The Rhetoric of Doubt: Trump, Quintilian, and the Sophists

By Jeffrey Neil Weiner

“There is a whole deal going on there,” Trump said in a rally in Ocala, Florida last October. He was referring to Paul Ryan’s decision to abandon public support of him and encourage House Republicans to vote their conscience. “There is a whole deal going on and we’re going to figure it out. I always figure things out. But there’s a whole sinister deal going on.” The statement is the latest in what has been Trump’s very successful strategy of suggesting there is more than meets the eye—that is, creating some form of doubt.

This has not been paranoia in many cases, as the WikiLeaks email dumps have made apparent. Many of the doubts that voters had about the DNC’s collusion with the Clinton campaign to kill Bernie Sanders’ campaign, Mrs. Clinton’s comments in paid speeches to Wall Street, the porous boundaries between some of the media and the DNC, and the partialness of the Department of Justice for the Obama administration’s party were all proven justified. What most voters intuited has turned out not to be paranoid conspiracy theory but truth.

Mr. Trump has mirrored many of the feelings of the nation—not just a core group of angry, older white men, as the media always claimed until they learned better on November 8 . His sense of doubt reflects the feelings of distrust that range from skepticism to paranoia among the U.S. electorate.

Mrs. Clinton referenced this most powerful weapon at the end of the first presidential debate with Mr. Trump. Her closing statement referred to him as “trying very hard to plant doubts about” this election in order to later claim it was rigged.

Not only Mrs. Clinton, but also others have pointed out his strategy of calling everything into question by creating doubt.  They often identify it not as a potent weapon, but as a pathological predilection. However, Trump’s strategy of “planting doubt,” ranging from ambiguous wording to rational questions to expressions of deep skepticism and, finally, to paranoid suspicion, has been kryptonite to his adversaries.

Trump’s defiantly casual, rambling, at times inarticulate speeches belie the fact that he is actually a master at manipulating the power of rhetoric—the art of using words to persuade an audience—where his competitors have failed. Although it may not be a conscious talent or the product of formal training as leaders of yore were educated, that does not make it less powerful. Trump’s magic lies in his manipulation of skepticism and doubt—to a degree we have rarely seen outside of a George Orwell book.

Back in February, 2016 Caitlin Huey-Burns observed, “Trump has proven an ability to gain attention and momentum by placing seeds of doubt about his rivals, even in the context of bogus and unsavory birther charges,” referring to the mogul’s strategy of raising questions first about Barack Obama’s place of birth, and then about Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

When questioned by George Stephanopoulos about Rubio’s eligibility to be president, Trump responded with theatrical skepticism: “I don’t know. I really — I’ve never looked at it.” Of course he had. “As somebody said, he’s not. And I retweeted it. I have 14 million people between Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and I retweet things and we start dialogue and it’s very interesting.” Notice the coy dissimulation, as if “retweeting”—a euphemism in this case for strategically quoting or using others as a ventriloquist uses a puppet—was nothing more than a curiosity. He knows what he is saying; we know what he means to say, but there is this rhetorical sidestepping, which allows him to distance—or even disavow—while at the same time clearly affirming the content of the message.

The birther motif came up again at the end of September 2016 when Trump decided to publically declare an end to his skepticism about the president. Then he raised the specter of doubt again. When asked why he decided to make the statement, he responded, “I just wanted to get on with, I wanted to get on with the campaign. A lot of people were asking me questions.” First he makes a claim about which there are brooding questions not easily answered, then renounces the statement, and finally takes it up again.  In this instance, he implies he conceded the President was born in this country for the sake of expedience, and by doing so, he creates more confusion and doubt. The pattern shrouds all his statements—negative or positive—with what Freud would call a feeling of “derealization,” not knowing what is true or false, fact or fantasy.

Nevertheless, this same strategy of creating doubt has been Trump’s most powerful rhetorical tool. By continually creating doubt, Trump has made people chary of politicians in their own party, skeptical about the long-held wisdom of both conservative and liberal platforms, wary about the future of the economy, and more cautious about immigrants from cultures whose values may be opposed to ours.

Writing on the powerful tool of doubt in oratory, Quintilian explains in Book IX.ii.19-20 of Institutes of Oratory: “Doubt also may give an air of truth to our statements, as when we feign, for example, to be at a loss where to begin, or where to end, or what to say in preference to something else, or whether we ought to speak at all.

“All speeches are full of examples of such hesitation, but one will suffice: ‘…I don’t know where to turn. Can I deny that there was a bad report of the judges having been bribed?’”

Quintilian’s example is of a person who claims to be unsure, and who then calls into question the judgment of leaders who should act with a sense of impartiality and justice. Trump’s rationale for his “retweet” brings up a question and then momentarily defers, as in Quintilian’s example, to other people’s judgment. The speaker creates doubt by attaching his skepticism to a pervasive sense of uncertainty and scandal.

