Classic Communication

Whether they know it or not, today’s candidates use ancient rhetorical techniques.

In 64 B.C., during a time of great political unrest in Rome, Marcus Tullius Cicero ran for consul, the highest office in the land. His campaign faced long odds. He was not from one of the aristocratic families that made up the political establishment; outsiders rarely attained the consulship. Yet as his brother, Quintus, suggested in a pamphlet offering campaign advice, Cicero possessed an advantage that could overcome his outsider status: In Republican Rome, as in modern democracies, effective communication was vital for winning elections, and Cicero was the most accomplished public speaker in Roman history.

What made Cicero an unsurpassed orator? Besides his brilliance and relentless drive to excel, Cicero mastered rhetorical theory from classic handbooks like Aristotle’s Rhetoric. He even contributed to the genre himself. A number of devices and principles from these ancient handbooks have withstood the test of time. Here are just a few that we have seen, two millennia later, in the current presidential campaign:


In a 140-character world, brevity is digital wit. Hence the attractiveness of the enthymeme, a type of syllogism in which the speaker intentionally withholds the premises or conclusion of an argument. The enthymeme works because of succinctness, simplicity, and the active participation of the audience, who has to supply the missing information. Aristotle noted its powerful popular appeal in democratic Athens.

Among contemporary politicians, Donald Trump stands out for arguing in enthymematic form in debates, in media interviews, and especially on Twitter. For example, Trump responded to a weak May 2016 jobs report by the Department of Labor by tweeting: “Terrible jobs report just reported. Only 38,000 jobs added. Bombshell!” Since voters tend to hold the president—and more generally his party—responsible for economic performance, and since Hillary Clinton is a member of the president’s party, in just seventy characters Trump has argued that his opponent’s economic policies are a dead end.   


Crucial to campaigning is the ability to defend your own record, character, and platform as well as to attack your opponent in these areas, as Quintus reminded Cicero. This makes it useful for your rhetorical toolkit to include paradiastole, the rhetorical redescription of actions using different terms than your opponent to persuade your audience to see the actions in an alternate moral light. The trick is to realize that the difference between virtue and vice often depends on the details, which may be interpreted differently.

For instance, in interviews in early June, Trump described Clinton’s use of a private server as a “criminal situation,” whereas Clinton called it a “mistake.” Similarly, Trump detractors describe his sometimes crude and offensive language as inexcusably “racist,” “misogynistic,” and “intolerant,” whereas his supporters excuse this same speech by seeing it as part of a “bold,” “courageous,” or “honest” assault on an oppressive political correctness.  

Logos, ethos, pathos.

A speaker can persuade by rational argument (logos), by the credibility of his or her character (ethos), and by arousing the audience’s emotions (pathos). Given the Clinton campaign website’s list of detailed policies on more than thirty issues, and Trump’s attempts to tap into voters’ anger and frustration with the state of our country, you could contrast these candidates’ rhetorical styles as pitting logos against pathos. But as each candidate has turned toward the general election, ethos has loomed large.

In her June Democratic primary victory speech, Clinton presented herself as a progressive, ceiling-breaking pioneer. Trump, meanwhile, countered with his own speech presenting himself as a “fighter” and “champion” for the people against a “rigged [political] system.” If Cicero is right in elevating ethos over logos, we can understand why Trump supporters may overlook his lack of detailed policies if they trust him to fight for them. Likewise, Clinton did not rest on her specific plans but aimed to earn the trust of Bernie Sanders’ progressive voters.  

While it remains to be seen how political rhetoric will influence the 2016 presidential campaign, Quintus apparently was right about its power in the campaign of 64 B.C.: Cicero was elected consul.       

Atkins is an assistant professor of classical studies at Duke. His research and teaching focus on Greek and Roman political thought and ethics.

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