Mark Thompson: Trump, Brexit and the broken language of politics
Mark Thompson is a British media executive who is the current Chief Executive Officer of The New York Times Company. From 2004 to 2012, he served as Director-General of the BBC, and before that was the Chief Executive of Channel 4.
There’s a point in the middle of The Tempest when Caliban and the drunken castaways Stefano and Trinculo devise a plot to overthrow Prospero. They’ll march across the island, murder the wise magician and seize power. Stefano will be crowned king and marry Miranda. Trinculo and Caliban will become his viceroys.
We’ve already seen enough of these three characters to know that, were their coup d’état to succeed, the results would be – to quote that great wordsmith Donald J. Trump – “very catastrophic”.
But we also know that it won’t succeed. For a start Prospero’s virtual assistant Ariel is listening in. And besides, Prospero has two defensive weapons of immense power: his book of spells and the staff which gives him magical authority. Caliban, whom Prospero regards as an irredeemable sub-human, warns the others, “Remember / First to possess his books, for without them / He’s but a sot as I am, nor hath one spirit to command.”
So the coup is doomed before it starts, and at the end of the play Prospero deals with it almost as an afterthought. A chastened Caliban, firmly back under control, wonders why he ever believed in his vainglorious companions: “What a thrice-double ass / Was I to take this drunkard for a god, / And worship this dull fool!”.
I saw all this unfold in Stratford-upon-Avon at the end of 2016 in a ravishing new RSC production of The Tempest, with Simon Russell Beale as a sad and self-aware Prospero, and Joe Dixon, Tony Jayawardena and Simon Trinder outstanding as Caliban, Stefano and Trinculo. The production transfers to the Barbican in a few months time.
But as I watched Caliban explain his scheme to Stefano and Trinculo, a different, darker Tempest came into my mind. Imagine that Ariel is deaf and dumb. He can’t hear the conspirators and never issues a warning. And imagine further that, when the three murderers arrive, Prospero’s book and staff fail him. They’ve never let him down before but now, just when he needs them most, they’re useless.
And so, before anyone can stop them – before anyone has even seen the danger – three inebriated, know-nothing braggarts bump him off and take control of the island. Reason, wise counsel and benevolence give way to self-delusion, incompetence and hate. We’re no longer watching The Tempest. We’re watching King Lear.
It’s not what William Shakespeare wrote. But it is a pretty fair approximation of what many people believe is playing out in our politics right now. For them, Donald Trump’s election, the Brexit vote, the growing strength of populist and far right parties in continental Europe all point to an incomprehensible eclipse of wisdom and common sense by ignorance and prejudice.
Of course the vast numbers of people who support these parties and who voted for Trump and Leave, take a quite different view of 2016. For them, it was a breakthrough: the year when ordinary people stood up to the self-serving dishonesty of the elites and finally asserted themselves.
So how do the two sides describe each other? As luck would have it, two British public figures threw out some usefully representative adjectives when they clashed recently on Twitter. When J.K. Rowling tweeted out how satisfying it had been to hear Piers Morgan being abused on an American talkshow for defending Mr Trump, he quickly hit back:
The superior, dismissive arrogance of rabid Remain/Clinton supporters like @jk_rowling is, of course, precisely why both campaigns lost.
Exactly six minutes later, the creator of Harry Potter responded with this:
The fact-free, amoral, bigotry-apologism of celebrity toady Piers Morgan is, of course, why it’s so delicious to see him told to f*** off.
“Superior”, “dismissive”, “arrogant”, versus “fact-free”, “amoral” and “bigot”. Apart from a little “celebrity toady” on the side, this could be Caliban and Prospero describing each other. And note how vituperative and personal the language is. This is the sound of public discourse in 2017.
Insults like these are flying back and forth across the western world. Populists and their supporters are racist, sexist, and cruel. They have no plan. And they lie.
And those hated elites and their followers in the centre and on the left? Smug, controlling, corrupt, quite unable to understand or empathise with the lives and concerns of average citizens. And they lie too.
As for their supposed allies in the media, let me briefly channel the 45th president of the United States, though alas I can’t do justice to the accent: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing #nytimes, #NBCNews, #ABC, #CBS, #CNN), is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people!”
In other words, we are every bit as bad as those other “enemies of the people”, the British judges – or “so-called judges” as Donald Trump would have it – damned by the Daily Mail for having the insolence to rule that parliament be allowed to vote on Article 50.
2016 was the year when many people on both sides of this divide in Britain, America and elsewhere came to believe that they were living among strangers – neighbours, friends, family members even, whose worldview and values had been revealed to be quite alien and incommensurable with their own.
