37 Epideictic Rhetoric and Trumpian Ceremony
I am dedicating this to the nineteen new first years in my fraternity who are just now blazing their paths. I want them to see the value in studying their topics for the sake of passion and not career interest like so many do. I find passion in the intermixing of politics and communication to inspire me to no end, and I want them to feel the same in whatever they study.
Keywords: Ceremony, Emotions, Connection, Passion, Identity
Ceremony. The flourish that makes the dull feel poignant. The rhetorical flame that warms or scalds those upon which it touches. Ceremony and its effect on how we deliver rhetoric are critical pieces of any persuasive dialogue. Without it, the content contained within is merely a set of sanitized words projected at an audience. One of the most salient examples of ceremony’s authority comes from the political realm, where pomp and circumstance can be just as powerful as ideas (Lorino, 2018; Sheard, 1996). Rhetorical power finds its use in a stylistic emphasis in politics. Epideictic Rhetoric (also called ceremonial rhetoric) is a form of speech that emphasizes style and emotion. In the past five years, many saw one of the most controversial figures in politics today, Donald Trump, as a virtuoso of pomp and circumstance. He holds huge rallies, lives in gold-covered palaces, and portrays himself as an overconfident master of the world. This obsession with the gaudy and outrageous also finds root in his unique rhetorical style. However, because Trump’s rhetoric is gaudy and bombastic, it means that, while Trump may appreciate the trappings of ceremonial settings, his rhetoric falls short of the expectations for Epideictic Rhetoric set out by Aristotle. This departure from expectation opens him up to criticism the former President would have otherwise avoided.
Epideictic Rhetoric is the oft-overlooked and challenging codification of the philosopher Aristotle. In his book, On Rhetoric, he describes it as “the ceremonial oratory of display, [which] either praises or censures somebody,” in specific events designed to commemorate or celebrate, such as funerals, weddings, and memorials (Aristotle, 350 C.E.). Politics relies on a mass of constituents and their opinions of candidates. It should be little surprise then that a rhetorical device centered around discussing a people’s qualities in a formalized and important gathering can influence politics so much.
Love him or hate him, Donald Trump is a public figure rife with communicative possibility. President Trump’s rhetoric is game-changing in American politics, from his relentless ad hominem attacks to his more than 30,000 false statements in just four short years. He portrays himself as a loose cannon, not tied down to establishment expectations or “beltway” political jargon, but instead a man who speaks for the people (Burns, 2016). The manifestation of this image often comes in the form of his rejection of norms both within politics and rhetoric. One salient example of this could be his casual dismissal of the now-infamous quote in which the President referred to using his power to let him grab women by their genitals. In response to outrage, Trump merely referred to the statement as acceptable “locker room talk” and said that his detractors were politically motivated in their disgust (Fahrenthold, 2016). This is a statement that would have ruined most if not all other candidates, but for Trump, the effect was not even strong enough to prevent his election. This departure from expectations is not limited to his Teflon approval numbers, but also in the way he approaches Epideictic rhetorical situations.
Aristotle argues that Epideictic Rhetoric should be used in a limited scope of situations. Its application is critical at those occasions to properly recognize the solemnity, significance, or jubilation of the event or person being celebrated. This form of rhetoric indeed is to be more stylistic and emotional than other forms, but that flourish is still contained by the need for adequate recognition for the event or person, and not for the speaker. However, Trump’s rhetoric lacks the kind of nuance and pliability needed to adapt to diverse situations. Whether he is speaking at a rally of adoring supporters or at a wedding he crashed, his style is consistent.
Even at the most basic and unconnected moments, Trump cannot help but improperly use speech to his own detriment. Since leaving the White House in 2021, Trump has sequestered himself in his Mar-A-Lago resort, attempting to maintain relevance in the Republican party and a nation that are still grappling with his significant political authority over Republicans. While this struggle occurs, however, Trump uses his newly-found free time to crash some of the many weddings, engagement parties, and even memorials that occur at his resort.
In March of 2021, Trump wandered into a lavish wedding and, after being given a microphone to provide brief remarks, he did compliment the bride and groom for being a “great and beautiful couple.” However, this brief praise only occurred at the end of a two-minute diatribe regarding China, Iran, and the 2020 election (Pengelly, 2021). Trump took one of the specific examples of Epideictic Rhetoric, a ceremony, and rather than speaking on the focus of the wedding, he spoke to the crowd about his anger regarding a variety of unrelated political topics. Pointing at an unseen figure in the crowd, Trump declared “you saw what happened a few days ago, was terrible, and uh, the border is not good, the border is the worst anybody’s ever seen it, and what you see now, multiply it times 10” (Ibid). This claim was just one of the political statements made as Trump basked in the applause and gasps from unexpecting guests. Trump’s love of ceremony and trappings drew him to the event, however, his rhetoric failed to follow the expectations laid out for such a ceremony. Alongside this deviation came ire at what critics called an “incomprehensible rant” that quickly took precedence over the purpose of the event: the wedding (Levin, 2021). Trump’s decision to bring his political views into the wedding opened him up to mockery and condemnation over his “insensitivity” to those being celebrated, something that would not have happened had he not allowed these topics to pepper his toast. Trump entered a flashy ceremony and derailed expected rhetoric with his own
brand of unorthodox political musings. Again, setting aside agreement or disagreement with the positions set, the content and delivery did not properly follow the expectations set out by Aristotle for such events, and Trump faced ire for his actions.
