Ryan Skinnell, ed. Faking the News: What Rhetoric Can Teach Us about Donald J. Trump. Societas: Essays in Political and Cultural Criticism Series. Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2018. 200 pp. $29.90 (paper), ISBN 978-1-84540-969-2.
Reviewed by James Chase Sanchez (Middlebury College)
Published on H-Rhetor (December, 2018)
Commissioned by Cristen Fitzpatrick (St. John's University)
“Trump is a pervert,” writes Joshua Gunn, in the final chapter of Faking the News: What Rhetoric Can Teach Us about Donald J. Trump, edited by Ryan Skinnell (p. 169). As might be inferred from such a statement, this collection is not your typical edited volume of rhetorical scholarship. Instead, Skinnell strips away the pretense of the academy, skipping out on loads of academic jargon and trite analysis, to provide fresh discourse on Trump’s rhetoric.
Skinnell explicitly notes that the text was written for a public audience that might be interested in better understanding why Trump uses those oftly peculiar discursive strategies that many people know but find hard to name. The publication of this book with a popular press demonstrates that rhetoric has public value. To demonstrate this value, Skinnell flows between public and academic appeals seamlessly—walking the tightrope of being easy to read yet fully generative in content and analysis.
In the introduction, Skinnell states that the goal of the book is to better make sense of the world in the wake of Trump’s election. But the book’s argument is more complex than that. While each chapter stands alone, taken together, they formulate a cohesive argument that demonstrates that Trump’s rhetoric is not a mistake or “just Trump being Trump.” Rather, his rhetorical tactics are calculated and are employed because he knows they garner support. For instance, Michael J. Steudeman argues that Trump has co-opted the term “witch hunt” to refer to the investigation into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia because it makes him (a billionaire with zero hardships) look like a victim. Trump’s continued use of this phrase resonates with his audience, even though it very clearly does not characterize the investigation.
This central argument, that Trump’s rhetoric is intentional, weaves all the chapters together. It is what connects Anna M. Young’s assertion that Trump uses populism to legitimize xenophobia and white nationalism to Paul J. Achter’s argument that Trump cultivates his “shadow archetype” TV persona to drive TV ratings (p. 117). Collectively, the array of chapters means there is plenty to unpack for scholars and casual readers alike. For people who want more academic scholarship, they can turn to Young’s arguments on populism and Steudeman’s connections between Trump and demagoguery, but for people who want analysis that exists outside the realm of “typical” rhetorical scholarship, they could turn to Davis W. Houck’s visual breakdown of Trump playing golf (and his ass) or Ira J. Allen’s discussion of Trump’s antisemitism.
The end of the collection, Gunn’s “Donald Trump’s Perverse Political Rhetoric” chapter, might be the best chapter of the bunch (out of many great choices). Gunn takes a bold stance in the conclusion, stating bluntly: “Trump is a pervert” (p. 169, and the opening of this review). Though this claim sounds perverse within itself, his point is clear, rhetorically speaking; if the self is constructed by our interactions and words then Trump is his rhetoric. He is a pervert. To make this point, Gunn emphasizes the way Trump attempted to normalize sexual assault through holding a bizarre press conference with women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault. In this sense, Trump “perverted” how we handle sexual assault accusations. It is no wonder Skinnell closes the collection with this chapter because Gunn accurately characterizes many of the rhetorical moves described in other analyses.
As you might see with Gunn and Houck, one of the most appealing aspects of the book is its humor. Yes, a book on the detestable rhetoric of the president is quite hilarious. Whether it is Skinnell calling Trump a “notorious liar” and using his “entire presidential campaign” as proof (p. 76), or Patricia Roberts-Miller discussing Barack Obama and Clinton participating in human sacrifices as a means to discuss false equivalency, or Houck discussing the photoshopped images of “Fecal Trump” (p. 156), many of the authors exhibit humor as a way to engage with readers. This is a specific appeal for a mainstream audience, and the individual chapters take pride in the unconventional nature of the book, and use it to their advantage.
Of course, a book focused on making rhetorical analysis accessible to a public audience has limitations in scope. Some scholars in the field might see the text as curbing the more rigorous analysis Trump deserves for being, well, Trump. I doubt Skinnell and other contributors disagree with such an assessment, but this is not the point of the collection. Skinnell writes in the introduction that one of the goals is to help readers “assess” and perhaps “oppose” bad political actors like Trump in the future (p. 5). And the book provides a gateway for the public to do just that, even if it does err on the side of being accessible as opposed to being extensive.
However, the main takeaway from Faking the News is that Trump’s rhetoric is more complex than some of us might be led to believe. It is easy to define Trump’s rhetoric as simple or juvenile because some of his rhetorical appeals make us roll our eyes as rhetoricians. Yet, without doubt, his tactics work. With demagoguery and populism as the driving forces behind his rhetorical style, Trump has used his business “tactics,” television persona, and Twitter to propagate a base and formulate his character. Each chapter thus takes a slice out of the Trump’s rhetorical persona and illustrates how they are more elaborate than they seem on the surface. This, inherently, is Trump’s rhetoric: making the egregious and unruly (and the seemingly transparent) persuasive.
Overall, Faking the News is a captivating read and the cover alone will grab the attention of anyone who sees you reading it. This work is a potential entry point into our field for those who might be interested in rhetoric without knowing the proper terms and tools of analysis. Nonetheless, the book is versatile and can be used for more than its public audience. For example, the text could be a centerpiece in undergraduate courses on political rhetoric or entry-level courses in rhetorical studies. Perhaps most important though, Skinnell brings together a heavy-hitting team of scholars and scholarship to illustrate the book’s urgency. Trump’s rhetoric needs to be deeply scrutinized because his presidency—his ascension as the GOP nominee and his policies a year and half into his first term—has consequences, and citizens deserve the tools to better understand, evaluate, and, if needed, renounce him.
In the afterword” of the book, Jennifer R. Mercieca says that it will be “difficult to control” Trump because of how he has weaponized political rhetoric (p. 178). While that is true, Faking the News provides us an antidote of sorts—not one that can truly alter Trump’s discourse but rather one that can provide people the tools necessary to unmask him and his rhetoric.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-rhetor.
James Chase Sanchez. Review of Skinnell, Ryan, ed., Faking the News: What Rhetoric Can Teach Us about Donald J. Trump.
H-Rhetor, H-Net Reviews.
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