So how did we come to this pass? I want to call on two early witnesses. The first is the New Yorker magazine writer Adam Gopnik. Through the magic of the internet, I sat in our Manhattan apartment and listened to him on Radio 4 a few days before the US presidential election. In his talk, Gopnik warned fellow liberals not to believe claims that Donald Trump’s astonishing run at the presidency was the result of genuine economic or social injustices. “No,” he said,
we must not delude ourselves. Trump’s rise is due to the reawakening of deep, atavistic passions of nationalism and ethnic hatred among millions of Americans. And it was capable of being reawakened for the tragic and not very complicated reason that such passions are always capable of being reawakened everywhere in the world, and at any time.
Elsewhere in the talk, Gopnik described those atavistic passions as a “pathogen”. Imagine some long-known and long-feared plague sweeping through our towns and cities once again for no other reason than our natural susceptibility.
Prospero calls Caliban “this thing of darkness”. For Gopnik, there’s a zone of darkness in all of us, or at least in many human beings. His explanation for the Trump phenomenon, then, is anthropological – and it’s a pretty pessimistic anthropology at that. Maybe Caliban, that misshapen representative of the unwashed, uneducated human id, really is incorrigible, as Prospero claims.
Contrast this with a remark I heard the political philosopher Michael Sandel make at Davos, after he’d sat through a week of discussion about the rise of populism which was high on disapproval, but rather lower on self-reflection:
Why is Davos man and woman still so deaf to the legitimate grievances of ordinary people?
Sandel meant the world’s political, business, academic and, yes no doubt, media elites. A narrower group of people than Adam Gopnik probably had in mind when he used the word “we”, but close enough.
Michael Sandel’s remark implicitly rejects Adam Gopnik’s argument at least in part – “legitimate grievances”, he claims, are an important part of the story. And it directs us to a rather different thesis: that one reason for the present political disruption is the failure of the world’s elites to listen and respond to ordinary people.
And his actual question – why? why, after everything that happened in 2016, are they still not listening? – reminds us that the underlying drivers of the populist revolution may still be at work; that, notwithstanding Geert Wilders’ weaker than expected showing in this week’s Dutch elections, they may still be hammering their wedges deep into our societies, dividing not just elites and non-elites, but different generations, classes, regions and races.
Sandel’s explanation also has an anthopological flavour. His focus, though, is not on humanity’s “atavistic passions”, but on the way we communicate and establish relationships of reciprocal understanding and, in particular, on our uniquely human faculty of listening.
This takes us straight to rhetoric, because listening is as important a part of rhetoric as speaking, listening not just on the part of the audience but of the speaker. The philosopher Martin Heidegger went so far as to define rhetoric as “the art of listening”.
Michael Sandel then is less concerned with Caliban’s wicked nature than he is with Prospero’s defective hearing. Maybe the wise magician has a few questions to answer himself.
This evening I’m going to offer a few thoughts of my own on the political discontinuities of 2016. To frame it in terms of my own variant Tempest, the question I want to address is why did Prospero’s book and staff fail?
Why did the established language and conventions of political debate, the established relationships between politicians and public and media, relationships which had delivered relative political stability and at least adequate levels of public trust for many decades, break with such apparent suddenness in Britain and America last year?
As you’ve heard, I gave a series of lectures on “rhetoric and the art of public persuasion” at St Peter’s College back in 2012. In them, I made the case that a set of political, cultural and technological forces had come together to cause a crisis in the language of politics, and in the relationship between politicians, media and public:-
- The changing character of Western politics after the Cold War, with old affiliations based on class and traditional group identity giving way to a more uncertain landscape in which political leaders struggle for definition and differentiation;
- The widening gap between the worldview – and the language – of technocratic elites and the public at large;
- The impact of digital technology, and the disruption and competition it has brought to both politics and the media;
- And lastly the arrival of an empirical science of persuasion, driven by advances in social psychology, market research and now data science, which is now used by almost all politicians and anyone else who hopes to influence public sentiment and voter intention.
I argued that, as a result, the political language which the public actually hears was becoming more compressed, instrumental and extreme, gaining rhetorical impact at the price of explanatory power. I used Sarah Palin’s invention of the phrase “death panels” – two deeply misleading words which changed the terms of the debate over Obamacare – as an example of this.
I argued that wild exaggeration and outright lies had become routine, that the authority of science, medicine and other kinds of special knowledge and expertise were so widely disputed and denied that ordinary people were struggling to discriminate between facts and fantasies. I cited the debates about vaccine safety, GMOs and global warming as evidence of this.
I said that it was becoming harder and harder for us to find words to bridge the gap between different cultures and belief-systems, and that mutual tolerance was becoming more difficult to sustain.
And I warned that some governments seemed to be having doubts about the wisdom of free and open public discourse, and that in many parts of the world – including our own – freedom of the press was under attack.
And I said that this was all important because democracy cannot function without an effective public language. It falls apart. Society falls apart in mutual incomprehension and hostility. It’s happened before.
