Twelve days prior to the 2016 Presidential Election, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Professor and the University of Pennsylvania and the founder of Fact Check came to Loyola University Maryland to speak to us about rhetoric in the Presidential debates.
She spoke from the perspective of an intellectual that studies these types of trends, having worked at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She referenced a wide variety of Presidential races, dating back to the first televised Presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. She stated that politicians sometimes craft sentences for us to misinterpret, that they are looking to mislead their audiences. It is this example of rhetoric that caught my eye after I saw the results of the 2016 Presidential election. Donald Trump has won the presidency. Although many viewed his candidacy as a terrifying joke, Jamieson warned us that to some, Trump’s misleading rhetoric is quite effective. That is not to say either that Hillary Clinton does not involve herself in this sort of rhetoric either. She was notorious during her campaign for spinning the conversation topic away from the email scandal that plagued her throughout her candidacy.
Jamieson also talked about how rhetoric is used during the debates in a new way, thanks to the proliferation of access to social media. In 2016, 84 million people watched the debates on television, and 33 million people tweeted about it. What is interesting, is that the increased number of twitter accounts that chronicled the debates affected one’s ability to recall the debate as a whole. When it takes someone 9 seconds to tweet a response to something Clinton or Trump said, there is no possible way that they could remember 90 minutes of debate. Thus, social media and late night comedy have taken on the role of giving Americans, and viewers around the world a synopsis of the debate, all in about 9 minutes. In every instance, the debate is trimmed, and there are valuable statements and uses of rhetoric being lost in the process.
This constant trimming that has become mainstream starting in the 2008 election and tested to current capacity in this election. One must come to question then, did this trimming and priority of entertainment over substance lead to Donald Trump’s victory on November 8th? Late night comedy focused on the “stupid” things that each candidate stated, leading to the affirmation of convictions viewers already had about each candidate. Confirmation bias ran amok in this election, and it comes to question whether or not as Americans, we did this to ourselves. Did our entertainment from Donald Trump’s offensive comments drive him to continue making those statements, did we encourage a man to truly transform into a bigot? We cannot be sure, but Jamieson is correct when she states that debates must change if we want to gain knowledge from them about who to vote for coming voting day. Things cannot remain the way they are, for currently it seems to have spelled out what some have called “disaster.”