Its official name is the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. And its recent hearings provide an example of – and are better understood by – basic rhetorical theory.
More than 2,000 years ago, Aristotle classified rhetoric in three types: Forensic rhetoric persuades an audience to adopt the speaker’s interpretation of past actions; deliberative rhetoric to adopt recommended future actions ;and epideictic rhetoric to assign praise or blame.
The Select Committee’s hearings have employed forensic rhetoric. Through opening and closing statements, witness and documentary evidence, the panel would persuade the American public to interpret Donald Trump’s past actions as testimony an illegal conspiracy to remain in power.
In making its case, the Committee has invoked Aristotle’s three types of rhetorical proofs: logic, emotion and credibility. First, the hearings have relied on logic. Evidence has been systematically presented that Trump knew his claims of a stolen election were false. Yet he continued to push his Big Lie to inflame supporters and fraudulently raise $250 million.
Rhetorical theory also allows emotional appeals to an audience’s sense of justice. Thus, rhetoric at the Committee hearings has appealed to a rightful indignation that Donald Trump would use lies and violence in his plan to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
The third rhetorical proof is speaker credibility. The Committee has presented testimony from persons who witness the conspiracy firsthand. Most were conservative Republicans who supported Donald Trump but came to see his Big Lie as false, unconstitutional and illegal.
Epideictic rhetoric has also figured in the Committee hearings. Chairman Bennie Thompson’s opening statement, for example, assigned blame for the Jan. 6th attack:
“Donald Trump was at the center of this conspiracy. And ultimately, Donald Trump – the President of the United States – spurred a mob of domestic enemies of the Constitution to march down the Capitol and subvert American democracy. … Jan. 6th was the culmination of an attempted coup.”
Deliberative rhetoric has been used by speakers to argue for recommended future actions. Such rhetoric at the Committee hearings has mostly been indirect by using “enthymemes.”
“Enthymeme” is a big word but the concept is simple. The speaker states a premise and then the audience fills in the conclusion. For example, a speaker who says “An apple a day” will lead the audience to draw the conclusion, “keeps the doctor away.”
Thus, Committee members have laid out the premise that Donald Trump’s conduct was criminal. In so doing, they would draw the American people toward the logical conclusion: the former president must be held accountable.
Conservative judge J. Michael Luttig, who testedified to Trump’s pressure campaign, was perhaps the most direct in recommending a future course of action. He noted that Donald Trump continues to push his Big Lie and called it “a clear and present danger to American democracy” that must be resisted.
Some commentators have asked whether the hearings will make any difference. The partisan split in public opinion has only hardened on the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election and Jan. 6 attack.
A Bright Line Watch survey taken in November 2021 found that only 1 in 4 Republicans believed Joe Biden was the rightful election winner. A CBS News poll found that 60 percent of Republicans think voter fraud was widespread – a stance endorsed last month by the Texas Republican Party, which calls Biden an illegitimate president. And in a recent YouGov poll, half of GOP respondents said the Jan. 6th attack was justified, while three-quarters repeated the debunked claim that leftist infiltrators spurred the violence to make Trump look bad.
Aristotle lived in the world’s first democracy. He saw how oratory could be used by demagogues to further their personal interests. His theory of rhetoric sought to equip ethical speakers with the oratorical tools to promote civil discourse and the public interest. Two thousand years later, the threat of demagoguery has never been more clear than today.
Mark Ward Sr. is an associate professor of communication at the University of Houston-Victoria and author of “Introduction to Public Speaking: An Inductive Approach.” He may be reached at email@example.com.