So how is my thesis holding up four and a half years later? It doesn’t give me much pleasure to say: pretty well.
In 2012, it was still possible to argue that rhetoric didn’t really matter – especially when compared to apparently more fundamental matters like economics, ideology and social change.
But political language was clearly at the centre of the discontinuities of 2016. Other Republican hopefuls laughed at Donald Trump’s idiosyncratic and impromptu style of speaking to the American public. Hillary Clinton did the same. When Trump refused to change or moderate his style, most commentators said he was doomed. In fact it was the key to his success.
There were linguistic winners and losers during the Brexit debate too. Remain had any number of economic arguments – and any number of experts prepared to back their case. But it was the Brexiters who came up with the two best political phrases of the campaign: “Take back control” and “Independence Day”.
Both are examples of exactly the kind of super-compressed, high impact political language – questionable in substance but emotionally pitch-perfect – which I’d identified in my lectures.
The Brexiters also took active steps to undermine the rhetorical advantages of their opponents. If you are faced with rivals who boast more expert witnesses than you, why not undermine the whole idea that people with specialist expertise and knowledge should carry extra weight in an argument?
When Michael Gove said, “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts” (adding, to be fair, “from organisations with acronyms”), he was not just accusing economists of failing to predict the financial crisis, but advising his listeners to dismiss the language of these experts and its privileged status. Aware that he himself would be seen by many as a member of the technocratic elite, Gove also said:
I’m not asking the public to trust me. I’m asking them to trust themselves.
Now this is very artful: I accept that you can’t trust me because I’m one of them – but I’m just voicing the instinct that you yourselves have about experts, namely that they speak gibberish, make you feel stupid and are usually wrong.
“Remember first to possess his books,” Caliban insists to his co-conspirators. In trashing experts, Michael Gove had the same tactic in mind.
Unfortunately, it turns out that an absence of knowledge is not an unmitigated blessing when it comes to a referendum. Unlike general elections – where broad political instincts play a central and legitimate role – a single-topic referendum demands a minimum level of understanding of the issues and trade-offs involved.
By this standard, the 2016 Brexit referendum was a disaster. Low levels of pre-exising knowledge of the EU and a chaotic and evasive debate left many people voting by gut, or for a series of essentially imaginary propositions – millions more for the NHS, no more Syrian refugees, the end of fishing quotas, whatever you wanted really – or alternatively on the basis of claims by one authority figure after another that the ten plagues of Egypt would immediately descend if the public had the nerve to vote Leave. Whatever the long-term impact of Brexit, the failure of the frogs and locusts to turn up on cue didn’t exactly help the reputations of those battered experts.
Public confusion, of course, is not limited to UK. In recent weeks, it’s become clear that a significant percentage of Americans did not realise that it was impossible to abolish Obamacare, which they have been taught to hate, without also abolishing the Affordable Care Act, on which many of them have come to rely, because it turns out they’re the same thing. “Nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated,” as Donald Trump put it the other day.
It’s difficult to disagree with the harsh judgement on the quality of the Brexit campaign which Andrew Tyrie MP, the Chairman of the Treasury Select Committee delivered a few weeks before the vote:
What we really need is an end to the arms race of ever more lurid claims and counterclaims made by both sides on this.
He went on: “I think it’s confusing the public, it’s impoverishing political debate”.
I want to endorse Tyrie’s reference to “both sides”. Many disappointed Remainers would like place all the blame for the woeful quality of the debate on the Leavers.
There was indeed plenty to criticise on that side: comically exaggerated claims and promises; outrageous opportunism on the part of some of the key leaders followed by an instant denial of accountability once the votes were cast; and an ugly undertow of nationalist xenophobia or worse, best exemplified by Nigel Farage and UKIP’s “Breaking Point” poster which, with its depiction of a teeming snake of refugees, took us straight back to the playbook of Josef Goebbels.
But, at least to my eye and ear, there was almost as much cynicism in the way advocates of Remain made their case and attacked their opponents.
The Conservative and Labour leaders of the Remain campaign seemed scarcely more enthusiastic about the UK’s membership of the EU than their opponents. Instead they opted for those over-heated warnings – “Project Fear” was fairly named. The campaign as a whole sounded negative, instrumental and complacent. No wonder it failed.
Many Americans and Europeans used to look to Britain for a better kind of political debate: at least as feisty as their own, but with greater underlying common sense; less poisoned by ideological division, and with a shared sense of responsibility across right and left to debate issues in ways which help rather than hinder public understanding; at its best, more eloquent, more witty, more courteous, more intelligent.
But last year British political debate was exposed to the cold light of day and turned out to be the same as everyone else’s, or worse – small-bore, bitter, inward-looking – and Britain itself looked less like a nation than a grab-bag of feuding classes and regions and generations.
