A Brief Note on Feelings, Facts & Donald J. Trump


Even in AD 2000, who among us is so cynical that he doesn’t have some good old corny American hope way down deep in his heart, lying dormant like a spinster’s ardor, not dead but just waiting for the right guy to give it to?

            -David Foster Wallace, ‘Up Simba’

In a New Yorker article from 11 July of this year, entitled ‘Who Are All These Trump Supporters?’, American short-fiction writer George Saunders describes the sort of cognitive-affective dissonance which attends the rhetorical relationship between Donald J. Trump and his enthusiastic – and I mean that in the old Greek sense as a sort of inspired frenzy – rally-goers. ‘He is not trying to persuade, detail, or prove’, Saunders writes:

he is trying to thrill, agitate, be liked, be loved, here and now. He is trying to make energy… And make energy he does. It flows out of him, as if channelled in thousands of micro wires, and enters the minds of his followers.[1]

There is some distance, Saunders insinuates, between the truth – or even whatever Trump himself might believe at any given moment, which is anyone’s guess – and what Trump says, how he says it, and perhaps most importantly, how it’s received, fully charged, by his audience. Indeed, the relationship between feelings and facts has drawn quite a bit of attention in light of Trump’s bewilderingly successful presidential campaign. John Oliver, the British comedian-commentator on American politics and culture, seemed genuinely horrified in a recent episode (24 July 2016) of his HBO show Last Week Tonight when Newt Gingrich – himself lacking in anything resembling enthousiasmos – expressed his preference ‘as a politician’ for the feelings of the American populace that America wasn’t a safe place, which run afoul of the facts (‘theories’ in Gingrich’s parlance) provided by the FBI that violent crime is actually down over the past decade. Gingrich would rather, in other words, run a campaign based on perception than on reality.

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Oliver’s horror is, of course, justified in part, but it is also naïve insofar as it seems to rest on the assumption that Trump’s campaign is somehow novel in the cynical creation of political rhetoric rooted in and geared toward pathos rather than in the presentation of facts – even if Trump’s campaign has achieved new heights in its disconnectedness from anything ‘real’. But Gingrich has a naïveté of his own, undoubtedly more pernicious (as Oliver recognises) insofar as it seems to rest on the assumption that American fear precedes the discursive political response by the likes of a Trump, who is only (on Gingrich’s reading) articulating the already-existing feelings of his constituency. This relationship is, in reality, rather more complex, as probably all readers of this blog already recognise: much of American fear is in fact the a posteriori product of charged (and often dubious) political rhetoric. As Oliver notes, Gingrich’s position allows for a disturbing cycle of the creation of facts via the creation of feelings: the one who can generate enough emotion through charisma can construct a discursive political world that perpetuates the same sorts of emotions that permit that world to be generated in the first place. Throw this hermeneutical strategy into the bizarre media landscape rooted in the American 24-hour news cycle, which is beholden only to the economics of profit-ratings and not to any sort of journalistic code aligned with truthful reporting, and you get some way toward explaining the conditions that have allowed for Trump’s success. Trump sells, as he’s always done, and everyone is buying. (Infatuation with him, whether arising out of revulsion or devotion, is ubiquitous, by the way: I don’t think I’ve had a conversation with an Australian in six months that didn’t involve mention of Trump – and out of nothing other than sheer embarrassment as an American I wasn’t the one bringing it up.)

From the perspective of the long history of emotions and rhetoric, Oliver’s position falls onto a trajectory that runs back to Plato’s Gorgias, wherein the rhetorician who sways the emotions of the audience is imagined a sophist who distorts the truth in order to win his case. Oliver’s denunciation of feelings in the public sphere (which he suggests – pace Thomas Dixon’s recent Weeping Britannia, described on Oxford University Press’s website as ‘comprehensively debunk[ing] the myth of the British “stiff upper lip”’ – is the special province of the British) presupposes the possibility of an imminently rational form of political discourse (as though violent crime statistics, for example, could ever – or should ever – be presented free of emotional weight). It is the duty of the politician to present the facts, and we go from there. Fearing fear itself means something altogether different here. But if we historicise these two approaches (Gingrich’s and Oliver’s), they present themselves from the perspective of a certain kind of Renaissance rhetoric as a false dichotomy. To the minds of many sixteenth-century writers, it is possible, and even desirable, to teach the truth by way of affective appeal. As Debora Shuger has argued, the ability to move an audience’s emotions in the theories of sacred rhetoric in the early modern period does not entail ‘subrational obfuscation’.[2]