However, it is not just at weddings at his resort where Trump deviated from expectations and applied his own rhetorical brand to ceremonial settings. On the eve of Independence Day in 2020, President Trump stood in front of the faces of four of America’s greatest leaders at Mount Rushmore, and rather than commemorating the sacrifices and losses it took to create the United States, used the ceremony for condemnation. With newly re-allowed fireworks displays, American flag banners, and thousands of supporters garbed in Trump and American paraphernalia, this was fully on-brand with Trump’s love of pomp and circumstance in his speeches. As to content, rather than extolling the virtues of what Independence Day means, Trump condemned the George Floyd protests and their effects, declaring “our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children” (Subramanian, 2020). He used the ceremony as a vehicle for his political aims, and did so in a way that shifted the focus away from the memorialization of America’s founders and instead to a topic appealing to him. There was censure in this ceremonial speech, usually a hallmark of Epideictic Rhetoric. However, the censure was not focused upon the subjects of the ceremony, America’s founders, but rather on the focus of Trump’s own ire, people who were in no way tied to the ceremony. For the President, it was the “left-wing cultural revolution [that] is designed to overthrow the American revolution,” who were deserving of rebuke in this speech (Ibid). Trump saw an opportunity to repeat his success in levying the kind of rhetorical violations that jar the political world and its norms that elevated him to the Presidency in the first place. While his criticism of social justice movements may have followed
his unique tradition and was surrounded by ceremony trappings, his speech could not be defined as ceremonial rhetoric due to its violations of Epideictic Rhetoric. This departure not only took away from the purpose of the ceremony, but also exposed Trump to criticism and ire from groups ranging from veterans to Native Americans that he would have otherwise avoided (Phelps & Thomas, 2020). Had Trump resolved to use the rules of Epideictic Rhetoric in this ceremony, such critics would either not have been instigated, or would have lacked the content with which to attack the President.
It is not as if Trump is incapable of generating examples of Epideictic Rhetoric. In the case of the 2020 funeral for his brother, Robert Trump, Donald Trump kept the ceremony private and, despite the grandeur of hosting the ceremony at the White House, refrained from any of the traditional bombastic political statements that would otherwise dot his speech. Instead, Donald Trump abandoned political talk or even particularly self-involved topics and focused on commemorating his brother. In remarks given to the press afterward, the President said that he held the funeral in the White House because “I think he’d be greatly honored. He loves our country. He loved our country so much. He was so proud of what we were doing and what we are doing for our country” (Bennett, 2020). Though the setting was somewhat ostentatious, which is on-brand for Donald Trump, the language he used is a perfect example of the kind of praise expected by Aristotle in Epideictic Rhetoric. The result was that, while there was a great deal of media coverage, very little of it was negative. Instead, the President garnered respect for his actions and words, even from his traditional detractors (Google, 2021). Trump has the capability to follow these guidelines. However, in order to achieve what he views as political or media success, he eschews these and violates expectations at will. Whether or not he perceives the response as good or bad, the result of this is that he is inundated with criticism.
Aristotle lays out an explicit set of parameters for defining and using Epideictic Rhetoric, and although Trump often uses ceremony as a tool for his rhetoric and image, his refusal to follow this genre’s expectations ensures that his rhetoric does not properly fit the kind of events described by Aristotle. The result is a greater degree of criticism and mockery. History argues that Donald Trump’s departure from norms, whether at a national event or a small wedding, is part of his significant political success. This argument does not refute the point and instead only argues that Trump’s speeches in ceremonial settings lack the expected tenets of Epideictic Rhetoric laid out by Aristotle, and, as a result, opens him up to a broader degree of criticism. Whether or not the criticism leveled against Trump is effective is not under examination. Instead, it is the simple fact that, in not following Aristotle’s expected guidelines for ceremonial speech, Trump opened himself to new avenues of ire from detractors. Whether in a packed stadium, with booming microphones, flashing lights, and adoring crowds, or in an intimate celebration with glasses raised and broad smiles, Donald Trump’s ability to harness ceremony is impressive. However, he abandons any of the expected rhetorical foci in Epideictic Rhetoric. For much of his political career, these departures appeared to have little impact on his steadfast popularity. However, after Biden’s ascension in January of 2021 and Trump’s de-platforming, media coverage declined significantly. In fact, Trump’s actions at these ceremonies, and the criticism it generates, are some of the few things he does that still receive attention from the media. With his love of the spotlight and attention, this dynamic may mean that Trump only departs even further from the expectations of Aristotle, and be even more outrageous and improper, if only to generate buzz.
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