But this dismal picture still pales in comparison to events on the other side of the Atlantic.
As you’ve heard, last year I published “Enough Said”, a book about public language based on those 2012 lectures. I was just able to reflect the Brexit decisions, changing the final proofs a few days after the vote. But the US election was still months away.
Even back then though, I thought that Donald Trump had a much better chance of winning than most people did – precisely because I believed that he had stumbled on a rhetorical formula which, though incredibly high risk, was potentially an almost unstoppable disruptive force.
This story is still far from over, but we know a good deal more today than we did last June, so let’s now analyse some key features of the Trump rhetorical revolution.
The first is a paradox. Donald Trump claims that he doesn’t use rhetoric. On Inauguration Day, he told America:
The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action.
Rhetoric is for other people. Me, I’m a simple man of action. It’s what Mark Antony claims in the middle of the “Friends, Romans and Countrymen” speech: ‘I am not an orator as Brutus is, / But as you know me all, a plain blunt man” . It’s what Silvio Berlusconi, another businessman turned proto-Trumpian once told the Italian people: “If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s rhetoric. All I care about is what needs to get done.”
Some of Donald Trump’s enemies, especially those who look back fondly to the stately oratory of past presidents, might be tempted to agree that his public speaking doesn’t add up to rhetoric.
But they’d be wrong – and so is he.
Despite its protestations, anti-rhetoric is itself just another form of rhetoric. So let’s open the bonnet and take a closer look at the Trumpian variety.
The strong man, the general, the dictator, nowadays the CEO who’s trying his hand at politics, wants to keep it short and sweet. When Julius Caesar was away at war, he liked to keep the brand burnished bright back in Rome so he wrote letters and despatches punchy enough to be nailed up on street corners.
No need for the kind of flowery language which that slippery lawyer Marcus Tullius Cicero was always spouting. Instead: “Veni, vidi, vici.” I came, I saw, I conquered.
We have to build a wall, folks. We have to build a wall. And a wall works. All you have to do is to go to Israel and say how is your wall working? Walls work.
That was Donald Trump addressing supporters in Dallas back in September 2015. As I note in my book, consciously or unconsciously he’s using a style which students of rhetoric call parataxis – short, simple sentences that emphasise certainty and determination and that can be layered up like bricks in a wall themselves towards a conclusion which has a linguistic logic, even it falls short of dialectical argument. In this case, alliteration – all those “w”s in “wall” and “work” – help pull it together.
Whatever you think of this style of rhetoric, it was effective enough to win a presidential election. But it clearly has drawbacks. You can’t convey sophisticated thought or conduct a sophisticated debate – indeed, even to attempt to do so would be a betrayal of the style. This is perhaps one reason why the president gets so irritated when opponents or the media challenge him with systematic argument or, Heaven forbid, the actual facts.
And it’s hard to pull off. A practical challenge for the new president is that none of his lieutenants – certainly not the hapless White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer – can successfully mimic it. As another key aide Kellyanne Conway put it, “none of us do it like he does” . No one can do Trump like Trump.
Most presidents delegate the majority of their messaging to surrogates. Given how much of his political credibility with his supporters depends on his unique style of political speech, Donald Trump may well find that he largely has to speak for himself.
But perhaps he’s up to the task. Because right now this one man army is assaulting America’s eardrums with what amounts to a 24/7 rhetorical blitzkrieg of presidential speeches, press conferences, campaign-style political rallies, tweets and impromptu one-liners.
If one attack gets bogged down or repulsed, he launches three more, just as he did as a candidate. Even the blizzard of early “executive orders” has come across as primarily rhetorical rather than administrative in intent – though some of course have had immediate real-world effects.
Exaggeration, distortion, the reckless deployment of baseless rumours and conspiracy-theories as if they were facts: I discussed all these tendencies in contemporary political rhetoric in my 2012 lectures and my book. Today they are central features – not just of Donald Trump’s early morning Tweets – but of his formal rhetoric as president.
In his inaugural address, he described his own country, one of the most successful and prosperous in the world notwithstanding its problems, in apocalyptic terms: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
“American carnage” is a supreme example of President Trump’s tendency, implicitly or explicitly to argue fallaciously from the particular to general. If one Mexican immigrant is a rapist, they all are. If some Americans have lost their jobs or been the victims of crime, then every American, or at least every “real” American, lives in poverty and fear and carnage. “Mass propaganda,” Hannah Arendt wrote about the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century,
discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.
But there are some important features of Donald Trump’s rhetoric which I did not foresee. A good example is what could politely be called indeterminacy – his tendency to say different or even contradictory things about the same policy area, within days or even hours each other, or to flip from praise and warmth to blame and fury, without appearing to trouble his own supporters in the slightest.
