December 7, 2016

The rhetoric of competition: why Trump wins

A significant portion of the United States population is baffled that Donald Trump is not only still in the race, but doing well. Some can’t figure out why other seemingly sane people would like him, much less vote for him.

The answer is simpler and scarier than it might seem. It’s the way Trump talks. It’s not his accent or the way he pronounces “huge” – and he says that a lot – it’s his rhetoric.

Dr. David Bailey, Chair of the Bob R. Derryberry School of Communication Arts calls it “victory rhetoric.” Trump peppers his speeches with talk of “winners” and “losers,” and “beating China/ISIS/Ted Cruz.” If you pay attention, you will notice this same kind of rhetoric everywhere.

An advertisement for a burrito restaurant told me I could “beat the cold.” Many ads will talk about how they’re better than the competition. The competition will talk about how they’re better than the leading brand.

Donald Trump and capitalists before him have shaped the rhetoric of the American people to be about competition. It permeates the media. The way we track anything – polls, ratings, up votes – is about who is beating whom.

Here’s the problem: liberal rhetoric is about helping people and conservative rhetoric is about winning. Just to be clear, I’m discussing communication here, not politics.

At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, Trump and his predecessors (mostly, to be fair to him, his predecessors) have shaped American rhetoric to favor their message. It’s what we’re used to hearing. Our knee jerk reactions have been trained to react positively to the message of competition and beating the other guy, even though our intellectual reaction is to wonder how in the world this guy is… well, winning.

“Typically, Americans who rise to some level of significant prominence very often in reality only mirror and/ or reflect major sociocultural trends or political values and beliefs that either may be becoming, or may have already become ingrained as a part of American cultural and social values,” William Hall, adjunct professor of political science at Webster, said, referencing the “emerging Donald Trump phenomenon.”

So, for those of you who are wondering how in the world Trump is being taken seriously by anyone, you can rest a little easier knowing it’s not just his natural charisma. Of course, the implication is that the problem, if it is a problem, is much wider than one person with questionable hair. It’s seminal and systemic and will take much more than an election to change.

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