful businessman who had the know-how to come to their rescue.
One way to evaluate Trump objectively is to examine the Mueller Report for the president’s rhetorical strategies.
Throughout the report, we see evidence of Trump using ad baculum (appeal to the stick) — in other words, Trump routinely uses threats of force to attempt to get his way. We can think of ad baculum as “weaponized communication” tactics that use language as a cudgel to intimidate, coerce, and gain compliance over others. Ad baculum in argumentation is fallacious—it is actually an attempt to prevent debate and discussion by overwhelming the opposition, so that they cannot make their case. Ad baculum in politics is authoritarian—it is a tactic designed to prevent democratic decision-making, or in this case, to prevent the administration of justice in a democratic, rule-of-law system.
As Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky explain in How Democracies Die, dangerous authoritarians use a range of strategies and tactics to violate the “democratic rules of the game” and to deny the “legitimacy of political opponents.” The rhetorical parallel would be strategies and tactics that violate the democratic rules of public deliberation – overwhelming the news cycle, for example, or distorting meaning by taking words out of context, intentionally ignoring contradictory information, intentionally subverting the dominant meanings of key words, or using dog whistles to appeal to partisans. An authoritarian also seeks to distort reality by spreading propaganda, conspiracy theories, and disinformation.
The Mueller Report and Trump’s statements around it show repeated examples of the president acting to undermine democratic public deliberation, delegitimize his opponents, and abuse rhetoric to gain compliance:
- Trump used authoritarian rhetorical strategies to put pressure on his staff to violate political norms and undermine the investigation. Perhaps the most egregious example of this is when Trump tried to force Attorney General Jeff Sessions to un-recuse himself from the investigation. According to the Mueller Report, “During that Oval Office meeting, which [Staff Secretary Rob] Porter attended, the President again suggested that Sessions could “un-recuse,” which Porter interpreted as taking back supervision of the Russia investigation and directing an investigation of Hillary Clinton. According to contemporaneous notes taken by Porter, the President said, “I don’t know if you could un-recuse yourself. You’d be a hero. Not telling you to do anything. [Celebrity lawyer and Trump defender Alan] Dershowitz says POTUS can get involved. Can order AG to investigate. I don’t want to get involved. I’m not going to get involved. I’m not going to do anything or direct you to do anything. I just want to be treated fairly.” In this example, we see Trump using one of his favorite rhetorical strategies, paralipsis (“I’m not saying, I’m just saying”), to put pressure on Sessions by indirectly instructing him to un-recuse, while at the same time stating that he was not going to direct him to do anything. Trump told Sessions that he’d “be a hero” if he did the thing that Trump told him — but technically didn’t tell him — to do. Trump is a master at saying two things at once in such a way that his message is conveyed, but he retains plausible deniability. When Trump said that he only wanted to be treated “fairly,” he meant that he wanted to be treated in a way that helped him out of his predicament, which is not exactly “fair.” Trump continued to put pressure on Sessions to un-recuse himself in public interviews and tweets until the President eventually fired him. (Volume 2, p. 108-111)
- Trump used authoritarian rhetoric to attack the news media for reporting facts, threatening them with libel and accusing them of reporting “fake news” and of being “enemies of the people,” exposing the press to the risk of violence. In anticipation of the release of Attorney General Barr’s March 24 summary of the Mueller Report weeks before the redacted version was released, for example, Trump tweeted, “The Fake News Media has NEVER been more Dishonest or Corrupt than it is right now. There has never been a time like this in American History. Very exciting but also, very sad! Fake News is the absolute Enemy of the People and our Country itself!” Trump has tweeted about “fake news” at least 402 times since December 2016. Trump’s attacks on the press were ad baculum threats of force and intimidation, using the power of the presidency to exert force over the press in return for favorable news coverage. In this example, Trump not only seeks to intimidate the news media, but he exposes them to violence by calling them “the absolute Enemy,” extremist language that invites his followers to see the press as treasonous traitors, as enemies to be destroyed. Such positioning is typical of presidential war rhetoric: On the eve of the release of the Mueller Report, Trump essentially invited the nation to view the press as enemy combatants to be destroyed.
- Trump used authoritarian rhetoric to attack the Mueller investigation itself and Robert Mueller personally, seeking to deny both political legitimacy. When Trump attempted to fire Mueller, he told then-White House Counsel Donald F. McGahn privately and tweeted publicly that Mueller was too “conflicted” to serve in the role: “This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further. Bob Mueller is totally conflicted, and his 17 Angry Democrats that are doing his dirty work are a disgrace to USA!” (Volume 2, p. 130). Trump also repeatedly attempted to discredit the entire investigation into his conduct as a “hoax” and as a “witch hunt.” These are ad hominem attacks steeped in conspiracy rhetoric, designed to discredit both Mueller and the investigation. Trump’s use of ad hominem against Mueller was meant to convince the nation that Mueller lacked the credibility to perform his duties impartially. Trump’s use of ad hominem against the investigation aimed to frame the investigation as illegitimate, as lacking the standing to question Trump’s behavior.
Ultimately, Trump’s use of ad baculum, ad hominem, and paralipsis has enabled him to gain and keep power. Mueller’s report portrays the president as an aggressive, relentless, and defiant leader who uses coercion rather than persuasion to get his way and wields language as a weapon. We see Trump use threats and attacks and say two things at once to avoid accountability. We see him use these strategies to subvert the democratic rules of the game and delegitimize his political opposition.
On a meta-level, the Mueller Report shows that Trump has been gaslighting the nation. The president has told us repeatedly not to trust our own eyes and ears —that what we see is not what is real. But the Mueller Report confirms, in credible testimony and documents, what most investigative news reports and Trump’s own words and actions had made clear. And opinion polls after the Mueller Report reflect the public’s dim view, with his approval rating dropping to 39 percent, equaling his all-time low, according to a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll.
The Mueller Report confirms what many have seen, but Trump has denied. It’s a relief to know that we can trust our own judgment, even though it’s very troubling to know that we cannot trust Trump.
IMAGE: US President Donald Trump speaks during a Make America Great Again rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin, April 27, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)