Erasmus of Rotterdam, for example, writes in his 1535 manual for preachers, the Ecclesiastes, ‘The most important thing for persuasion is to love what you are urging; the heart itself supplies ardour of speech to the lover, and it brings the greatest force to effective teaching if you display within yourself whatever you are teaching to others… teaching is weak and ineffective unless it proceeds from a burning spirit’.[3] The affective valences of Erasmus’ rhetorical strategies are clear, but so is his insistence throughout the work that stirring the emotions of the congregation can never be an end in itself. Any a priori divorce of the cognitive from the affective is deleterious to instruction in learned piety. In the same way that teaching must be affective to avoid frigidity, it must also remain moored to the truth and not rely on specious affectation: ‘It is not good for the preacher to stir the emotions in just anyway’, Erasmus writes: he must do it ‘not with gross facial distortion, not with buffoonish physical gestures, but with words’.[4] It is difficult not to think of Trump’s hair and weird noises here, and Erasmus had apparently seen many preachers in his day affect similar dispositions. He argued that these tactics resulted in only a temporary stirring of the emotions which cool quickly, or in inappropriate entertainment, but not in adequate instruction in the Christian philosophy.

Erasmus’s understanding of the mechanics of rhetorical persuasion is also, like Saunders’ on Trump above, explained through a technological metaphor, albeit with a different outcome. Speech, Erasmus writes, ‘is the truthful image the preacher’s mind, and is reflected in his words as in a mirror’. Erasmus wonders at the ‘truly marvellous’ nature of the mirror in one of his Adagia, especially at ‘the way in which it reflects so very clearly not only the shapes of all the things placed in front of it, but the distances between them, their colours and their motions, in a word the things themselves, one could almost say more vivid than they really are’.[5] In the Ciceronianus, a dialogue on eloquence published in 1528, Erasmus describes this movement more vividly:

All that you have devoured in a long course of varied reading must be thoroughly digested and by the action of thought incorporated into your deepest mental processes… Then your mind, fattened on fodder of all kinds, will generate out of its own resources not a speech redolent of this or that flower or leaf or herb, but one redolent of the inborn affections of your heart.[6]

Speech, in this way, perfectly reflects the understanding – both cognitive and affective – of the orator, directing both fact and feeling to the minds of the audience with utmost vividness. It is this two-fold orientation that distinguishes his ideal approach from that of Gingrich’s full-blown fear-oriented politicking as well as from Oliver’s neo-stoic eschewing of all feeling.

When transposed to a contemporary political setting, the idea is also consonant with the David Foster Wallace quote at the top (which, in fact, is in reference to the unexpected – if temporary – success of the McCain campaign in 2000): American presidential politics isn’t, and has never been, merely about facts; it’s an affective enterprise top to bottom in the way that all personal things are affective. It’s why Bush supporters used to talk about W. as someone you’d wanna have a beer with, and it’s why Clinton is routinely criticised for being a robot, unable to connect affectively even to her staunch supporters. Obama cerebrally proffered HOPE, and #feelthebern is not just a convenient pun with no affective purchase. While Sanders did run a campaign thick with the rhetoric of ‘facts’, you need only take a look at footage of the weeping throng of Bernie supporters at the Democratic National Convention as Hillary was formally made the party’s candidate to recognise the emotional appeal of a candidate who seemed to actually be telling the truth for once. Longing for the truth is a feeling, too, as is fear and indignation at its being distorted. Which brings us back to Trump, who is neither a human nor a robot, but a sort of cartoon character who moves and delights (or horrifies) but does not teach, fracturing the ancient three-fold duty of the orator. You don’t want to have a beer with him, but it’s certainly not because the conversation would be dry. Setting aside any aversion you may have to dining with someone with fascist proclivities, it’s because you’d walk away confused and exhausted and somehow stuck with the bill, longing for the days of trying to descry the innards of W.’s ‘gut’. In this way, Saunders’ ‘micro wires’ are a bad twenty-first-century version of Erasmus’s mirror, for when connected to Trump they are somehow less technologically capable than their old counterpart: most ‘micro wires’ today are able to transfer information as well as energy, but Trump’s are less like complex fibre-optic lines than they are like the simple cables you use to jump-start your car battery. Nothing subtle there. A raw and data-free electric current. All energy and no clarity.


Rikk Yasser is the pseudonym of a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions who hopes to retain his/her American passport in the event of a Trump regime (so great is baseball in comparison with cricket).

[1] ‘Who Are All These Trump Supporters?’, The New Yorker, 11 July 11 2016.

[2] Debora Shuger, Sacred Rhetoric (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 138.

[3] The Collected Works of Erasmus (CWE), 67:299.

[4] CWE 68:811.

[5] Erasmus, Adages II iii 50, ‘Tanquam in speculo, as though in a mirror’; CWE 33:163.

[6] CWE 28:402, modified.

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