The Rhetoric of Donald Trump on Twitter

I think it is safe to say that if you have done something that evokes an angry tweet from Donald Trump you’re winning at life. His tweets are famous for their manner, their meaning and their outright chutzpah!

Some people laugh at his tweets, others praise him for his frankness, and some are outright horrified by what he has to say. Whatever your views are, it is impossible to deny that he is a colossal figure and what he says matters.

But politics aside, the rhetoric behind his tweets are fascinating. Before I go on, I will quickly mention that it is easy to think that rhetoric is only found in grandiloquent speeches delivered by eloquent speakers and that it isn’t used in the realm of twitter. But that would be wrong. On the contrary, rhetoric is used everywhere, and by everyone – and that certainly includes Donald Trump on twitter.

So, what is Donald Trump’s most commonly used rhetorical feature and how does he apply it to his twitter? And most importantly, to what effect?

It becomes abundantly obvious on first sight that Donald Trump has an insatiable need to deploy ad hominem every second tweet or so. Ad hominem is simply when you attack someone’s character instead of their actual argument. Take a look at this…

Just the simple act of calling someone a ‘loser’ is within itself, as simple as it may seem, a use of ad hominem. Attacking someone’s character in this way is an attack on the credibility of their argument as well as their ethos. But beyond calling him a loser, Trump goes on to mention that he was fired from jobs, that his book was a failure, and that he doesn’t know what he is talking about because the two haven’t spoken in many years. All of these points are implying that whatever O’Brien had to say, it wasn’t worth listening to. Ad hominem is a very effective defence mechanism to deflect attacks brought on you by others.

And it isn’t the only time the President has used it…

Once again Donald Trump is launching an ad hominem attack in a tweet. By suggesting that he doesn’t know who the person is, Donald Trump is implying that they aren’t worth knowing.

The interesting thing in this tweet is the way Trump compares Joaquin to his brother. In doing so, Trump is essentially presenting a logical argument following the syllogism:

Major premise: Your brother is a failure

Minor premise: You are even less successful than your brother

Conclusion: Therefore, you are also a failure

This sort of argument is called argumentum a fortiori. Argumentum a fortiori is essentially when you compare something’s value to the value of something else (usually the stronger). For example, if I said that I can carry a 10kg sack of potatoes, I can therefore argue that I can carry a 5kg sack of potatoes; this would be a use of argumentum a fortiori. Or in the instance of Trump’s tweet: your brother is a failure, you’re not even as successful as him. By setting the value of failure at his brother and then weighing Joaquin against that value, Trump is using a very popular rhetorical technique.

Brace yourself, more Harry Potteresque Latin terms headed your way! As well as using argumentum a fortiori Donald Trump is also using argumentum ad populum. Argumentum ad populum is when you argue that something is true because it is commonly accepted to be true or it is supported by the majority of people. Donald Trump uses argumentum ad populum when he says “his brother, according to most, is not much”. Trump is suggesting that a majority of people argue that Joaquin’s brother is a failure and is thus using argumentum ad populum.

So Trump is using argumentum ad populum to strengthen his use of argumentum a fortiori as part of his overall use of ad hominem!

These are just two random recent tweets that I found. Donald Trump’s twitter feed is scattered with an abundance of rhetorical features which are used to varying effect. It seems to be the case that whenever someone attacks Donald Trump his immediate defence mechanism is to discredit them either personally or professionally through as use of ad hominem. In 2017 when his policies were criticised by Meryl Streep, Donald Trump chose to lash out with his favourite rhetorical device. You guessed it…

So there you have it. The President of the United States of America is a huge fan of slagging people off on Twitter. But in doing so, whether he is aware of it or not, he is in fact deploying a whole host of Aristotelian and Ciceronian rhetorical devices. If you can find these beautiful uses of the ancient art of rhetoric on Donald Trump’s twitter feed, you can probably assume that they can be found anywhere.

People say that argumentum ad populum is a tricky trope but that argumentum a fortiori is worse!

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