Conventional politicians place great emphasis on consistency. They only change tack when they feel they have to and only then after careful thought and risk analysis. They also dutifully suppress their emotional mood, or distill it into a carefully calibrated and politically useful essence.
Neither Donald Trump nor his base feel bound by these conventions. Trumpian policy is plastic, reshapeable to almost any degree at any time. If he says one thing and then another, the second doesn’t so much replace the first, as co-exist alongside it.
Many observers are still parsing his rhetoric as if he was a traditional politician. Thus his address to Congress last month was talked of as if it might be a considered “turn” to a more presidential approach in substance and style. Not a bit of it: within days he was angrily tweeting about how his predecessor Barack Obama – a “Bad (or sick) guy!” – had supposedly wiretapped him, a claim for which no evidence has been offered. The shifts in style are not strategic, merely additional new voices generated by a rhetorical multiple personality.
And much of what he says is not really about policy at all, but is part of a stream of real-time bulletins about his emotional state. Thus those exclamation point sign-offs on Twitter: “Sad!”, “Jobs!”, “Not!”, “Very dishonest!”, “SO DANGEROUS!”, “Enjoy!”
For a large swathe of America, this emotional candour, the informality, the spontaneity, even the willingness to self-contradict, speaks to Donald Trump’s authenticity – a word we’ll return to – and they like and admire it.
If you don’t share their admiration, if you don’t warm to the way that Donald Trump and Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen are disrupting and undermining what their supporters see as the discredited rhetorical conventions of mainstream politics and what Steve Bannon calls “the administrative state”, you better pinch yourself. Perhaps you aren’t a “real” person at all, but a member of one of those shadowy elites, as insubstantial in your way as Ariel. This is the gulf that opened up in America and Britain in 2016.
Indeterminacy was in the air when Donald Trump came to lunch at The New York Times a few weeks after his election victory, and spent 75 minutes answering our questions on the record. Would he bring back torture? His pick as Defence Secretary, General Jim Mattis, had told him it didn’t work, so maybe not. Since then, it’s been back on the table and then off again at least once.
Would he support the prosecution of Hillary Clinton, as he’d promised during the campaign? “I don’t want to hurt the Clintons, I really don’t,” said the man whom the US Constitution enjoins to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” . Everything is subjective, and subjectively valid only in the moment.
Donald Trump sees contemporary politics as a Manichaean struggle between two opposing worldviews, that of the liberal elite establishment which seems to include many Republicans as well as Democrats, and that of “real” Americans, whose “voice” he claims to be. So to him, facts cited by the establishment are necessarily lies because of their source, whereas any claim which fits his own worldview, no matter how fanciful or demonstrably false, is by definition a “fact”.
One of Mr Trump’s sayings is that “everything is negotiable”. It turns out that this “everything” includes reality. If you don’t like the facts, here are some alternative ones.
The most concerning thing about the “fake news” controversy is not that some people spread lies on the internet for commercial gain. Nor that the digital platform giants distribute the good, the bad and ugly to the entire world with little discrimination. Nor even that Russia is deliberating using misinformation to influence western elections.
It is that the man currently running the most powerful country on earth does not appear to recognise or accept the objective nature of reality. Donald Trump seems to be believe that he has the God-like power to make things true merely by saying them. And tens of millions of Americans clearly find his distorting mirror version of reality more credible than the one which actually obtains on Planet Earth.
“I want you all to know that we are fighting the fake news,” he told the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC, last month. “It’s fake. Phoney. Fake.”
It tells you everything about the new president’s intuitive rhetorical facility – and his lack of scruple – that he should have so adroitly turned the phrase “fake news” into a stick to beat news organisations like The New York Times, organisations which, whatever else they do, take immense care to make sure that they report what has actually happened.
Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed that The Times is losing audiences and subscribers. At it happens, exactly the opposite is happening – in the last three months of 2016 we added more new digital subscribers than in the whole of 2013 and 2014 combined. Other serious news providers are also seeing larger audiences and more subscribers.
But we should be under no illusion: in America a tradition of fact-finding and truth-telling which, with all its inevitable frailties, is second to none in the world, is now under fundamental attack.
And remember that public confusion – about whom to believe, ultimately about what is true and what is false – asymmetrically favours the liar. Misinformation doesn’t have to be definitively believed to damage democracy. It merely has to sow enough doubt in enough people’s minds about the reliability of sources of genuine information that the whole question of truth becomes a matter of permissible debate. Remember first to possess his books.
Misinformation aims to level, to disrupt and to divide. There was misinformation aplenty in last year’s Brexit debate, and anger about it persists to this day. But to me at least it felt like an irresponsible means to an end in the heat of a political campaign.
Perhaps the same could have been said of Donald Trump if the misinformation had stopped once the electoral battle was over. But it hasn’t. Instead it looks as if deliberate misinformation is to be a central feature of Mr Trump’s presidency.
