Political rhetoric in the age of Trump

Summary: James Bowman reads the New York Times to better understand the white-hot rhetoric that slowly poisons America’s politics. The Times is a mirror to minds of the left half of America. In it we can see some of our problems — and solutions.


Political rhetoric in the age of Trump.

By James Bowman. From his website, 25 October 2015.
Reposted with his generous permission.

Sunday’s New York Times ran a piece by Michael D. Shear headed: “Political Guardrails Gone, a President’s Somber Duty Skids Into Spectacle.” It was a typical Times hit piece against President Trump of the kind the paper now runs multiple times every day, but for a brief moment it tried to raise its eyes above the gutter to take in a larger view of our political culture.

In this acid political climate, “argument turns too easily into animosity,” former President George W. Bush observed on Thursday, in a speech that seemed tailor- made for the week in which he delivered it. “Disagreement escalates into dehumanization.”

In other words, both the former President and Mr Shear see the difference between argument and animosity and disagreement and dehumanization as one of degree, as if the latter were simply an exaggerated version of the former. But this is not true. Both are different kinds of things: disagreement is regarded as hopeless and so is replaced by dehumanization; argument is pointless and so is rejected in favor of animosity — which itself seems far too mild a word to describe the white-hot hatred we see on both sides and, frequently, in the Times itself.

The Shear article is a good example, offering no shred of reasoned argument but only a dreary rehearsal (as if we hadn’t heard this stuff every day for the previous week) of what it sees as Mr Trump’s manifold sins and wickednesses with barely a slap on the wrist for his various antagonists. He even notes about one of them, Congresswoman Frederica S. “Wacky” Wilson, that “for more than 24 hours, Ms. Wilson was seemingly everywhere, even joking at one point that ‘I’ll have to tell my kids that I’m a rock star now’” — without so much as a hint of recognition that her new media celebrity might have had something to do with her continuing attacks on Mr Trump.

All the “animosity,” in other words, is automatically assumed to come from the President’s uncontrollable malevolence and to proceed from his constant and repeated failure to live up to those gentlemanly standards that the media in general and the Times in particular are accustomed to setting for presidential behavior. Somehow it seems, almost a year after he was elected, the Times still has failed to grasp that neither he nor most of the millions who voted for him have any interest or belief in what the Times and other media elites continue to regard as appropriate in a president.

Why do you suppose they cling so hard to this out-dated assumption of gentlemanliness in our politicians, and especially the President? I think it must be because, without it, they would be unable to make a scandal out of every deviation from it, not reflecting as they do so that scandal-mongering is hardly what you could call gentlemanly either. But of course the scandal output equally depends on their turning a blind eye to their own faults and especially their own hyper-partisanship, which is at least as rabid as the President’s own. Mr Trump, we are beginning to see, is only the mirror in which the media see themselves — and they really don’t like what they see.

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There is always a remnant.

There remains at least one reporter at the Times who remembers what it was like when the paper expected its reporters to abide by the same gentlemanly standards as those they report on. In the same day’s paper, David Gelles writes about the philanthropic efforts of the new tech billionaires, reminding us along the way that this isn’t the first time philanthropy has been politicized.

A century ago, Julius Rosenwald, a part owner of Sears Roebuck & Company, emerged as a champion of African Americans. Mr. Rosenwald, a Jewish businessman from Chicago, befriended the black educator Booker T. Washington and began funding the construction of schools for African Americans across the Jim Crow South. When the Ku Klux Klan burned down his schools, he simply rebuilt them. In doing so, Mr. Rosenwald made enemies. “Julius Rosenwald was the first social justice philanthropist,” said Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. “He upset all of the powers in the South.” That, in Mr. Walker’s estimation, was a good thing.

I wonder for whose benefit the parenthesis in that last sentence is intended. “In Mr Walker’s estimation”? In just about everybody else’s estimation as well — very much including (I’m just guessing here) David Gelles. Yet he still has the old-fashioned reporter’s tic of putting himself at arm’s length from even the most unexceptionable opinion, lest the suspicious reader should be inclined to suspect the slightest falling away from perfect objectivity.

