Rhetorically Speaking


There’s been lots of ink spilled evaluating yesterday’s inauguration speech. But most of the “liked it” and “hated it” comments I’ve read have focused mainly on its policy content. Not surprisingly, people who voted for him tended to like what he had to say; those who didn’t, didn’t.

What I haven’t seen as much of is rhetorical analysis of the speech (a notable exception is prominent conservative George Will’s Op-Ed for the Washington Post—spoiler alert: he wasn’t a fan). Rhetoric isn’t everything, of course, but as a strong proponent of classical education I hate to pass up the opportunity to remind readers that the quality of a speech can in fact be evaluated objectively apart from its ideological content. For instance, I always appreciated Barack Obama’s ability to deliver a great speech, even when I was often appalled by the policies he advocated in them.

In an excellent demonstration of how to evaluate the rhetorical value of a political speech, rhetoric expert Max Atkinson points out a six-part “recipe for success” that made JFK’s 1961 inauguration speech one of the best in history:

  1. Contrast (“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”)
  2. Three-part lists (“Where the strong are just, and the weak secure and the peace preserved.”)
  3. Contrasts combined with lists (“Not because the communists are doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right.”)
  4. Alliteration (“Let us go forth to lead the land we love.”)
  5. Imagery (“The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”)
  6. Audience Analysis (e.g., crafting the speech to connect with its intended audiences)

I heartily recommend reading Atkinson’s full piece here.

It’s unlikely that Donald J. Trump will be remembered by posterity among the great orators of American history. Then again, I suppose that’s a big part of his appeal. Those who flocked to his rallies were attracted largely because he’s “not a politician”; a well-crafted and brilliantly-delivered speech wouldn’t jive with that persona.

So, for all his rhetorical faults, perhaps it’s worth acknowledging that he has mastered the art of Atkinson’s sixth “secret of success”. And in today’s America, that may just be the most valuable.

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