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The Rhetoric of Trump’s Battle

January 11, 2016

In his 1939 essay “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle,” Kenneth Burke sought to look past the common phrases associated with Adolf Hitler: “evil,” “twisted,” and “monster.” He did not ignore Hitler’s abominable actions but instead proposed that we should “try also to discover what kind of ‘medicine’ this medicine-man has concocted…if we are to forestall the concocting of similar medicine in America” (149). Burke wrote that Hitler found a remedy or cure for what ailed the German people after the economic collapse following World War I. Burke told us to observe the “cards [left] face up on the table” and “inspect [his] magic” (150).

I do not intend to attempt to illustrate a clear comparison between the actions of Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump as doing so would ignore the situation at-hand: Trump’s suasory. Instead, I aim to take a look at Trump’s “cards” in an effort to understand why and how Donald Trump has become popular within right-wing politics. Doing so may allow us to better understand Trump’s rising popularity as a result of his manipulating of bodies: human bodies, bodies of power, and the body politic. Burke sets up his essay in four sections. I have set up this post using the same sections in an effort, not to simply repeat Burke’s writings, but to illustrate Trump’s successful attempts to persuade voters and potential opportunities for us to critique his dangerous approaches to solving the problems we face.


INBORN DIGNITY: He wears a cap that reads “Let’s Make America Great Again.” It’s emblazoned on his social media outlets and throughout his campaign materials. He even (quite literally) shouts it at his campaign rallies. By constructing and reconstructing this narrative of American exceptionalism, Donald Trump is attempting to simultaneously produce and reproduce an “inborn superiority” (173) through his attempt to – within specified parameters – define what it means to be American.

We see Trump define these parameters practically at each of his campaign stops, but we especially can witness this defining by examining his rhetoric in regards to human bodies. He has frequently shared his disgust of the Black Lives Matter movement; he has called for a ban on all Muslim immigrants to the United States; he has proudly insulted Mexican immigrants, calling them rapists and criminals. On one occasion, he mocked a journalist with a physical disability after the journalist attempted to criticize Trump’s rhetoric.

Many times, he has spewed sexist language through social media and at campaign stops. By boldly insulting these groups of individuals, Trump is not only performing the act of Othering (see term explanation below) but he is also attempting to define very specific parameters for what it means to be a productive American citizen: white, male, and without physical impairment. In other words, Trump views these “Others” as intrinsically unexceptional, un-American, and (one could claim) non-human.

PROJECTION DEVICE: One may agree that Donald Trump performs the actions I’ve attempted to outline above, but may wonder why this type of political discourse is popular. I am tempted to blame the extreme factions of conservatives within the United States but this would fail to attempt an explicit explanation of why Trump’s actions have resonated with so many Americans.

Through these types of comments and acts of social Othering, the GOP front-runner is consciously and constantly constructing disidentifications that fuel stereotyping, prejudice, and fear among those who listen and follow him. He not only screams and shares these bold disidentifications with his followers but he also transforms them into the scapegoat.

He has identified problems within America and (according to him) the way to fix those problems is by regulating how and where human bodies move: deporting undocumented citizens, banning Muslim immigrants, and opposing Syrian refugees entering the U.S. to name several examples. These solutions resonate with voters who share his views and they see Trump as an embodiment of their beliefs. These disidentifications – concocted by Mr. Trump – begin to spread, normalize, and transform into acts in the form of electoral participation (at best) and acts of violence (at worst). These acts of violence (hate crimes in particular, like the Boston hate crime in August 2015) have been noted recently and the persons responsible for these crimes were cited as having been “inspired” by Trump’s rhetoric. In other words, Trump has created a scapegoat (or scapegoats) in order to present them as causes of particular problems within the United States.

SYMBOLIC REBIRTH: Burke writes on Hitler’s actions by saying “the projective device of the scapegoat, coupled with the Hiterite doctrine of inborn racial superiority, provides its followers with a ‘positive’ view of life (174). To that end, Trump’s version of the scapegoat(s) not only constructs causes of problems but through use of disidentification Trump has convinced his supporters that the scapegoats are not like them and therefore have no effect on their lives. They can continue toward a collective goal defined by Mr. Trump himself despite the Others.

COMMERCIAL USE: We have seen Donald Trump advocate for the banning of Muslim immigrants after the Paris terrorist attack and he has also constantly shared his disgust toward Mexican immigrants by promoting their “criminal” intent. By relating these comments with his on the Black Lives Matter movement and on women, it’s safe to say that Trump doesn’t view terrorism and violence as attacks upon American lives and human bodies but instead as an attack on American capitalism and as a threat to bodies of production.

He is viewing human relations as a series of profit/loss equations. He is trying to manage bodies of people much like a business, by viewing non-white/non-male bodies as liabilities. We see this clearly within his speeches and on his social media outlets. Even many of his campaign speeches – including his campaign announcement itself – are held inside of his company’s buildings. Trump 2 Doing so is an act that suggests his business skills give him a sense of diplomatic experience, thus somehow qualifying him to be president. He views the Presidency as a pedestal from which to promote his brand of American exceptionalism, to universalize a particular set of human relations (one based on profit/loss schematics), and to regulate the global economy as he sees fit.

Donald Trump is viewed as a joke by a lot of people but his plans and his views are hardly funny. In order to effectively denounce and counteract his motives and harsh rhetoric, we must look past the name-calling and attempt to sparse out the reasons why his candidacy has gained momentum. This is how we can effectively “trump hate.” While I’m not suggesting a direct comparison between the Nazi leader and the GOP presidential candidate, we must not overlook the particularities within Donald Trump’s suasive tactics. And, while he may not win the presidential election, it is still important for us – when possible – to create openings in discourse that allow us to effectively and diligently critique his dangerous rhetoric.

If you want to know more:

  • “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle” by Kenneth Burke, found in The Philosophy of Literary From, 1941
  • Rhetorical Listening by Krysta Ratcliffe expounds upon the term “disidentification.”
  • Social othering: here is a good link to have an overview of the term.

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