The Rhetoric of Rage, Part 1

Christopher Witt —  August 21, 2015 — 2 Comments

Rhetoric + RageI’m both fascinated and appalled by Donald Trump’s popularity in the political arena these days.

As a student and practitioner of public speaking, I think his popularity is rooted in his skillful appeal to people’s sense of rage.

He has perfected “the rhetoric of rage.”

What is Rhetoric?

Rhetoric is the artful use of words to persuade.

The goal of rhetoric is not to educate or inform, not to entertain or amuse, not to convince or convert.

The goal of rhetoric is to move people to take action.

To induce people to act, you may have to educate, inform, entertain, amuse, convince, and/or convert them. But the goal of rhetoric is always action, action, action.

Logic and reason don’t move people to act. Emotions do.

What is Rage?

Rage is anger that is so intense it threatens to explode into violent action.

We may seethe with anger, but rage makes us want to lash out at someone.

Rage, like anger, is a reaction to the perception that someone has deprived us of something we value.

There are, therefore, three elements of rage:

  1. Loss: We no longer have something of value that we once possessed or think we had a right to.
  2. Deprivation: We don’t have it, because it was taken from us.
  3. Adversary: “They” took it from us.

By itself the sense of loss does not fuel rage. The appropriate response to loss is grief.

At the root of rage (and of anger) is a sense of injustice. “It’s not right.”

Whereas anger is the impetus to make things right, to restore justice, rage seeks revenge.

Rage isn’t satisfied with reclaiming what was lost. It wants to punish those who stole it in the first place.

Rage requires an adversary, an enemy, a villain, a them. (They are specific people or a specific class of people, not impersonal forces or events.)

The Rhetoric of Rage

Rhetoric and rage are made for each other.

Rhetoric wants to move people to act. Rage makes people want to act.

To use the rhetoric of rage:

1. Remind people of what they’ve lost.

Have they lost their social status and the rights and privileges due to them? Have they lost their jobs or financial security? Have they lost the right to impose their beliefs and values on others? Have they lost their confidence in government, social institutions, and the very future?

Don’t confuse them with facts or logic. They may not have possessed in the first place what they think they’ve lost. Or they may not have had the right to it. That’s not the issue. What matters is that they think – or more importantly – they feel that they’ve lost it.

2. Frame that loss as deprivation.

Losing something of value makes people sad and powerless, which they don’t like. So tell them it was taken from them. It’s not their fault they lost something valuable: it’s someone else’s fault.

3. Identify the adversary.

This is easy. Given the right mind-set, there’s always someone to blame: immigrants, gays, women, terrorists, criminals, the one-percenters.

Make it personal. “We’re losing the cultural war” isn’t as powerful as “Gays are destroying the very definition of marriage.” “We [whites] are becoming the minority” doesn’t move people as much as “Mexicans are streaming across our borders, bringing drugs with them, and taking our jobs.”

What do you think? Am I on to something? What would you add, subtract, or refute?

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

2 responses to The Rhetoric of Rage, Part 1

  1. Chris is 100% on the money here. A beautiful, completely accurate analysis. In the case of Mr. Trump and the rage-vendors of a certain political stripe, I’d add one more element that is common to cut-rate demagoguery — misdirection. Like a good magician, Trump channels the rage of his audience away from the real cause of their anger — the way the economic system of the United States has been jiggered to favor the top 1/10th of 1 percent over the rest of us over the past 30 years — and directs it toward “The Other” — scary Brown people! THEM! Not like us good people! Dirty, greedy, law-breaking, here to take what we’ve got! Notice what happens — Trump gets more powerful, and the real problem gets ignored. Unfortunately, a toxic “Disinfotainment” system has hijacked the media, empowering this carnival sideshow.

    • You’re absolutely right about misdirection, which I hadn’t thought about.

      I wonder if all forms of rage involve some sort of misdirection, because they all want to locate the source of our problems “out there,” absolving us of blame or responsibility.

      I’m not saying that people and forces “out there” aren’t a problem. But I do want us to take some responsibility for our part in creating and sustaining a system that allows/encourages/abets them.

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