Rhetorical analysis: claims of illegitimacy against Obama

In comment to a discussion ( http://theelectricagora.com/2015/11/30/critical-thinking-after-the-second-world-war/ ) on the philosophy of rhetoric as developed independently by Stephen Toulmin and Chaim Perelman, a reader expressed confusion, wondering why we simply don’t leave argument analysis to professional logicians, thus demonstrating a misunderstanding of what philosophy of rhetoric actually considers as its domain. It’s not about the logic that professional philosophers work with, but about the kinds of reasoning anybody has to work with in daily life. And no, formal logic cannot encompass that. (Of course Toulmin and Perelman appear to have grasped that even different scholarly fields engage different argumentation styles and differing rhetorics, but my own concern is how we take this out into the fields beyond the Academy.)

Even before Toulmin and Perelman, this was demonstrated by Wittgenstein and Austin. Please show me the logical calculus for ‘Hey, how ya doin’!’ But I could give you a rhetorical explanation of the social codes necessitating greetings such as these.

In response to the commentator mentioned, I’ve written the following demonstration of rhetorical criticism (in non-technical language).

Let us consider a speech promoting the assertion that “Obama is not really the President of the United States.” “Therefore” (actionable conclusion), “he should be removed from office.”

This is derived from two basic assumptions.

1. Obama cannot prove he was born in the US; legally this disqualifies him from office.
2. Obama is a black Muslim, and America is a predominantly white Christian nation.

If the first clause of the first assumption is correct, then the assertion of the second clause happens to be correct, according to the Constitution.

The second assumption is more complex, because it derives from a heavily shaded reading of American history, that basically denies that the Constitution has authority over the ‘will of the Founders’ expressed through historical development. In other words, while the Constitution is effectively invalidated by this assumption, it is also assumed that the Founders simply could not have imagined a black Muslim president, and would have written a different Constitution otherwise. (It also assumes facts not in evidence, derived from Obama’s family background and name.)

The claim is not unreasonable, even though some of the claim’s justification lacks warrant. And it grounds the rhetoric of the current front-runner of the Republican candidates for the presidency, Donald Trump.

The strict birther argument is fairly easy to deal with. It is not good enough, to understand what is going on here, to simply call Trump and his followers irrationally ‘crazy;’ as already noted, there is a certain chain of reasoning in their thinking. Beyond the infamous birth certificate nonsense (which even production of the certificate could not squelch), one really has to argue that defacto legitimacy re-enforces known dejure legitimacy, thus cancelling out this argument altogether: Obama has fulfilled the responsibilities of the office of president for now 7 years, and the only body that could delegitimate him, the US Supreme Court, has found no cause for doing so. Everything that could be done to establish the legal illegitimacy of Obama’s presidency has been done, and the efforts have failed. Thus, while he may not be the president some people would like, he is, ipso facto, the legitimate President of the United States.

The claim about the Founders’ intent and Obama’s suspected cultural background is a bit more complex. Let’s deal with that.

– The office of the presidency is constructed by the Constitution.
– The Constitution was composed by white men, who had unchallenged hegemony over the States at that time.
– Given this, it is unlikely that they could imagine that there would ever be a black president.
– Further, the Founders’ explicitly stated, in the Constitution, that a black person was not to be considered a full citizen.
– Further, The Founders’ identified themselves culturally as Christians, and so the intent of the Constitution’s “no religious test for office” clause conceivably only applied to differing sects of Christianity – Baptist, Presbyterian, etc., and was never intended to allow non-Christians into office.
– Obama is a black person, the kind of person the Founder’s would never have imagined as president.

– Obama is probably a Muslim, given that his father was, and he was raised in the Muslim nation of Indonesia. Therefore the “no religious test for office” clause cannot include him.

Already, we should be able to see that we are dealing with emotionally charged expressions both driving and driven by shared beliefs and values among those who would find these claims reasonable; and emotions (and emotionally invested values) rarely respond well to logic. (This is about what people feel, intuit, begrudge, hope; not about what they think. Thinking, for most people, is just another action to take in response to what they feel.)

Interwoven with the basic claims presented, are implications we ignore at cost: 1) Emotional content: the speaker is unhappy with the situation; s/he is probably unhappy that white people have not ‘stuck together’ to oppose black political participation, and is therefore distrustful of whites who voted for Obama; s/he is also unhappy that the laws of this nation are determined on the basis of secular, rather than religious, interests, and suspects opponents on moral grounds. 2) Unstated assumptions: that the intent of the Founders has primacy over the actual text of the Constitution; that the cultural status of the Founders effectively determined the kind of nation they envisioned for America; that America having a majority-white population, it’s political leadership should also be white-majority (and since only one person can be president s/he should be white); that America having a majority-Christian population, its political leadership should be Christian and act on Christian principles. 3) Implications of claims and unstated assumptions: black people are inferior to white people (why else would they have less than full citizenship in the Constitution?); this being a Christian nation, no non-Christian could lead it politically without subverting Christian interests, and thereby subverting American interests; the Founders would never have imagined an inferior with subversive intent as president of the US.

