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Trump reaches new low, communication expert says

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

LAWRENCE — With controversy over his “shithole” remark still roiling days later and the one-year anniversary of his inauguration Saturday, an expert in presidential rhetoric says iconoclastic President Donald Trump has degraded the office he holds.

Robert Rowland, University of Kansas professor of communication studies, is available to the news media to help place things in historical context. Rowland has written books about former presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, and he says President Trump is a clear break from their eloquence and unifying ethos.

“Last week, President Trump did not speak like a moral leader,” Rowland said. “He used rhetoric not to inspire, but to demean. With his choice of language, he diminished the presidency and the leadership role of the United States in the world. It is not just that he angered people in Africa and Haiti, but that he came across as shallow and vulgar.

“Of course, this was by no means the first time that he has come across in this way. He is constantly distracting us with an outrageous comment.”

Trump also tweets like no previous president, seemingly un-fact-checked and straight from his id, Rowland said. But Rowland said that while Twitter provides a new vehicle for sending out messages, “it has not changed the roles that presidents fulfill. Nor has it changed the kind of rhetoric that will fulfill those roles. It is not dated to expect an American president to speak about the meaning of the nation and provide an inspiring and inclusive vision of the American Dream.”

“Americans have looked to the president not only for managing policy but for providing a model of how we should deal with each other,” Rowland said. “More fundamentally, presidents have used their rhetoric to provide a vision of what it means to be an American.

“For example, although their policy views were very different, presidents Reagan and Obama both described an inclusive and optimistic vision of a nation moving toward the American Dream.

“Meeting rhetorical norms is also important when presidents use rhetoric to help us cope with disasters. President Reagan’s Challenger eulogy did this, as did several of President Obama’s eulogies after mass shootings. President George W. Bush did not generally achieve the same level of eloquence as Reagan or Obama, but in his remarks after 9/11 he sent a message of national resilience. All of this means that meeting the unspoken norms of presidential rhetoric is crucial in helping presidents fulfill the role of moral and inspirational leader.”

Rowland said that while Trump’s bare-knuckled style might have helped him win the presidency, it remains to be seen whether it will help him succeed in the long run.

“President Trump successfully has appealed to the 30-something percent of people that constitute his base. But even with this group, pollsters and others often report discontent about how he talks,” Rowland said.

Rowland is available for interviews in person, by phone or via the radio and television studios on the KU campus. To set up an interview, or for technical details on the radio and TV side, please contact KU News Service Public Affairs Officer Rick Hellman, 785-864-8852 (work), 913-620-8786 (cell) or rick_hellman@ku.edu.