Quintilian elaborates: “There is no great difference between doubt and that sort of figure called communication…” as “when we pretend to deliberate with the judges, which is a very common artifice, saying, “what do you advise?” or, “I ask you yourselves what ought to have been done.” Thus Cato exclaims, “I pray you, if you had been in that situation, what else would you have done?” This would seem to be a paradoxical—perhaps even nonsensical statement—if we hadn’t already observed from practical experience that deliberately asking questions, taking a skeptical position about things that previously were considered facts, comes across as authoritative—somebody who knows something that others do not.

Mr. Trump has subtle variations of this rhetorical practice. After Ted Cruz’s campaign retweeted a journalist’s speculation that Dr. Ben Carson was pulling out of the race, analysts raised the possibility that this influenced people to vote for Mr. Cruz instead of Dr. Carson. Mr. Trump was quick to point out this show of poor sportsmanship on the part of the Cruz campaign. The reason the conservative Texan won, Mr. Trump claimed was “because he got Ben Carson’s votes by the way, but we won’t say that.” Previously he had asserted that the Cruz campaign “illegally” stole the election, citing the fact that the Texas senator’s campaign circulated a CNN report that Carson would be leaving the race after the caucuses.

A day later, he claimed he was past the episode: “I don’t care. I mean, I don’t want to even say. Let’s see what happens. I guess people are looking at it. Who cares? I picked up a lot of delegates,” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.   There we have in Mr. Trump again a perfect paraphrase of the Latin rhetorician’s line: “I don’t know where to turn. Can I deny that there was a bad report of the judges having been bribed?” Trump accuses, reneges, and “moves on” while continuing to plant the vague, paranoia-inducing suggestion, “Let’s see what happens. I guess people are looking at it.”

Then the statement is capped off by the usual cherry on the top of cognitive dissonance: “Who cares? I picked up a lot of delegates.”

Sometimes these episodes are mere windows to an endlessly curious and confounding psyche; other times, the doubts he plants are productive paths to entering a political topic. The Trump campaign has called attention to, as he mentioned in the first general election debate, the parasitic nature of our relationship with terrorist-exporting nations such as Saudi Arabia. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have been willing to submit that unhealthy alliance to the scrutiny of the voters. He planted seeds of doubt during the debate, which if the past is any indication, may become an important topic to the American public and move us forward to an international political realignment.

The rhetoric of doubt sometimes comes off as harsh and unfeeling, even when the wisdom may be apparent to a broader audience. Speaking of the refugee children from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Mr. Trump confessed: “I could look in their face and say, ‘You can’t come.’ … I’ll look them in the face. We don’t know where their parents come from. Their parents should always stay with them. You have to keep them together. That’s very important. But we don’t know where their parents come from.” Most Americans approve of his strong position on protecting the American people from an Islamist Trojan horse of the kind that has so easily infiltrated France, Belgium, and Germany.

Quite rightly, he has speculated about questions that nobody brings up, and in doing so, has mainstreamed a healthy caution and self-protective anxiety when it comes to refugees from countries with large terrorist populations. Referring to the tens of thousands of young men taking refuge in Germany, he asked, “Where the hell did they get the cellphones? Who the hell pays the bill? Who’s paying the bill for the cellphone? And you see little things like that. Does that make any sense, OK? But you look at it and you say, ‘We have enough problems.’”

Again, referring to the refugees, Mr. Trump observed, “They’re pouring in, and we don’t know what we’re doing.” This came after pronouncing that President Obama had been incompetent handling the Syrian problem. Expanding the circle of doubt quite effectively, Mr. Trump includes the entire government, and then all of us as well. The call to admit that we are less in control of things than we would care to admit is part of a process in which “planting doubt” is the antidote to blind trust in government policies—regardless of the party in power.

The strategy of raising questions is a healthy one for our nation when it comes to interrogating long held, rarely challenged dogmas shared by both parties about free trade, our alliances in the Middle East, our relationship to allies in Europe and to Russia, and the global expectation that Americans will always have to pay the bill. Other times, it has been less productive, or just off-putting, as when Mr. Trump “counter-punched” Gov. Mitt Romney by ludicrously and tastelessly questioning his faith: “Are you sure he’s a Mormon? Are we sure?”

As useful as ambiguity and skepticism can be, it was none less than Socrates who denounced the so-called Sophists for constantly manipulating their rhetoric with ambiguous and colorful language to “bewitch the soul with a kind of evil persuasion.’   Plato professed to avoid this verbal enchantment with “straightforward speech.” His student, Aristotle, while following his predecessor’s footsteps, could not help but admit that although one should “avoid ambiguities,” sometimes “you definitely desire to be ambiguous, as those do who have nothing to say but are pretending to mean something. Such people are apt to put that sort of thing into verse.”

Maybe not verse in this case, but perhaps embroidered on a red baseball cap.

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