Trump’s Republican defenders use rhetoric that is a danger to America’s democracy

In this sophistry, the GOP’s lack of moral courage to oppose Trump appears virtuous, actions to hold him legally accountable seem wrong, and Trump’s perfidy is meant to look innocuous if not somehow patriotic.

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Donald Trump exits his vehicle before boarding a plane at Reagan Washington National Airport, on Aug. 3 after appearing in court on federal conspiracy charges that he tried to overturn the 2020 election.

Donald Trump exits his vehicle before boarding a plane at Reagan Washington National Airport, on Aug. 3 after appearing in court on federal conspiracy charges that he tried to overturn the 2020 election.

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The GOP’s rhetorical defense of former President Donald Trump rekindles an ancient form of speechmaking called “sophistry.” Sophistry threatens our form of government as it threatened government in classical Greece.

During the 4th and 5th centuries B.C., a group of itinerant teachers called the Sophists believed that orators who relied on florid language and forceful delivery, their reputations and charisma, and arguments befitting particular occasions or audiences won the day. Sophists taught speakers how to counter one argument with its opposite. But no speaker could ground any argument in transcendent principles or unassailable proofs.

Despite their popularity, Sophists remained controversial because they favored persuasion over objective truth and espoused cultural and moral relativism. Plato worried the Sophists could, through specious oratory, make vice look like virtue, the right appear wrong, and just acts seem unjust. Critics admonished that even rogues could be made over as saints and that the goal of sophistry was to seize and hold onto power at any cost. For these reasons, critics accused the Sophists of undermining classical Greek political and moral foundations.

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Today, “sophistry” refers to using fallacious and deceptive arguments. Understood this way, sophistry has much in common with Orwellian language and demagoguery. Following the founding fathers, commentator George Will has frequently cautioned about how sophistic-like rhetoric damages democracy.

In light of the federal indictments against Trump, prominent Republicans practice sophistry when they claim criminal proceedings against him should be dropped or postponed until after the 2024 presidential election when voters will determine guilt or innocence.

Others rail about “Deep State” conspiracies to “weaponize” the government and to “persecute” and bring down Trump. Many Republicans assert that Trump’s (false) belief in the 2020 presidential election being stolen justified his efforts to overturn it and that the U.S. Department of Justice is “criminalizing” his First Amendment right to lie to the American people. And there is the usual outrage over Hunter Biden.

‘Erroneous and misleading’ arguments

The best indication of sophistry is that this Republican rhetoric concerning Trump contradicts what Asa Hutchinson, a GOP presidential candidate and former federal prosecutor, calls their traditional commitment to arguments based on constitutional principles like the rule of law and the integrity of the American legal system.

Untethered from the law and the facts, Republican rhetoric is erroneous and misleading, intended to deflect attention from the alleged crimes committed. Rather than being based on democratic principles or any overriding conception of the public good, the Republican rhetorical defense seems rooted in opportunistic and cynical appeasement of Trump and his extremist supporters.

In this sophistry, Republicans’ lack of moral courage in failing to oppose Trump appears virtuous. The DOJ’s right action to hold him legally accountable seems wrong, and Trump’s perfidy is meant to look innocuous if not somehow patriotic. These Republicans want their constituents to believe that the government’s pursuit of justice is unjust.

Does any reasonable person doubt Republicans would deploy opposite arguments to attack Trump were he a Democrat?

Perhaps Republicans are grounding their rhetoric on the principle that Trump is above the law and the Constitution. If so, they should tell the American people explicitly.

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Whatever the case, as Ronald Brownstein suggested in The Atlantic, the increasingly frenzied and convoluted Republican apologies for Trump illustrate thatthe GOP is now willing to accept Trump’s repeated assaults on the basic structures of American democracy.” As the 2024 presidential election approaches, Republicans face a momentous choice: They can argue on behalf of law and order or defend the former president no matter how much harm they and Trump continue to inflict on our democracy.

Kenneth Zagacki is professor of communication at North Carolina State University. Richard Cherwitz is emeritus professor in the Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin.

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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