So far this is just expression, but delivered in a political speech, elements of this reasoning form an effort to shape listener attitudes. So what does the speaker want the audience to do? First, assuming the audience to be white Christian, they are being asked to identify with white Christian interests presumed by the speaker. Second, they should feel suspicious of any who would vote for Obama. Third, they should feel concern, even outraged, that Obama is president. Fourth, they should not trust a governmental system or a political history that has allowed Obama to become president.

This last note is crucial; it allows the omission of the historical facts that effectively mitigate many of the claims – the Civil War, the Amendments to the Constitution, the Civil Rights struggle and its success, etc. According to our speaker, if the political history of the US has allowed Obama into office, there is something wrong with that history. This opens the door to grand conspiracy theories, which is just what our politician hopes, since these aggravate and re-enforce the emotional content of the speech as heard by a receptive audience.

And of course, and especially, what the speaker hopes the audience will do will be support causes s/he endorses, and vote for politicians s/he prefers.

Now, I would be remiss if I did not offer strategies of rebuttal here. First, of course, the history that has been so elided by our hypothetical politician, must be re-enforced at every turn – the Civil War, Civil Rights, Amendments, the lot. The claim must be (as it has been) that the Constitution is a “living document,” amenable to change, and that the Founders foresaw cultural and polityical change as fundamentally a good and useful, else there would be no allowance for Amendment in the Constitution. The debates concerning slavery, which began before there was ink on the Constitutional text, may also be emphasized, as may the pluralistic understanding of religious freedom among the founder, especially the deism of several important figures, like Jefferson. It should be made clear that the demand for religious freedom embedded in the Constitution encompasses far more than differing Christian sects.

Second, the implications of the unstated assumptions must be exposed and ridiculed, especially the notion of racial inferiority; after all, the reason this assumption lies buried is because it is widely considered socially unacceptable in the US, and every effort should be made to keep it so.

Finally (for now), but perhaps most importantly, the emotional content of the claims must be addressed. The presumed receptive audience of our hypothetical politician must be re-assured that their interests – while no longer dominating the American scene – are not threatened by the changes occurring. Let them find their own white Christian communities, the government does not threaten them there. (On this matter, BTW, Obama has been a brilliant politician; he never won such audiences over to his cause, but he has successfully squelched any claim that he threatens them. These continue on the margins, but have largely disappeared from even Fox Noise.)

Ideally, the audience being considered should actually feel greater comfort levels with the changes occurring, including having a black president. And there may be ways to achieve that; but such is a long and difficult process, requiring many forms of art, politics, and economics.

As we see, the matter is complex, multifaceted, and emotionally charged. But there is a reasoning here, covering quite a bit of history and future argumentation.. I don’t see anywhere an opportunity for formal logic analysis. Such would not convince the audience of our hypothetical speaker to question his motivations, claims, or insinuations. Only a critical-rhetorical approach can do that. That’s what critical thinking should be all about: how to read and respond to rhetoric.


3 thoughts on “Rhetorical analysis: claims of illegitimacy against Obama

  1. In the context of politics winning is the only worthy goal of critical thinking. The end justifies the means is critical thinking. Might is right is critical thinking. Mastering Machiavellian-Nietzschean power relationships is critical thinking. Political philosophy trumps critical thinking as an abstraction. The codified rules of law and logic and language are fictions to be manipulated, as people/pawns on a chess-board. Game rules to be created, acknowledged, ignored or changed as needed through force of will to drive strategic survival outcomes.

    This is also known as non-fiction.


    • wtquin,

      Your comment makes it clear that you really hate politics. A lot of people do. That’s misguided, a response to the confusion and frustration that oft accompanies politics. Unfortunately, the alternative to politics is not war – that’s the result of politics breaking down. The alternative to politics is blind submission. That’s why critical thinking is necessary, to keep alive the possibility of politics as opposed to subservience.


      • I just received your reply now. I agree with you in principle. To add to my initial comment I’m saying (as an observer and participant in business politics) that politics is war by other means. War by words with an intent of imposing subjective morality upon another group. With a goal in mind of winning. A necessary verbal evil to prevent perhaps physical evil, … war. Critical thinking in politics is never a purely intellectual armchair exercise separated from emotion. Because the actors are human.


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