Rhetoricians from multiple disciplines have been working on the problem of demagoguery,
and the way it depends on a culture that tolerates it rather than a few charismatic
individuals who wield it: Roberts-Miller published an extended scholarly version of
her argument in Rhetoric and Demagoguery (Southern Illinois University Press, 2019).
Joshua Gunn published Political Perversion: Rhetorical Aberration in the Time of Trumpeteering
(The University of Chicago, 2020). Ryan Skinnell edited a collection of essays called
Faking the News: What Rhetoric Can Teach Us About Donald J. Trump (Imprint Academic,
2018). The critical insights of these scholars go beyond passing judgment on individual
demagogues (however powerful) to analyzing the social conditions and media ecologies
that support them. In Rhetoric and Demagoguery, Roberts-Miller argues that the ability
of demagoguery to cause harm can be curbed when the culture that supports it changes.
That means the responsibility for an ethical rhetorical culture is one we bear collectively.
I think teaching students about demagoguery gives them a language to think about
ethical argumentation and democratic conflict, which is to say, about how to negotiate
disagreements with people who are different from you. These questions are often centered
in the stories we tell ourselves in my discipline about rhetorical history and its
relationship to democracy. And at this moment in rhetorical history and in American
political history, the language of rhetorical ethics is needed for us to embrace our
collective responsibility and encourage those in our spheres of influence to value
difference, to argue fairly and inclusively when we disagree, and to entertain the
possibility of changing our minds.
Yet, remembering Tobia’s caution about the apparent neutrality of professionalism,
with its hidden norms favoring the already privileged and powerful, my recourse above
to the collective pronouns “we” and “us” could conceal the exclusion of dissent necessary
to support the fiction that everybody in a democracy has a voice. Not every voice
has equal rhetorical power. Not every person is seen as a citizen, and even my own
beliefs create ideological blindspots about who I can recognize as capable of rhetorical
engagement. What I’m saying is that responsible rhetoric is a practice, but it’s also
a calling: To keep moving beyond what is given and insist that the culture transforms.