Stanley Fish Explains Trump…and Much More



It will come as no surprise that candidate Trump broke all the rules of running for president. His election has come despite breaking the rules, or perhaps because he did so. While the world of political theater has fewer controls and rules of conduct than does the world of the courts or of academia, up until Trumps arrival it prohibited a candidate from besmirching the reputation of a John McCain, a decorated prisoner of war or for advocating the imprisonment of his political rival or for telling lies about the unemployment rate. Yet Trump broke through what Stanley Fish calls “the bounded argument space” of political warfare. According to David French in The National Review, he enlarged The Overton Window, developed by Joseph Overton of The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which defines the boundaries of acceptable political discourse about a given topic.

In writing about Trump as a practitioner of rhetoric, Fish claims that in his standard stump speech, the candidate was all over the place, moving disjointedly from topic to topic, shining the attention on his singular gifts, and flattering and energizing the audience that turned out. As Fish says, he could never be off message, a defect for most candidates, because he was the message. For Fish, well versed in the history of rhetoric, Trump’s victory is a triumph of pathos (emotion) over logos (reason) and ethos (the character of the speaker). What we profess to like in a candidate is someone who can subordinate pathos and ethos to logos. Certainly the predictions that Hillary would win and would be a better president were predicated on this belief. Yet, as Fish reminds us repeatedly, rhetoric is a source of unpredictable consequences and wonderment, even if the results are awful.

The prelude to the discussion of Trump is a presentation on three case studies of persuasion. The choices are a demonstration of Fish’s range of interests and his wicked cleverness. A scholar of Milton, Fish writes about Satan, at least the Satan as depicted in Paradise Lost. Milton’s Satan undermines the authority of God and, in somewhat modern fashion, appeals to Adam and Eve’s soon-to-be-realized freedom. Like the tobacco lobbyists who fought incriminating research on the harms of smoking, Satan was a “merchant of doubt.” Cleverly the tobacco apologists, like the contemporary climate change deniers, use the ethos of science – that scientific inquiry is always open, that a new explanation system might replace the current consensus – against the majority. Finally, Fish does a close reading of Shakespeare’s Marc Antony who quickly turns the pleasure of the crowd that Caesar has been killed to a desire take revenge on his murderers. Even though these figures may have a tenuous relationship with one another, they all draw Fish’s admiration for their rhetorical prowess, for a gift that may be used for good or ill.

Fish defines himself as a realist, one who knows the uses and abuses of argumentation. But more fundamentally he believes that we live in a world where everything is an argument, even a Superbowl ad for Skittles or a clever sign at the Women’s March the day after the Inauguration or a press conference run by Sean Spicer. We can no more escape the world of argument than we can get out of our skins or not pay our taxes without consequences. It’s wishful thinking to pretend otherwise, and those who would offer us the means to transcend argument culture or to ameliorate the frequent nastiness or contentious of public debate offer false promises. To Rodney King’s question “Can’t we all get along,” Fish offers a forceful “No!”

As we have discovered in the week since the Inauguration, elections resolve very little. In Fish’s mind, an inauguration day is a brief “pause in the forensic wars.” After this respite, the parties resume their skirmishes, refashioning arguments for a new political reality, especially when those in power have been out of power for a while. While he does not mention Obama at all in his work, one can’t but help conclude that Fish, a liberal-leaning academic, found Obama’s attempts at reaching compromise and finding common ground misguided and his rhetorical strategies ill-suited for the times and ultimately unproductive. Fickle politicians and citizens dig into their positions, positions that are often set by virtue of nature and nurture long before they are politically conscious. Finding common ground is temporary; it’s always vulnerable to the next discovery of self-interest by the debaters.

Fish calls attention to those surprising moments when meaningful change does happen, not because of the rhetorical soundness of the advocates’ arguments, but rather because of an unanticipated, galvanic, symbolic event. The shooting of nine worshippers in a Charleston, South Carolina church led to the quick removal of the confederate flag from public grounds in the state, an action long advocated by anti-racists in the state. Though the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School did not lead to the passage of sensible background checks for gun purchases as Obama and many others had hoped. The quick and “improbable triumph” of gay marriage is another instance of the unpredictable confluence of cultural forces, not some colorful orator’s speech, creating a new level of acceptance and new legal standing.

While Trump’s comments on argument in the political world, he’s equally interested in the way argument operates in three other worlds: domestic life and marriage, the law, and academic life.

The section on marriage is especially clever. Fish draws his examples of the communication challenges in male-female relationships from high culture and pop culture, from Shakespeare’s tales of pre-marriage courtship to the battle of the sexes in the Thin Man film series and Married…with Children. A husband himself, one who freely admits to the difficulties of and inevitable failures at communication, Fish throws himself into a few popular marriage manuals in order to extract some of the common rules and suggestions for couple arguing. He ties his diverse interests together by using the wisdom of the marriage gurus to examine the dialog between Milton’s Adam and Eve in Book 9 of Paradise Lost. It’s a delight to read his gloss on the text, done using the advice of the marriage counselors, offered in their language.

The section on Academic Arguments ranges widely over a number of subtopics. He uses a Big Idea that he articulated as a case study in the circulation of an original theory in the world of scholarship. His Big Idea is that academics and members of other subcultures are members of “interpretive communities” that determine how conversation and argumentation is handled within that culture. The community determines which topics or issues are worth talking about, the kinds of evidence that is admissible or inadmissible, and the strategies for persuasion are acceptable. The members of the community police the borders, knowing full well that the borders of the community are constantly undergoing attack and change. While pleased that his Big Idea has got so much attention and use, he’s a bit wounded that his contribution is not more openly acknowledged by his plagiarizing followers.

The idea of interpretive communities should be, according to Fish, an essential part of a student’s orientation to the university. What is learning, even for a profession, other than learning how to step into the conversation of a variety of interpretive communities and to try to function as a member, however fumbling or amateurish that initial contribution might be? An orientation to the procedures of a discipline — the way the professions, be they psychologists or accountants, conduct their business — is crucial. And their business is the business of argument and persuasion.

In this section Fish presents anew the thesis of his 2012 Save the World on Your Own Time. In that work and this one Fish challenges college teachers who fashion their role as moralists, agents of social change, and political activists. The role of the expert, especially when employed by the public university, is to show students how their discipline is advanced and even to help then establish membership in the disciplinary community. It’s safe to explain the rise of Trump but unwise and irresponsible for a political science teacher (and especially for a chemistry teacher) to use the classroom as a stage for advocating Trump’s impeachment. In the same way, one should not condemn creationism but may use classroom time to explain the basis of the appeal and the history of the intelligent design movement.

He joins Gerald Graff, professor of English and Education at University of Illinois Chicago, where Fish once served as Dean of Arts and Sciences, who advocates “teaching the controversies” and providing students with the analytical tools, especially the principles of persuasion, to understand the debate and, outside the classroom, to enter into it. Fish seems to be of two minds here: 1) to help the students in the class take a position in the debates of the subject area, even though they be apprentices, and 2) postpone their participation until they leave the university, or at least that classroom at the end of the semester. Despite this apparent contradiction, Fish is clear that he wants student (and all citizens) to know as both listeners/readers and as speakers/writers the rules and procedures of argument and the differences as practiced in various contexts, like politics, marriage, law, and academia. He also wants his readers to know not to set their sights too high that conflict can be avoided and that harmony can be sustained.




About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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