That would be an unremarkable if we were talking about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The fact that this is happening in America takes not just America but the whole western world into unknown territory.
Nor do we know where the president’s hatred of what he thinks of as establishment media will lead to. When he visited The Times, I asked Donald Trump whether, given what he’d said about tightening America’s libel laws, he supported the First Amendment, in other words freedom of the press. “I think you’ll be OK,” he said, “I think you’re going to be fine”.
Then he left the building telling the rest of the world’s media that the organisation he’d described the same morning as the “failing nytimes” was a “jewel” for America and the world. Make of that what you will.
What can the long history of rhetoric tell us about all this? My answer is: plenty, and in my book I was able to trace the origins of rhetoric and the striking parallels between past crises in public language and our own predicament.
Let me restrict myself this evening to a single moment, not from the start of the story of rhetoric, but from its middle. We’re going to pay a fleeting visit, not to Greece or Rome, but to Aix-la-Chapelle, modern-day Aachen, and the court of the Frankish king and emperor, Charlemagne the Great.
Charlemagne was an ambitious man, but not just for land and power. He was ambitious for civilisation.
He knew how many of the essential elements of a well-ordered society had been lost with Rome and he set about rediscovering and rebuilding them. Not singlehandedly either: he gathered the most brilliant minds of the known world at his court, including the Anglo-Saxon monk and abbot, Alcuin of York.
Think of the Frankish king and his English advisor trying to re-erect a vast cathedral from scattered stones. Which should be the first stone, the cornerstone? Not science, not literature, not law. They chose rhetoric – to be taught, discussed, developed and actually used.
But theirs was a far more expansive definition of rhetoric than we’re accustomed to. Here’s the German Historian Johannes Fried on Charlemagne and Alcuin’s achievement:
The rhetoric which they revived […] was much more than simply a debate about language and the art of “fine oratory”. […] In conjunction with the revived and steadily adopted discipline of dialectics, rhetoric provided a theoretical and practical epistemology, and gave rise to a mode of thinking that began to guide the way people acted, and without which the intellectual revival of the Latin West would have been unthinkable. Over time, both disciplines also taught people to pay heed to the “opposite side”, in other words not merely to comprehend their own society and its world but to embrace what was alien, to approach it in an understanding way and to assimilate it intellectually. In this, these two disciplines constituted the essential character of European intellectualism.
Rhetoric, as Charlemagne and Alcuin understood it, helps us to make sense of the world and to share that understanding. It also teaches us to “pay heed” to the “opposite side”, the other.
We’ve just encountered a fracturing of perceptions of reality in Donald Trump’s America so profound that the two sides do not even hold the facts in common.
Imagine Charlemagne and Alcuin using rhetoric to achieve exactly the opposite effect – to enable different tribes and language-groups, with different cultures and worldviews, to “pay heed” to, and intellectually “assimilate” each other, so that they could then make that common understanding the foundation of rule of law, stable government, and at least the prospect of peace and prosperity.
This can sound like a vote for the centre-ground or for compromise, but it isn’t. The best policy ideas often begin life on the radical edges rather than the comfortable centre, and there are some matters on which there should never be compromise. What rhetoric defined in this expansive way strives for is not compromise or the centre as such – Charlemagne wasn’t exactly a Liberal Democrat – but a context of shared understanding within which disagreements can be isolated and confronted.
But history teaches us that what can be learned can be forgotten, and what has been built destroyed. In the matter of rhetoric, over the centuries we lost sight of truths about society and politics that were apparent to a chopper-off of heads and an itinerant monk sitting by a fire in the depths of the Dark Ages.
Our notion of rhetoric shrank until we came to believe that it really was just about “fine oratory”, and – because few people listen to set-piece speeches any more – that it was politically and socially irrelevant. We no longer thought it necessary to teach young people to understand and formulate argument, or to develop the critical faculties needed to judge whom and what to believe, or not to believe, in politics or in life.
The rhetoric which Charlemagne and Alcuin revived was anthropologically realistic. It understood, as Aristotle had taught, that the intellectual content of public language, the facts, systematic argument – Aristotle calls this logos – is important. But it also recognised that persuasion of a given group of listeners depends on the emotional context too: the way the speaker comes across, ethos, and the mood and reaction of the listeners themselves, pathos.
But during and after the Enlightenment, this understanding began to be challenged by two opposing tendencies. Let’s call the first hyper-rationalism, the belief that the only thing that really matters in public language is logos, or Reason – in this context meaning dialectical argument using logic and empirical evidence – and that emotion should be downplayed as much as possible.
