39 A Modern Day “Trumpian” Understanding of Kairos
Keywords: Time, Place, Setting, Here, Now
My high school, Loyola Blakefield, in Towson, Maryland, featured their primary experience as a retreat that Juniors took each year. The retreat was called Kairos, a Jesuit tradition of finding yourself in your place and taking the next step on not only your faith journey, but your journey on becoming a better man. This retreat was focused on time and place: what was happening in our lives, how we combatted struggles, how we helped others, etc. were all addressed. The reason this retreat is by far the most powerful time in a Loyola Blakefield graduate’s life is because of the rhetorical definition of Kairos, a key rhetorical concept at the center of everyday life. As I argue in this chapter, Kairos has the power to do both good, like the example of a life changing retreat, and evil, like the insurrection of the United States Capital Building on January 6th, 2021.
January 6th, 2021 was a dark day in the history of the United States of America. Tens of thousands of people descended upon the coveted Capital Building in Washington, D.C., to protest the confirmation of the electoral college votes regarding the election of November 2020. Supporters of former President Donald Trump claimed that Trump would regain the Presidency and that Trump had provoked this insurrection. On December 26, 2020, Trump tweeted, “The ‘Justice’ Department and the FBI have done nothing about the 2020 Presidential Election Voter Fraud, the biggest SCAM in our nation’s history, despite overwhelming evidence. They should be ashamed. History will remember. Never give up. See everyone in D.C. on January 6th” (PolitiFact). Trump provoked this attack by using his supporters as pawns for his agenda, using the tension in the U.S. as a pivotal setting, and said all he needed to say without saying it directly. This idea of “right or proper time; fullness of time; the propitious moment for the performance of an action or the coming into being of a new state” (“Kairos”) is the definition of the rhetorical term, Kairos. A prime example of using Kairos is the idea of using the setting or state of the community to make an argument. Not only did Trump’s supporters flock to the Capital to defend “their guy,” but Trump refused to stop them until Vice President Mike Pence stepped in. I argue that former President Donald Trump capitalized upon the time, setting, and place of the confirmation of Electoral College votes on January 6th, 2021 to invoke an insurrection on the United States Capital Building.
Kairos is an all-encompassing term. University of Louisville scholar Martine Courant Rife gives a great summary of why Kairos is so important. Rife gives modern day examples citing “timeliness” of an argument is key to the definition. Additionally, Rife claims, “Kairos is also the reason you might send a different kind of complaint email to your boss than you would to your mom or a close friend. You may want similar results from all three of these recipients, but depending on who will read it, you may adjust the timing, tone and level of formality within the email itself” (Rife 1). Kairos directly impacts how we speak, work, think, communicate with others and function each day. There are three main features to Kairos: Timing, Setting, and Place.
(Timing) Donald Trump is certainly guilty of using challenging times for Americans to provoke the insurrection and attack on the Capital Building. Trump governed during many crises in American history and in addition to acting slowly to combat COVID-19, Trump attempted to use the defunding of the USPS system to say that an election should not be held. He stuck to this idea until he was escorted out of the Oval Office. It was a valiant effort to remain in power, and the circumstances of a global pandemic, tension in America, and a great divide of political views allowed Trump to plant this idea in his follower’s minds. James L. Kinneavy, co-author of “Kairos in Aristotle’s Rhetoric,” gives a phenomenal example of how this process works. Kinneavy claims, “[Kairos] is the right or opportune time to do something, or right measure in doing something” (Kinneavy et. al 2). Trump used this timing to bring his right-wing supporters to terms with the fact that Trump believed that he would remain in office.
(Setting) Trump’s positionality, setting, and aura were arguably the most important and persuasive tactics used in inciting the riot of January 6th, 2021. Purdue Owl, from Purdue University, claims that, “the term “setting” more succinctly and clearly identifies this concept for contemporary readers” (Purdue Owl). Donald Trump had continuously used his platform, as the President, to indoctrinate his followers and convince them that his word was God’s. This idea is demonstrated through thousands of tweets and seen through his polarizing techniques for running the United States. By solely being the President, and having amassed a large amount of wealth over the years, millions of people all over the country trusted Trump. Specifically, on January 6th, these followers believed that dismantling the Capital was what Trump wanted. These blind worshipers of the former President were convinced that committing felonies in the name of “their leader” was not only going to benefit the United States and save the country, but that these actions were encouraged by Trump. Because of the setting of Donald Trump, and his position in this country for four years, many Americans followed his word blindly and still do so today.
(Place) Connecting the insurrection to place, I take you back to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Recalling my 9th grade English class, “Horatio later guides Hamlet to the place of the ghost’s [of his father] appearance he significantly refers to the time of its appearance in terms of Kairos (“season”), not chronos (“time”)” (Baker 65). Christopher Baker, scholar on both Hamlet and rhetoric, argues that this interaction was commonly referred to with Kairos as place. I argue that this situation was important to the story line of Hamlet and due to that extreme nature, Shakespeare wrote about it with regards to Kairos and not Chronos, referred to commonly as chronological time. This specific place was one of the main focuses of Hamlet in the play, just like the Capital building was for Trump. Trump, by not deploying the national guard, (forcing Mike Pence to do so later in the day) knew darn well that if his supporters showed up in full force, the Capital Police Department would be no match for a crowd of thousands. Unfortunately, he was right. The Capital was overrun with thousands of threats to democracy. Every other building in the U.S. Government in Washington would have been more guarded, but Trump used this place as his breeding ground for his attack on democracy. Place played a major factor in this insurrection, fueled by divisive rhetoric from Trump.
January 6th will forever be remembered as an unfortunate and thought-provoking day for people all over the world, especially in the United States. Some right-leaning individuals might propose that the election actually was stolen, however all of these theories have been disproven time and time again making this claim invalid. This was a free and fair election, just like any others in American history. Throughout this chapter, I argue that Trump incited the insurrection on January 6th, 2021 by using the three elements of Kairos: Time, Place, and Setting. Kairos, originally coined by Aristotle, describes how rhetoricians shape their arguments. Through his use of the timing of the situation involving COVID-19 and the “USPS Scandal,” through the setting of his presidency, and the use of the Capital Building, Trump concocted the “perfect storm” to rattle American Democracy to its core.
Baker, Christopher. “Hamlet and the Kairos.” The Ben Jonson Journal: Literary Contexts in the Age of Elizabeth, James and Charles, vol. 26, no. 1, 2019, pp. 62–77. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2019582783&site=ehost-live.
“kairos, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2020, www.oed.com/view/Entry/102356. Accessed 19 February 2021.
Kinneavy, James L., and Catherine R. Eskin. “Kairos in Aristotle’s Rhetoric.” Written Communication, vol. 17, no. 3, 1 July 2000, pp. 432–444., doi:10.1177/0741088300017003005.
Rife, Martine Courant. “Ethos, Pathos, Logos, Kairos: Using a Rhetorical Heuristic to Mediate Digital-Survey Recruitment Strategies.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, vol. 53, no. 3, 2010, pp. 260–277., doi:10.1109/tpc.2010.2052856.
Purdue Writing Lab. “Aristotle’s Rhetorical Situation // Purdue Writing Lab.” Purdue Writing Lab, owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/academic_writing/rhetorical_situation/aristotles_rhetorical_situation.html
Sherman, Amy. “PolitiFact – A Timeline of What Trump Said before Jan. 6 Capitol Riot.” Politifact, 11 Jan. 2021, www.politifact.com/article/2021/jan/11/timeline-what-trump-said-jan-6-capitol-riot/.