And he does this still, even though the rest of the paper, virtually without exception, has thrown the pretence of impartiality, objectivity, non-partisanship and even basic fairness to the four winds out of sheer exasperation with Donald J. Trump. Now there’s a journalistic hero for you!



The sad aspect of the Times’ behavior is its failure. Trump is one of America’s worst presidents by most measures — although not (yet) as bad as James Buchanan’s unique awfulness. Yet look at Gallup’s daily poll of Trump’s approval ratings. He has withstood one of the most intensive propaganda barrages in US history, second only to the historic periods of polarization during the Civil War and Great Depression. Yet his support remains flat, in a range from roughly 34% to 40% since the end of May.

Gallup - Trump approval poll - 25 Oct 2017

Repetition of the same personal attacks please the Democratic Party’s faithful, and little else. Worse, they tend to mask the mundane but serious damage being done as Team Trump rolls back regulations protecting our health and welfare (for more profits!).

James Bowman

About James Bowman

Bowman is a Resident Scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

He has worked as a freelance journalist, serving as American editor of the Times Literary Supplement of London from 1991 to 2002, as movie critic of The American Spectator since 1990 and as media critic of The New Criterion since 1993. He has also been a weekly movie reviewer for The New York Sun since the newspaper’s re-foundation in 2002. He has also contributed to a wide range of other major papers.

Mr. Bowman is perhaps best known for his book, Honor: A History, and “The Lost Sense of Honor” in The Public Interest.

See his collected articles at his website, including his film reviews going back to 1994.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about the Trump years in America, about ways to reform America’s politics, and especially these…

  1. Polarization and hot rhetoric conceal two similar political parties. Will we ever notice?
  2. Our fears are unwarranted. America is in fact well-governed,
  3. The good news: America’s politics are neither polarized nor dysfunctional. That’s also the bad news.
  4. The secret reason for America’s white-hot political rhetoric.
Honor: A History
Avilable at Amazon.

About James Bowman’s great book.

From the publisher…

“The importance of honor is present in the earliest records of civilization. Today, while it may still be an essential concept in Islamic cultures, in the West, honor has been disparaged and dismissed as obsolete.

“In this lively and authoritative book, James Bowman traces the curious and fascinating history of this ideal, from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment and to the killing fields of World War I and the despair of Vietnam. Bowman reminds us that the fate of honor and the fate of morality and even manners are deeply interrelated.”

4 thoughts on “Political rhetoric in the age of Trump”

  1. I found this a very interesting, and also highly amusing, take on Trump’s speaking style, mannerisms and lowering the bar of the US Presidential office:

  2. Pingback: Links 10/26/17 - Daily Economic Buzz

  3. The Man Who Laughs

    A lesser light asked the Zen Master “Master, the Buddha left us the scrolls.But is all wisdom contained in the scrolls?”

    The Zen Master then pointed at the Moon, and said “Here is the Moon. I have shown you the Moon. The Master is pointing at the Moon. Why, then, are you staring at the Master’s finger?”

    Trump is not the problem. He is the finger pointing at the problem. It may be said that Trump has given the Establishment the finger, or perhaps that he is mooning the Establishment. But the problem is not Trump, the problem is the Establishment, which is hollowed out.

    There’s a market for this stuff, so someone supplies it. Sort of like crack. It won’t bring down Trump, but it’s what they know how to do. The Democrats pump up their base instead of broadening their coalition. That won’t win them back the White House, but it’s what they know how to do.

    1. The Man,

      “the problem is the Establishment, which is hollowed out.”

      We can only guess at things on this scale. But I think the establishment is doing just fine, serving the interests of America’s stakeholders.

      It is the natural result of a citizenry both apathetic and passive. Our response shows the problem: we blame everyone but ourselves. Until we accept responsibility for America, reform will remain impossible.

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