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Trump: King of the Ad Hominem

March 14, 2016

On March 3rd, Mitt Romney made an impassioned speech at the University of Utah. What’s interesting about the speech was its rhetorical purpose: Don’t Vote For Trump.

It’s something we don’t see too often. Most public figures give speeches for the purpose of endorsing a particular candidate, so it was interesting to see the opposite: someone coming out specifically to oppose a particular candidate. Though Romney mentions several other GOP hopefuls, he never specifically endorses one in particular—more recently he’s joined the Kasich campaign—but simply states that he would choose any of them over Trump. He also sticks to foreign and domestic policy issues for the most part, though he attacks Trump’s reputation as a businessman (“phony”) and potential leader (“flimsy”).

And this, too, makes his speech unique, in that it was largely free of what has become the hallmark of this campaign season: ad hominem attacks.

The ad hominem is typically described as an attack against the person, or more specifically their character, personality, or physical appearance. Most people consider this a rhetorical fallacy: a weak argument based upon immateriality. And yet, Mr. Trump is using them. Successfully.

So far, Trump seems to have managed to use ad hominem attacks against each of his opponents—both within and beyond his party—at least once and sometime more. He made sexist remarks about Hillary Clinton. Bernie Sanders is a “socialist whack job,” Ted Cruz is “maniac,” and Ben Carson is “pathological.” He has publicly insulted Marco Rubio for being sweaty at least eight times. It’s gotten to the point that the New York Times has begun to track Trump’s Twitter insults: the list contains 202 ad hominem examples and counting.

And yet, to date Trump has won 14 of 23 primaries, and looks to carry a few more before the month is out. So Trump’s personal, agonistic attacks have not stopped him from winning primaries. In fact, this tactic may be pushing voters to reach the conclusions that Trump so eagerly and gleefully suggests.

The bad news is that Trump’s success with the ad hominem seems to be spreading the tactic to other candidates. Rubio recently insulted Trump for having a spray tan and small hands, the latter apparently coming from an argument that goes back quite a way, all of which led to what is perhaps the most memorable news article title in recent memory: “Donald Trump Defends Size of his Penis.”

If you are anything like me, you may be shaking your head and thinking, what is our country coming to? But Christopher M. Johnson suggests, in his study of the ad hominem, that “given our intellectual limitations and the pressures we are faced with to make decisions in the absence of final or compelling evidence, it can sometimes be appropriate to appeal to character as a means of settling contention.” Though he would almost certainly disagree that Trump is using the tactic properly, it’s interesting to consider the implications of his work.

If the news media replays Trump’s antics, ad nauseam, then time is leeched away from covering the real issues under debate. For most news organizations, Trump = Ratings, which means that crucial issues like economic and foreign policy take a back seat to name calling and demagoguery. And without compelling evidence, or even a clear, viable picture of the basic issues, voters are victim to the pressures and intellectual limitations of their personal situations.

The bad news is, for uninformed voters, Mr. Trump waits with open arms.

Trump 2

If you want to know more:

  • There is some dispute over ad hominem ad personam. As Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca have it in The New Rhetoric, ad hominem refers to arguments “which the speaker knows would be without weight for the universal audience, as he conceives it” while ad personam refers to “a personal attack on the opponent and which aims essentially at disqualifying him” (111). Most authorities, however, disagree, and ad personam is seldom used in modern rhetorical theory.
  • Johnson’s article “Reconsidering Ad Hominem” appears in the journal Philosophy (84.2, pp. 251-266), and makes some interesting arguments about the situations in which the uses of ad hominem arguments may be justified.
  • John Oliver puts the ad hominem to work against Trump in a funny segment in which he reveals that Trump’s family name is Drumpf and that he’s self-conscious about his small hands, suggesting the master of ad hominem may also be the most susceptible to the tactic.
  • Patricia Roberts-Miller’s article “Democracy, Demagoguery, and Critical Rhetoric” (Rhetoric and Public Affairs 3, pp. 459-476) has an interesting discussion of demagoguery, contextual rhetoric, and the effectiveness of mingling the two which might be easily applied to Trump and his 2016 campaign, as we’ve discussed before.


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