As the 2020 presidential campaign revs up, the normal ways of dealing with it seem hopelessly inadequate. Fact-checking seems antiquated in the face of a president who’s closing in on 20,000 false or misleading statements and a press corps that remains hopelessly befuddled in how to respond.
But there is another way the press — or failing that, citizens themselves — can cut through the blizzard of disinformation. That’s explained in a forthcoming book by Texas A&M communications professor Jennifer Mercieca, “Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump.” A historian of American political rhetoric, Mercieca traces Trump’s strategies in the 2016 campaign, finding that they conform to consistent rhetorical patterns.
Trump’s sheer volume of false or misleading claims is more than anyone can hope to handle, but Mercieca identifies just six distinctive patterns — three that are used to sow division in the country at large, and three that are used to unify his supporters. Some of these you already know: Trump’s penchant for ad hominem attacks is impossible to miss. But for all the times such attacks have been pointed out or even decried, precious little insight has been gained into why Trump engages in them and why they seem to work — much less how he combines them with other rhetorical devices.