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Lauren's Blog

Thoughts, insights and ramblings on communication, public speaking, and what makes our work and businesses tick

Equivocation in the wake of Charlottesville

Equivocation in the wake of Charlottesville

It’s called “equivocation.”

What Trump was doing in those two press conferences since Charlottesville – the rhetoric he’s using is called equivocation.

Equivocation is a logical fallacy that uses vague language to hide meaning or to avoid committing to a point of view or stance. You see it used frequently in politics when a politician is trying to appeal to everybody, or – more frequently (and most certainly in this case) – afraid of upsetting a significant number of their supporters.

It also allows the equivocator to avoid counterarguments, to dance around hard questions like “was it terrorism” without giving a committed response.

Let’s look at just a couple of examples from the August 15th press conference*:

“There was terrible violence. On many sides. On many sides.”  Equivocation.

“You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now.” Equivocation.

“So, this week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?” More equivocation, with a side of slippery slope fallacy thrown in for good measure.

Equivocation waters down statements made about a specific issue. By talking about violent acts coming from the counter-protesters in the same breath as those coming from the alt-right, it lets him avoid the real subject: that the rally and its resulting violence were driven by the organized actions of white supremacists.

Some of his equivocations centered on who was perpetrating the violence. Others were attempts to create uncertainty about the real point of the rally, namely the comments regarding the statue of Robert E. Lee. Recognize statements like these for what they are: misdirections and clumsy red herrings thrown out to lure our attention away from what really matters.

Trump’s brand of equivocation also seeks to absolve or diminish the actions of one group by pointing the finger at someone else and chanting, school-boyish, “see, but they’re doing it too!” It’s like a five-year-old tattling “Bently hit me!” after he first pushed Bently over and kicked sand in the kid’s face.

Trump and his mouthpieces will attempt to hide these equivocations by saying that he’s just telling the truth, looking at facts, or – to steal the tagline of one of Trump’s preferred sources of infotainment – presenting the “fair and balanced” view.

You don’t need to equivocate to look at both sides of a story, to tell the truth, or to look at facts. You don’t need to absolve one group of inappropriate or harmful actions to condemn another. With situations like this, it’s important to keep the focus where it belongs, clearly, plainly, and with absolute sincerity.** And in this case, with the abundance of videos evidence of what was going on at this event, it is very clear where our focus should be.

Within politics, equivocation is the tactic of cowards and deceivers. It’s the slippery way out, the easy road when a leader’s beliefs, fears, or position makes the hard path too intimidating to stomach. Sometimes it’s a difficult tactic to spot. In this situation, however, it stood at a podium and brayed angrily for all the world to see.

So see it, and recognize it for what it is.


*Click here to read a full transcript of the press conference.

**That was a big strike against Trump’s August 14th statement. His distinct personal style and habit of saying whatever pops into his head (along with the pride he takes in his undisciplined speeches) makes it painfully obvious when he’s reading something prepared for him by his staffers…and even more obvious when he doesn’t really buy what he’s reading.

News, Developments, and Upcoming Talks/Events

  • See me in action at Nerd Nite November 26 at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, AB! How To Lose Friends and Manipulate People: The Fine Art of Bamboozlement (title may change depending on my caprice). Click here for ticket information and to learn more about Nerd Nite.
  • Currently in development - my online digital course "Masterpiece Presentations: Your step-by-step method for creating high-impact presentations"

Category Archives: Techniques

Demagogue: a lesson in rhetoric


Demagogue, n.: A leader of a popular faction, or of the mob; a political agitator who appeals to the passions and prejudices of the mob in order to obtain power or further his own interests; an unprincipled or factious popular orator. (Oxford English Dictionary)

In democracies the principal cause of revolutions is the insolence of the demagogues; for they cause the owners of property to band together, partly by malicious prosecutions of individuals among them (for common fear brings together even the greatest enemies), and partly by setting on the common people against them as a class.

-Aristotle, Politics, Book 5 (20).

All good speakers understand how to work the three central aspects of rhetorical argument – logos (the logic that matches the listener’s worldview), ethos (the character that the listener sees as admirable or desirable), and pathos (the listener’s emotions).

Demagogues work with logos, ethos, and pathos by using people’s fears, anger, and frustrations. They have a clear understanding of who their target audience is, and they appeal to their basest reasoning and emotions. This was precisely what Trump did. He identified his target voters and played to them in a spectacularly effective way.

Trump wanted the evangelical vote, so he said things that would appeal to evangelicals (regardless how his behaviors contradicted his words). He wanted the disenfranchised blue collar vote, so he found their pain points and spoke about those who took or threatened their jobs (despite his own use of undocumented migrant workers and other shady dealings). He wanted the vote of those tired of the same old thing in Washington, so he associated and compared stagnant political activity with Clinton’s years in office.

In true demagogue fashion, Trump stoked the frustration, disillusionment, and rage of his supporters. He reduced complex socio-and-geo-political issues to us-versus-them sound bites. He offered no clear policy, no sober analysis, but by god did he ever get people worked up.

I can’t pretend to be unbiased when writing this – I believe that Trump’s campaign was repugnant. I also fully realize that the results of the campaign aren’t just down to how Trump campaigned. It’s a vastly complicated scenario that has been building for years. Many, many people cast their votes as ways to reject or protest things they didn’t believe in or couldn’t stomach, rather than voting because they were in 100% agreement with the candidate they chose. Politics and political choices is muddy business.

But in this post, I’m looking at the campaign from a speech and rhetoric perspective. And even when you step back from the emotions and take another look at the messaging, the speeches, the debates, and the Tweets, there can be no denying that his campaign was run on words of fear and hate and self-protection. His campaign was run in the style of a demagogue.

Still, we need to give credit where credit’s due. While listening to Trump speak and debate like eating word salad, the way he targeted and provoked his supporters was masterful. That’s a lesson that any speaker should take note of. It’s a way to win arguments and to craft powerful speeches. It might not be the most upstanding strategy, but it is a strategy you could use.

And before you, or I, or anyone who speaks to a crowd cries the they’ll never emulate a demagogue, take note: these tactics are tempting. They’re tempting because they work. They can sneak in and infiltrate even a well-meaning speaker’s words. So remember the demagogue, take a second or third look at your speech or talk, and be mindful of the strategies you choose to use.

The Practice Rant

The Practice Rant

  The secret isn’t innate confidence. It isn’t a good slide deck, either. It’s not positive, pre-show affirmations. It’s not killer quotes, “life changing” stories, or hilarious content. It definitely isn’t picturing your audience in their underwear.* The above all play a part in great presentations (with the exception of the underwear visualization), but they… Continue Reading

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