Hyper-rationalists distrust rhetoric for the same reason Plato did, fearing that it enables an unscrupulous speaker to press an audience’s emotional buttons and make a bad argument sound like a good one. We can think of today’s technocratic elite and many, though clearly not all, of today’s mainstream political establishment, as inheritors of the hyper-rationalist tendency.
Opposed to this, is the tendency which I call in my book authenticism. For authenticists, what matters most is identity and the shared values of a given community, and the best speaker is the one who best understands and most exactly expresses the emotional, even spiritual, needs of their community. Ethos and pathos are everything, in other words. Now it’s the turn of logos to be sidelined.
Authenticists purport, as we’ve seen, to speak the same simple language as the people they claim to represent. For them, “rhetoric” is a term of abuse reserved for the speech of those they take to be the enemies of their community – which often means those who privilege facts and argument above what they see as a deeper emotional and narrative truth.
The most notable authenticists in history were the fascist dictators of the 1930s. But today’s European and American populist insurgents, including Donald Trump, also show strong authenticist tendencies, some of which I’ve touched on this evening.
This hyper-rationalist/authenticist model is useful in understanding how we got to where we are – and how we might begin to heal the terrifying divisions that were revealed in 2016.
First, I believe that Michael Sandel is correct: the western world’s technocratic and liberal elites did fail to listen to ordinary citizens. Indeed, if by “listening” we mean “listening, taking seriously and responding”, they could be said to have lost the art of listening.
Collecting and analysing data is not the same as listening, though it is often treated by political and business leaders and their advisers as if it is. Nor is telling people that their lives are getting economically better when that’s just not how they feel. Nor is warning them about a future which seems unconnected to their own experience. “That’s your bloody GDP, not ours”, as one angry woman told Professor Anand Menon, when he was talking publicly about the potential economic consequences of Brexit in Newcastle .
And the rationalist elites forgot another home truth: which is that an argument is truly won, not when you have convinced yourself and your friends, but when you have persuaded your adversary, or the truly undecided, of the merits of your case.
In recent decades, the elites regarded some policies as being so obviously beneficial that the case for them did not have to made at all. Free trade is an example. No doubt to the majority of economists, business people and educated members of the public, the case for free trade is indeed a no-brainer.
But to ordinary citizens, worried about jobs and their children’s futures, it is far less obvious. I don’t know how easy it would have been to persuade Donald Trump’s supporters of the merits of free trade. I do know that almost no one tried.
Other arguments were deliberately suppressed. For decades, and despite growing public disquiet, elites tried to avoid an open debate about immigration, for fear it would encourage racism. This suppression meant that the positive social and economic case for immigration was seldom heard.
The technocratic elite and most educated citizens in this country and elsewhere are convinced by the scientific consensus that human activity is causing planetary warming. So am I. But I am not convinced that the best way of persuading everyone else is to stop climate sceptics from ever being heard, as many scientists have advocated. The same with vaccine safety.
2016 demonstrated that hyper-rationalist attempts to manipulate and shut down public debates are not just morally suspect, but totally ineffective. They ignore the reality of human nature, and they just don’t work. Far from convincing the unconvinced, they make them more suspicious and resentful.
Political correctness – the attempt to suppress hateful and hurtful speech and writing about minorities – is usually justified by saying that we have a collective duty to protect vulnerable groups from harm and distress. I believe we do have such a duty, but it must be freely discharged, it cannot be imposed on a population – and the attempt to do so creates more problems than it solves.
Political correctness has not made racism and other forms of prejudice go away, and may actually have made them worse. While it has no doubt protected some members of minorities from immediate hurt, the reaction to it in many western countries has probably left minorities more vulnerable than they were before. And it has allowed angry and resentful members of the majority population, not just to present themselves as victims in the hope of political and economic preferment, but to genuinely feel like victims too.
Refusing to listen; taking some arguments for granted while attempting to suppress others; treating ordinary citizens as if they were too stupid to understand policy choices and had to be bribed, frightened or deceived into compliance; or as if they were nothing more than data points to be manipulated for political advantage, or in the furtherance of some theoretical public good:-
The charge is not that the rationalist elites are directly responsible for the dark forces which are now playing out in western politics, but that they allowed a vacuum of empathy and understanding to open up into which these dark forces are now pouring.
Of course not everything that happened is dark. Euroscepticism is a long-established and legitimate current in British political life and the British public had as much right to leave the European Union as they did to join it in the first place. The American public have the right to vote anyone they want into the White House.
But intolerance, rage and bitter division are also part of the story of 2016. Anti-semitic and other racist attacks – physical as well as rhetorical – have increased in many western countries, the attackers seemingly emboldened by the abrupt change in the political tide. Immigrant communities and members of ethnic and other minorities felt, and still feel, a new vulnerability and fear. The political mood has turned ugly in many countries. In the US, at least at the federal level, the possibility for finding common ground between left and right, a feeble and flickering flame under Barack Obama, has been snuffed out.
