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Rhetorical Analysis of the 3rd Presidential Debate

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My goal for this essay is to provide a rhetorical analysis of the 2016 presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. In doing so I wish to convey how politicians are world-class public speakers who use their knowledge of the field of rhetoric to manipulate and persuade their audience. These debates were without a question of doubt a testament to the power of persuasion. While Trump was not the most qualified and experienced candidate, he still managed to win the race to the presidency and in doing so proved that all election campaigns, at their core, are about persuasion. Aristotle states in his theory of rhetoric that to be a compelling speaker one must be well-equipped with the three pillars of persuasion, ethos, pathos and logos. Clinton and Trump are perfect examples of two presidential candidates who draw largely on the three pillars of persuasion. Hilary draws mostly on the ethos and logos methods of persuasion and has a very careful, calculated, and cautious style of speaking. Often Clinton draws arguments from her previous years of experience within politics which she contrasts with Trump’s lack of experience. Trump, however, relies heavily on pathos style of rhetorical appeal. He successfully uses slogans such as his famous “Make America Great Again”. Trump doesn’t rely on facts, but rather uses his character and charisma to invoke more emotional-based responses from his viewers. Through applying Aristotelian theory to the case of the recent presidential debates it becomes clear that both Trump and Clinton either consciously or unconsciously used ethos, logos, and pathos in their election campaigns.

The appeal to ethos is defined by Aristotle as human character and goodwill (Aristotle, G. A. K. 2007). Throughout the presidential debates, both Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump use this appeal to work in their favor. Donald Trump through drawing attention to his success in business is trying to create an image of a strong leader and businessman (Swanson, 2016, Paragraph 9). Trump does this through his successful presentation of the analogy between running a business and ruling a country (Bump, 2017, Paragraph 1). Additionally, Trump is very comfortable in complementing himself and therefore never misses an opportunity to praise his own character and goodwill in public. This is evident when he makes comments such as “My whole life is about winning. I don’t lose often. I almost never lose” (Los Angeles Times staff, 2017). Hilary Clinton also utilizes the appeal to ethos in her favor. However, Clinton draws attention to her previous years of experience in politics. She uses much more complex and hard to understand language and ultimately is appealing to a more educated audience. While Clinton was very successful is appealing to her target audience, it is argued that Donald Trump, through the use of easier-to-understand language, ends up coming across as a friendlier and more trustworthy candidate. Hence it can be deduced that the ability of a public speaker to present themselves as a trustworthy individual can ultimately have a huge impact on your ability to persuade.

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The appeal to logos is defined by Aristotle as the pure essence enclosed in speech. Within the field of rhetoric, it is the truth that becomes revealed through a logically constructed argument with clear cause-and-effect relations. This logically constructed argument needs to have a claim that is backed up with relevant evidence and should have nothing that deals with emotions as logos must appeal to the intellect and reasoning skills of the viewer and nothing else (Sellnow 2005, p.387). Analyzing the use of logos by both Trump and Clinton in their strategies, it can be concluded that Trump clearly loses to Clinton as she uses the logos 26 times while Trump uses fewer (only 23 logos were identified in his strategy). Clinton uses more logical arguments to convince the audience than Trump, as well as different enthymemes and examples to support them.

Finally, the appeal to pathos is defined by Aristotle as an individual’s emotions. He states that emotions are all feelings that change a person’s judgement and that are also attended by pain or pleasure. Such are anger, pity, fear and the like, with their opposites. Both Trump and Clinton appeal to pathos throughout the presidential debates, however, it is argued that Trump does so more effectively. Trump successfully utilizes pathos, through invoking fear and anger into his supporters, which he uses as a control mechanism (Ball 2016). This is done when he makes claims that America is being ruined by foreigners or that Hilary Clinton is working with the Russians. For example, during one of the presidential debates, Donald Trump while talking about illegal immigrants said “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists”. While these claims couldn’t be further from the truth, Fear is claimed to be the most primal and strongest emotion which people can experience and hence these claims work in Trump’s favor (Turner 2000, p. 70). In addition to this, Trump also successfully utilizes humor to work in his favor and draw the attention of the audience. As stated by Alfano and O’Brien (2011), jokes and other forms of humor basically appeals to pathos because they put the audience in the right emotional state to be receptive to an argument. This appeal to humor in seen through almost all the presidential debates and is used by trump as a way of dodging hard questions by turning them into something humorous. Hence, the reason Donald Trump was ultimately so successful in his presidential campaign can be attributed to his ability to manipulate audiences into believing him. Trump through the campaign was able to portray himself as a kind of hero who is able alone to save the nation from illegal immigrants and Muslims. That is why people affected by the appeal support him. That is why after the question who is going to pay for the border wall, thousands of his supporters are replying and that is ultimately why he won the presidency.

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Rhetorical Analysis of the 3rd Presidential Debate. (2022, October 28). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 29, 2023, from
“Rhetorical Analysis of the 3rd Presidential Debate.” Edubirdie, 28 Oct. 2022,
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