First Let me Be Clear: Lincoln, Trump, and Aristotle

Recently, I had a discussion with someone, where they kept beating around the bush rather than getting straight to the point. Obviously, this frustrated me to no end, and I simply wanted a straight answer: yes or no. They simply could not be clear. In later reflection, I realized the need for clarity in speech is a fundamental part of reaching a conclusion, where both sides agree and truth is found. This thought would not leave me, and more recently, I began to reflect on clarity in the political realm, after rereading some of Lincoln’s speeches. His words in both speech and debate presented such a crisp clarity that I found shocking, especially given the current state of political speech, where politicians too often fall upon emotional manipulations over clear and reasoned speech. This seemed to me to be something worth exploring.

In researching more into clarity, I realized that clarity is oft considered a virtue by the philosophic realm. This was both surprising and intriguing and I went to a fundamental political writer, Aristotle. The Greek word “Sapheneiais scattered throughout Aristotle’s Rhetorica. Translated, it roughly means clearness of speech.  Aristotle placed a supreme emphasis on this for multiple reasons, the most important of which was that a clear argument is the most convincing argument. Thus, in the study and practice of rhetoric, clarity becomes a virtuous act, as it helps convince the audience of the truth of the speaker’s words—a foundational principle in convincing the audience. Not only does this convince the audience, but it becomes a path upon which those involved are led to the good. By understanding what they are hearing, they can form a better judgement of what is right and wrong. Emotional appeals are only a component of a good speech, rather than the primary aspect as seen in the recent election, where emotional appeals were simply used as political manipulations of a voter base. In American politics, this needs to become again a primary facet of public speaking. In a nation of the people, by the people, and for the people, it would seem that those in government would want to be clear to those who elected them. Clarity in rhetoric is the best way to convince your audience—hearkening back to Lincoln provides proof of former success in this aspect.

Lincoln’s speeches are shocking in both their beauty, but also their logical clarity—of which he was wholly aware. A largely self-educated man, Lincoln’s grasp of the English language is quite impressive. He had a unique ability to craft arguments grounded in solid reasoning, that soared with a beautiful, Biblical simplicity. He saw the clarity in his words as his duty, even a virtue. In an 1832 speech, he wrote “it becomes my duty to make known to you—the people whom I represent—my sentiments in regard to local affairs.” Dwell on that for a minute. “It becomes my duty”; what a strange phrase. Lincoln shows that his clarity is his duty to the people as their representative. Not only is it his duty, but the civic duty of all elected officials. He then proceeds to lay out his views in a list form, providing factual evidence and his reasoning behind his argument. Again, his speech at Peoria lists out the issues with the Missouri Compromise and where they went wrong, and then he proceeds to rebut them; clearly. One such moment in this speech combines the perfect emotional and reasoned appeal, “This is the repeal of the Missouri Compromise… I think, and shall try to show, that it is wrong; wrong in its direct effect…and wrong in its prospective principle.” Clearly, he lays out what he thinks, and the areas in which he will direct his words. This speech is devoted to the issue of slavery and it extension into the western territories. In a divided moment with a divisive issue at hand, Lincoln clearly presents his opinion, “I hate it,” “Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man’s nature.” Union is his key hope, and he presents that with clarity, presenting his hopes and personal opinions. Even his lofty “House Divided” speech is distinctly understandable because of his ability to present a picture with clarity and confidence. We are a far cry from that now.

First, the 2016 election was ugly. Let’s get that out of the way. Vulgarities, infighting and division aside, one thing was clear about the victor: he had no clear message. Donald Trump could never seem to present a clear message to the people. It was always a “drain the swamp” or the blame game. His own policies were vague and disjointed. While I wholly disagree with Bernie Sanders, at least you could understand his platform and what he supported and what he did not. Clarity was again missing in the recent healthcare debates in the House of Representatives. Secrecy ruled the day, as Republican legislators crafted a bill behind doors so closed that many of their own party were clueless as to the contents of the bill. Where is clarity? Politics and partisanship rule the day instead. Lawmakers must be very prudent with secrecy, much like the Founding Fathers in forming the Constitution in committee. Yet it seems that prudence is not the ruling word here, rather partisanship takes its place. They must be clear with their own Party and the opposition, lest they risk further division within the Capitol.

A third and more recent moment of failed clarity can again be attributed to Trump. This time it was during the Charlotte demonstrations and subsequent rioting. Again, the nation found itself polarized, focused on a single set of events that threatened to increase the political and social divide. In a moment, true clarity of the good was needed from the President, clarity against supremacists, clarity against an ethos that is fundamentally rooted against all that this country stands for. And Trump failed to be clear, blaming both sides, not understanding the gravity of his words. In a moment, he could have unified, and instead, through a failure to clearly speak out against Nazism, he failed.

We are seemingly in the middle of a crises, where political speech is simply a machine of manipulation for partisan battles. The President is failing to sew these divisions, with an inability to speak clearly to the people or present an understandable, reasoned viewpoint. Is it too far gone to remember the days of Lincoln, when clarity was still seen as virtuous and a path to truth and goodness? Maybe not, but reflection, discussion, and clarity above all are desperately needed in a world sorely lacking. If these can be returned to the political realm, then maybe these division can begin to be repaired.


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