And many otherwise reasonable citizens have bought into a despairing and apocalyptic vision of their own societies – the vision of the Breaking Point poster or “American carnage”.
It’s a vision which exaggerates and generalises the many real problems which ordinary people face in our societies to the point of madness. History tells us that, when such false but compelling visions take hold, they are the devil’s own job to shake off. And that they can be used by unscrupulous political leaders to justify almost anything.
So Adam Gopnick’s warning about “deep atavistic passions” rings true. But it doesn’t tell the whole story about human nature. To believe in a democracy is to believe that we are imbued not just with immense destructive potential but with what the Greeks called phronesis, or practical wisdom.
Such wisdom, combined with an effective public language, allows a process of collective deliberation and decision-making which gives us the best chance of channelling our ideas and passions into building a better, fairer and more united society rather than descending into recrimination and strife.
The Greeks themselves understood that phronesis was not a guarantee of peace and order: democracies sometimes do crazy and wicked things. But the fact that a vote doesn’t go the way your wanted, or even that there are long years when you believe that your democratically-elected government is headed for disaster, doesn’t justify abandoning all belief in the practical wisdom, not just of those who agree with you, but of those that don’t.
The only alternative to a democracy based on this collective respect is some form of tyranny, whether led by those who think of themselves as Prosperos, or by Caliban and his friends. Unfortunately the sense of mutual respect on which a successful democracy ultimately depends is in desperately short supply today.
To state the obvious: we cannot rebuild confidence in democracy and reunite our societies if we divide ourselves up into Prosperos and Caliban. That need not mean a dilution of fundamental values, but a far more intense effort to understand and communicate with each other.
The real Tempest ends not with catastrophe, but with forgiveness and reconciliation – even between sworn enemies. Terror and grief are replaced by hope. As Ferdinand says:
Though the seas threaten, they are merciful.
I have cursed them without cause.
So what would it take for us to turn our politics back towards the path of reconciliation? The humility to treat everyone, even political opponents, as if they were worth listening to.
A recognition that the only kind of public language that can bring a society together is one which combines respect for evidence and rational argument with genuine empathy.
The determination, not to compromise, but to engage with those who disagree with you – and to go on making your argument for as long as it takes until you convince your listener.
Implacable resistance to every form of official or unofficial censorship, and a commitment not to drive intolerance and hatred underground, but to confront and argue against them in public.
And finally the courage to make sure that the facts are heard. In much of the world, governments and other interests bury the real facts and promote their own alternative version of reality. There are now powerful forces in our own countries who want to do the same.
But you can’t rebuild anything, least of all a healthy public language, on the basis of lies, half-truths and conspiracy theories. It’s time for all of us to stand up for the facts. That means The New York Times and the rest of the responsible media, but it also means you.
Serious fact-finding journalism is costly to make. If you value it, help pay for it by subscribing to a newspaper or magazine whether in print or online.
Hold your own elected politicians to account and support the ones you believe you can trust to tell the truth.
And take a leaf out of the Emperor Charlemagne’s book. Teach your children how to listen, how to know when someone is trying to manipulate them, how to discriminate between good arguments and bad ones, how to fight their own corner clearly and honestly. In other words, teach them rhetoric. Thank you.
William Shakespeare, The Tempest, III ii, 92-4.
Ibid, V I, 299-301.
Piers Morgan, tweet, 8.06 am 11 February 2017.
J.K. Rowling, tweet, 8.12 am 11 February 2017.
President Donald J. Trump, tweet,17 February 2017.
BBC Radio 4, A Point of View, “America Votes”, 6 November 2016.
Michael Gove MP, speaking on Sky News, 3 June 2016.
President Donald J. Trump, speaking to Governors at the White House, 27 February 2017.
Andrew Tyrie MP, speaking on BBC News, 27 May 2016.
President Donald J. Trump, Inaugural Address, 14 September 2017.
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, [reference to come]
Quoted in Arturo Tosi, Language and Society in a Changing Italy (Multilingual Matters, 2001), p. 129.
Donald J. Trump, speech to supporters in Dallas, 17 January 2017.
President Donald J. Trump, Inaugural Address, 14 September 2017.
Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism: Part Three of The Origins of Totalitarianism, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 1968, p. 80.
President Donald J. Trump, meeting at The New York Times, 22 November 2016. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/23/us/politics/trump-new-york-times-inte…
The Constitution of the United States, Article II, Section 3.
Donald J. Trump, speech to CPAC, 24 January 2017.
Johannes Fried, The Middle Ages, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2015, p. 61.
Anand Menon, “2016: A Review”, The UK in a Changing Europe, 31 December 2016. See: http://ukandeu.ac.uk/2016-a-review/
William Shakespeare, The Tempest, V i, 183-4.