The political conversation had been deteriorating long before Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump opened their remarkable slanging match. But in the past few weeks the campaign has hit rock bottom in both style and content.
The nature in human nature is ultimately revealed in a long, grueling campaign season. Personality becomes dominant in a variety of settings, exposing candidates’ character while they try to craft salable policies. In this campaign, the personal has overwhelmed the political. Neither candidate has shown a flair for persuasive rhetoric in the classical sense, which was obvious in the debates.
So the campaign became an unruly mess for both the candidates and everyone trying to make sense of it. Over the past few days — when we imagined we were entitled to a natural clarification of issues — dark innuendo, angry recrimination and mean-spirited nastiness has accelerated into chaos. FBI Director James Comey’s 11th-hour resurrection of the FBI investigation into Clinton’s emails added a touch of the unknown.
Clinton memorizes sentences and speaks deliberately, often tediously without much emotion. Trump is an undisciplined torrential force of words. He hurls short sentences into the air like an angry schoolboy throwing rocks at recess. Most of what he says is reactive, spontaneous, uninhibited and unreserved. Most of what she says is practiced, rehearsed and calculated to manipulate.
Their differing rhetorical styles have developed over a long period of time, and they evoke visual images with strong contrasts, with snark and insult coloring the conversation. Character builds over time from personal and public experience. By now we know that what we see is what we’ll get when the winner assumes the Oval Office.
Clinton entered the arena shortly after law school, ambitious but cautious. In seeking a path to the White House, she knew she would need a man to pave the way. In her gradual and circuitous climb to power she learned to carefully evaluate the changing climate around her, lifting her finger aloft to see which way the wind was blowing, trimming her sails no matter how humiliating some of the trims had to be.
The Donald, playing for big money stakes in real estate, chose a more aggressive and risky route, which served him well on his way toward a television reality show. By the time he tried his hand at politics he was a hurricane, blowing down everything in his path, changing course without notice. If he seemed to get a little too much pleasure in saying, “You’re fired!” on “The Apprentice,” it fed an audience waiting like the Romans to watch the lions eat the Christians. He relishes the political attack in the same way, and the television networks happily oblige him with free exposure. Ratings rule.
Clinton occupies the other end of the publicity spectrum, with a nature uncomfortable in the game of politics or celebrity. As first lady, in charge of reforming the nation’s health care, her stealth approach brought her early public failure. She paid heavy dues while learning the political trade from a husband who played by male rules. Only her closest friends say that she can be spontaneous.
Her public face has become a practiced mask of acceptable expressions.
If the two candidates were landscapes, Clinton would be a cultivated garden with few surprises, staying within formal — if unimaginative — lines of design, even as poisonous weeds ruin her flowerbeds. The Donald would be the windswept dunes on a coastline, a mess of swirling sand blowing through a night of shifting shapes accompanied by the discordant music of an angry wind.
“We think of ours as the age of digital information, and so it is,” writes Mark Thompson, president of the New York Times Company. “But we sometimes forget how much of that information is conveyed in human language that is doing what it has always done in human societies: alerting, frightening, explaining, deceiving, infuriating, inspiring, above all persuading.”
In his book, “Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong With the Language of Politics,” Thompson urges a pause to analyze the transformation of public language in the digital age. It’s too late to change the rhetoric for the campaign of 2016, but somebody will have to deal with the changes wrought by the present-day chaos. “Rhetoric, the study of the theory and practice of public language,” he says, “was once considered the queen of the humanities.” But it has been dethroned by contemporary revolution of the politically correct, ideological polarities and social media.
Looking ahead, a counterrevolution will be necessary to restore even a semblance of sanity. Writers and speakers of the future must persuade not by pressing the various buttons in the audience but by demonstrating merit in argument. Otherwise, chaos reigns.