In the midst of a tumultuous election cycle that has shattered the conventions of American political campaigns, a glaring concern among commentators and political pundits has been changes to the tone of American political rhetoric.
Following the heated Presidential town hall debate on Sunday, some Harvard professors expressed concern that the 2016 Presidential campaign has set new standards for norms of aggression and deception.
“I do think this election has crossed a line,” said Theda Skocpol, professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard, referring specifically to Donald J. Trump’s threat to imprison Hillary R. Clinton as well as his accusations that the election is “rigged.”
To History professor Jill Lepore, such inflamed rhetoric can be traced back to the debates of the primary election, and has carried over and increased in the general election campaign. “Trump just changes everything when he walks into the Republican primary debates,” Lepore said, noting that the format of the current debates has only exacerbated this trend.
“The medium is a difficult one in which to have the sustained views and exchange of one another’s positions,” Lepore said. “And pretty much everyone is opposed to the town hall format, which so far has been the worst of these debates.”
According to Thomas Patterson, a Harvard Kennedy School professor, such inflamed rhetoric in the last debate has in fact been a characteristic strategy of the Trump campaign.
“The politics of outrage shifts well into the news model and the media have essentially acted as megaphones,” Patterson said.
English professor Stephen Greenblatt characterized Trump’s prose as often incoherent, even sometimes lacking “subjects and predicates and arguments,” citing George Orwell on the importance of clarity in political writing. Still, Greenblatt noted, Trump’s support base remains intact, indicating that it is not necessarily the candidate’s expression of any clear sequence of ideas that draws his supporters.
While noting that Trump is certainly an extreme example, Patterson cautioned against tying the increase of vitriol in political rhetoric specifically to Trump. Rather, Patterson sees Trump’s popularity as the natural product of a party which has spent the past 30 years upholding a platform “against everything.”
For better or worse, Skocpol thinks that the future of political rhetoric hinges on the results of the election and how close Trump comes to winning the presidency.
A Country Ill At EaseNow that he has been elected president, however, Trump must work to bring the many groups his campaign has derided and insulted into his vision of a strong, united country, while facing the consequences of his unacceptable and demeaning rhetoric.
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Don’t Normalize, Don’t IgnoreHarvard as an institution has the privilege and the duty to educate its students and the public about the world, including its less savory aspects.