The art of oratory in 140 characters
SOME readers may be old enough to remember the television message ‘Do not adjust your set’, which reassured viewers that the aberrations on their screens related to problems outside the home. We wonder if it should be revived. The nightly news programmes have made some of us doubt our own sanity in recent months.
Donald Trump really is the new President of the USA, larger than life if considerably less natural. The Italian clown turned political leader Beppe Grillo is genuine, Jeremy Corbyn continues to lead Labour and Brexit actually happened.
We wish President Trump well. We hope for the best and we’re grateful that he appears to have affection for Britain. We don’t necessarily believe everything that we read about him—at the time of writing, some of the most lurid allegations are uncorroborated and could be a form of black propaganda to polarise opinion in the USA still further and weaken its capacity to act in international affairs. Who knows? Anything is possible. These waters are too deep to plumb.
What we can say is that a new discourse has emerged. Since Ancient Greece, the finest orators have been those who delivered their message in carefully structured speeches, brought alive by vivid imagery and given punch by the deployment of well-honed rhetorical devices. Abraham Lincoln and W. E. Gladstone could, with nothing to command but the unamplified human voice, attract huge crowds and Winston Churchill’s speeches helped win the Second World War.
Mr Trump’s appeal is based on something else. We should have seen it coming. Television knocked oratory off its podium —it was replaced by the soundbite and make-up brush—but there’s a lingering affection for the ancient art. After voicecoaching, Margaret Thatcher’s mastery of the memorable phrase gave a colour to the 1980s that the previous decade, the monochrome 1970s, conspicuously lacked. Admittedly, a greater orator was her spectacularly unsuccessful opponent Michael Foot, whose gifts were matched only by Enoch Powell, another relative failure. It seemed that the art, largely confined to the political fringes, was dying.
Barack Obama confounded this assessment. His ‘Yes We Can’ was a classic example of anaphora. Recently, the power of traditional speech-making was demonstrated in the House of Commons by Hilary Benn, but that’s not the Trump style. Love or hate him, he undeniably has the power to communicate.
His preference for the sledgehammer to the rapier may distress audiences who prefer more polished styles of delivery, but we wonder if it isn’t reverting to an earlier, pre-gladstone model of discourse, in which politicians rambled, with occasional flashes of brilliance, speaking their thoughts as they occurred to them. Now, however, the forum is not an intimate meeting hall, but cyberspace.
We can all feel we know this President. He is what he Tweets.