Rhetorical revolution: from Cicero to Trump

This is an article by Jack Milford.
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Jack Milford

In Rome in 64BC, Marcus Cicero, an underdog from outside the noble families, ran for the high office of consul.

His brother Quintus created a document titled Commentariolum Petitionis, outlining how Marcus should communicate with relevant stakeholders and wage his campaign.

Due to his unique rhetorical ability and the widespread distrust of establishment candidates, Cicero was elected.

Political scientist Bruce Bimber describes various communication ‘revolutions’ in the US.

The first – the creation of the postal system in 1820, facilitated a mass distribution of texts, such as newspapers, meaning small towns in Utah and Wyoming were no longer trapped in the echo chamber of the local press, whilst New Yorkers no longer had to rely on Chinese whispers to know what was going down in California.

Breaking the Overton window

As Bimber details in his superb book, Information & American Democracy, multiple communication revolutions have since taken place…but is the rhetorical revolution the latest? The concept of the ‘Overton window’ refers to the feasible boundaries of rhetoric and realistic policy.

Trump, largely thanks the possibilities of new media, has effectively shattered the window many of us had become accustomed to prior to his candidacy.

In Luc Besson’s 2014 film ‘Lucy’, the title character consumes large quantities of a super-drug that allows her to use 100% of her brain’s cerebral capacity, as opposed to the standard 10%. By 40% capacity, Lucy is more efficient and self-aware because every cell in her body can communicate directly with any other.

In many ways, the creation of the internet and social media are similar to the super-drug, if we imagine that the political arena is a living organism and each participating citizen is a cell. In other words, the internet and social media have allowed ‘cells’ to communicate and organise without spatial or institutional restrictions.

Trump and those around him have made no secret of the fact they use social media to circumvent journalistic filters.

Bypassing the media

Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway told MSNBC’s Willie Geist “social media platforms are a very powerful way for him to communicate and connect directly with people”; adviser Seb Gorka claims “the mainstream media no longer gets to monopolise the news and we’re going to go straight to the audiences”, whilst Press Secretary Sean Spicer added “he will take his message directly to the American people, where his focus will always be”.

Consistent with this, Trump has not only sidestepped traditional media in favour of new media but has invited alternative media, such as Breitbart, into the White House. If Trump’s goal is to evaporate trust in certain traditional media, leaving a door ajar for his preferred outlets, such as Fox, and allowing him to govern autocratically…it is slowly working.

According to Gallup polling, the percentage of Americans who trust traditional media eroded from 44% in 2004, to 40% in 2015 – then plunged to 32% in 2016.

Gallup explain this is largely down to a slide in trust from Republican voters “as a result of Trump’s sharp criticisms of the press”. Traditional media will never relent on politicians if they believe there is a story of public interest, but if Trump can convince enough Americans those outlets are indeed “fake news”, the authoritative muscle of the media could wane.

Rhetoric and political discourse

Trump’s rhetoric is designed to discredit those who disagree with him and shift the balance of trust towards himself and favourable sources – among certain demographics, he already appears to have a thumb on the scales.

Political discourse isn’t limited by demand, it’s limited by supply. The American public, for better or worse, were hungry for more than what was on the menu. Trump was doing what many of his supporters wanted to see him do: to ruffle establishment feathers. In The Art of the Deal, he discusses sales tactics; “you can create excitement…get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole…”

During the campaign, Trump spoke of a plan to cease Muslim immigration to the US and convince the Mexican government to pay for a border wall – of course, neither have materialised. For many Trump supporters, it was rambunctious hyperbole that got their attention; if that hyperbole earned their vote, and if it was indeed whimsical, Trump should refer to his ominous next line in The Art of the Deal:

“…but if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on”.

Trump’s metamorphosis from New York property mogul to presidential candidate took many by surprise. Nevertheless, the ex-Apprentice host is now the president of the United States and has the power to move armies and economic markets with his words.

It is impossible to accurately predict whether Trump’s influence on political communication will be remembered as pernicious or beneficial; whether he himself will be remembered as a luminary or a flash in the pan and whether the whole story will be told as a sordid tale or necessary turbulence to revamp a broken system.

As part of his tirade against political correctness, swamp-monsters and the Washington elite, Trump has tried to force key institutions out of the political conversation. Whilst this may loosely align with modern trends across Europe, it is certainly new ground for the United States. Trump promised to put ‘America first’ – if nothing else, he is providing American firsts.

Jack Milford is graduating in Communication and Public Relations from Northumbria University


BBC Newsnight. (2017). Donald Trump aide Sebastian Gorka accuses BBC of ‘fake news’- BBC Newsnight. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFK3tbkNX-A [Accessed 2 Apr. 2017].

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Cicero, Q. and Freeman, P. (2012). How to win an election. 1st ed. Princeton [N.J.]: Princeton University Press.

Easley, J. (2017). Breitbart’s influence grows inside White House. [online] TheHill. Available at: http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/315990-breitbarts-influence-grows-inside-white-house [Accessed 2 Mar. 2017].

Farand, C. (2017). White House press secretary hints that Donald Trump could bypass the media entirely. [online] The Independent. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/press-secretary-sean-spicer-donald-trump-us-president-media-warning-a7539856.html [Accessed 18 Mar. 2017].

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Lou, S. (2017). Kellyanne Conway on President-elect Trump’s tweeting: ‘He rarely draws first blood’. [online] Today.com. Available at: http://www.today.com/news/kellyanne-conway-addresses-donald-trump-s-twitter-use-sunday-today-t107224 [Accessed 16 Mar. 2017].

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