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Richard Cherwitz: At the end of the day, rhetoric cannot change reality

Richard Cherwitz: At the end of the day, rhetoric cannot change reality

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Cherwitz toon

In the past four years, many of my fellow communication scholars, as well as political pundits, documented the enormous persuasive power of President Donald Trump’s rhetoric. They observed over and over how his discourse caused millions of Americans to ignore what they were seeing and hearing, creating their own set of facts.

It always is the case, however, that the world as it actually is inevitably intrudes to explode erroneous rhetorical constructions of reality. History is replete with examples of how perceptions eventually give way to truth and how unfounded opinions are exposed as lies and deceptions. It is my contention, therefore, that numbers rather than rhetorical denials, defections and obfuscation will tell the final story of Donald Trump’s legacy, the first president in the history of the United States to be impeached twice.

Consider a few undeniable numbers from the past week. As of this writing, 20,000 members of the National Guard currently protect the United States Capitol and line the streets of Washington, D.C. Think about this incredible figure: it is more than the total number of U.S. troops deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria combined by a factor of four. Put simply, instead of fighting enemies in other countries, America’s military is now protecting us from enemies within our own borders.

In addition, 12-foot walls and fences have been erected, extra layers of security have been implemented, metal detectors have been installed at the entry of the Capitol, and many streets and the National Mall are closed to visitors and spectators — all in an effort to ensure a safe inauguration for President-elect Joe Biden. Washington looks more like a war zone than the nation’s citadel. What a truly tragic and unprecedented moment in history.

This sad state of affairs could not have been imagined. Moreover, it was a direct byproduct of the president’s rhetoric that incited and instigated domestic terrorism, insurrection, riots and acts of sedition. Far from being a bloodless coup, the storming of the Capitol resulted in multiple deaths and injuries. Some now are even reporting that government officials — including several in Congress — may have aided the extremists, enabling them to enter the Capitol. We also are learning that the rioters were planning to capture and assassinate elected officials.

And if acts of treason aren’t bad enough, nearly 400,000 of our fellow citizens thus far have died due to COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projects another 90,000 will die in the next few weeks. Let’s put this in perspective. Soon deaths from the coronavirus will eclipse the total number of Americans killed in World War II. This is a toll that didn’t have to be so high. If only we had a competent president in the White House who cared more about other people than himself. If only Republican congressional leaders had the strength to put the nation above political power and party.

As someone who has studied political communication for more than forty years, one thing has become clear: No amount of rhetoric or political spin can sustain an alternate narrative that flies in the face of reality. Words won’t erase the numbers. Nor can language change the painful reality of the past four years that we have experienced.

Arguably, this chapter of history could be a case where revisionism is less likely and certainly more difficult to write. It is hard to envision, for example, how future historians will be able to explain away these and other stubborn facts dotting the timeline of the failed Trump presidency. Bottom line: While political discourse is indeed powerful in the moment, resulting in significant and dangerous consequences, at the end of the day rhetoric cannot change reality. It can’t wish reality away or will it into existence — and that will be the legacy of the Trump presidency.

Richard Cherwitz is the Ernest A. Sharpe Centennial Professor Emeritus, Moody College of Communication, University of

Texas at Austin.

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