A Rhetorical Analysis of “Make America Great Again”
Rhetoric is an ancient art that has been utilized in many times and in many ways. Whether it is a speech in the public places of Athens or a tract run off of the Gutenberg press, the desire to convince and convert an audience has proven to be virtually ubiquitous. In chapter four of his book, Richard Toye explores the impact of rhetoric on a technologically advanced and globalized society and the impact of this sort of society on rhetoric itself. In commenting on the role of rhetoric in 20th century politics and the “rhetorical presidency” (“The ‘rhetorical presidency’ and the ‘anti-intellectual presidency’”), Toye’s work proves helpful in illuminating the slogans of the 2016 election cycle, specifically Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” (Trump) and its pathetic appeal to people lamenting the loss of cultural dominance.
In chapter four, Toye addresses the complex issue of multiple audiences and the role that both electronic media and globalization have played in exasperating this problem. Although this issue has existed since words have been put to paper, Toye notes how the culture and events of the 20th century put this rhetorical nuance into the spotlight. He points out that the role of rhetoric is often underestimated in the history of war, and that World War II, whether in reference to Churchill, Stalin, or Hitler, was a “global media war … fought alongside the military campaigns” (“Case study: the rhetorical history of World War II”). The 20th century also saw a shift to “the rhetorical presidency” (“The ‘rhetorical presidency’ and the ‘anti-intellectual presidency’”) and changes in American politics and political institutions.
Donald Trump’s rise to prominence in this year’s presidential campaign struck many people as odd and outlandish. However, some actually viewed this sort of political upheaval as inevitable. Whether you place the responsibility at the feet of the Republican Party (Pierce) or the American political process as a whole (Ignatius), the ascension of a character like Trump seemed destined. 21st century America is not 20th century America; it is not 19th century America either. To those supporting a Donald Trump bid for the Oval Office, the shift in American culture is reason to be alarmed. The difference between progress and regress is often in the eye of the beholder, and Donald Trump’s rise to political prominence makes explicit how many feel in regards to the trajectory of this “once great” nation. More telling than Trump’s popularity is the means by which he achieved the premier position in the Republican Party. Trump’s popularity is due to his use of rhetoric, and his use of rhetoric says as much about his audience as it does about him.
“Make America Great Again” serves as a perfect microcosm of Trump’s rhetoric and reveals much about the assumptions inherent in many who have been wooed by the Republican nominee for president. In order to make something great again, there has to have been a time when it was great, a time that it became not great, and a way to restore this item to its previous state of greatness. So, to “Make America Great Again” assumes that, at some point, America has moved from a state of greatness to a state of non-greatness—that America has endured a significant regress.
Not only does the slogan assume a national regress, it assumes that there is someone or something that can reverse the denigration and restore America to its condition of excellence. Grammatically, as an imperative with an understood you, the slogan implies that the hearer, the American, should be and will be the one making America a great nation once again. While this is grammatically the case, what is assumed by many and made explicit in longer pieces of Trumpian rhetoric is that Trump himself will be the one making America great again: “I’m going to make our country rich again. I am going to turn our bad trade agreements into great ones…I am going to bring our jobs back to Ohio and to America…I am your voice” (Trump).
These assumptions reveal much about Trump’s audience. “Make America Great Again” assumes national regress, a country where the majority of people’s day-to-day lives are significantly less “great” than they once were. This is not the experience of many. In fact, the experience of those not in power on a national level is significantly better than it has been previously with the abolition of slaves, the right of women to vote, and the federal protection of the LBGT community serving as a few, significant examples. Great hardships still exist for minorities of all sorts, but most will agree that their voices are more respected and responded to than in generations past, and this is a sign of progress. However, when more people are allowed on the stage, there are inevitably less microphones to go around. Minorities are altering policies. Minorities are influencing elections. Minorities are affecting change and wrenching control of a nation out of the hands of the majority. For the minority, this is progress. For the majority, this is regress of the greatest sort. “Make America Great Again” is not far away from “Give me back my country” in what it is trying to convey.
For these reasons, it is perfectly appropriate that in his rhetoric Trump appeals primarily, if not exclusively, to pathos. In relation to his fitness to serve as the chief executive of a nation, Trump has no ethos upon which to stand. Trump’s experience has been limited to running corporations not nations, and the two are undeniably different. The ethical basis of why Donald Trump is the man to “Make America Great Again” is because he is not “them,” and that “they” are the ones who have made America not-great. Beyond that, his credibility is weak, and he is left to rely on the credulity of a large portion of his audience.
Trump also rarely, if ever, appeals to logos. When questioned about the viability of his grandiose plans or the manner in which he will accomplish them, his universal response is some variation of “Believe me…” (Viser). The “Make America Great Again” slogan itself is devoid of logos. It is a purely pathetic appeal. “Make America Great Again” plays on fear, pride, and prejudice. It is an appeal to the primitive, an appeal to the gut. This sort of rhetoric is as effective as it is disconcerting. While not the exclusive property of tyrants and despots, this sort of pathos-exclusive rhetoric is prime for abuse and leaves little room the discerning engagement of the mind.
The 2016 election cycle is as good an example as any of the role of rhetoric in U.S. presidential politics. “Make America Great Again” is a perfect campaign slogan. It is catchy. It is clear. It is concise. Distilled to its essence, it says this: America was pristine; some people broke it; and now it is time to fix it. Trump’s rhetorical effectiveness is a result of a series of assumptions in the minds of his audience. The rhetorical power of “Make America Great Again” is contained in its simultaneous appeal to pathos and disregard of ethos and logos. This rhetoric engages the audience from the neck down, and it is quite effective in doing so. It does not allow room for examination and contemplation, and instead it demands that the hearer simply react—react out of fear, prejudice, and pride. This sort of rhetoric is effective in winning support but powerless to make anything “great.”
Ignatius, David. “How America’s political decay has fueled Trump’s rise.” Washington Post.com.10 March 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-rise-of-trump-brought-to-you-by-the-decay-of-americas-institutions/2016/03/10/ca6438b4-e6f2-11e5-b0fd-073d5930a7b7_story.html. Accessed 10 Sept. 2016.
Pierce, Charles P. “Trump's Campaign-and His Victory-Were Inevitable.” Esquire, 11 Aug. 2016, http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/politics/news/a46833/trump-nomination-convention-inevitable. Accessed 9 Sept. 2016.
Toye, Richard. Rhetoric: a Very Short Introduction. Epub Ed., Oxford University Press, 2013.
Trump, Donald. “2016 RNC Acceptance Speech.” 2016 Republican National Convention, Republican Party, 21 June 2016, Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, Ohio. Keynote Address.
Viser, Matt. “Donald Trump relies on a simple phrase: ‘Believe me.’” Boston Globe.com. 24 May 2016, www.bostonglobe.com/news/politics/2016/05/24/donald-trump-relies-heavily-simple-phrase-believe/0pyVI36H70AOHgXzuP1P5H/story.html. Accessed 9 Sept. 2016.