Column: Ethos, or: Why people should listen to me

By Jordan Fischer

How does one become a Grammar Guy? In my case, I graduated with honors (Latin honors!) with a dual-degree in journalism and English, I was the managing editor of a newspaper and I knew what an interrobang was. Also, when the job opened up, I asked.

How does one establish ethos with their audience? See above.

Whatever I go on to say now – as long as it’s about grammar – I’ve foregrounded a sense of expertise and authority on my part. That is what Aristotle dubbed ethos – one of the three modes of persuasion.

If you read last week’s column, you know we’re talking about rhetoric and the art of persuasion on the campaign trail. And in our (still presumptive, as of this writing) Democratic and Republican candidates, we see two very different methods of establishing ethos.

Hillary Clinton tends to lead first with her credentials and experience – what Aristotle called phronesis. Consider this passage from his “Nicomachean Ethics:”

“…Prudence (phronesis) includes a knowledge of particular facts, and this is derived from experience, which a young man does not possess; for experience is the fruit of years.”

In her opponent, Donald Trump, we see more of an emphasis on Aristotle’s two other aspects of ethos: arete (excellence/virtue) and eunoia (goodwill).

Trump is, by nearly all accounts, a supremely gifted self-promoter, which is key to establishing ethos. Consider this quote from a speech in December:

“I went to an Ivy League school,” Trump said, a point he frequently brings up to establish his excellence. “I’m very highly educated. I know words. I have the best words.”

Trump also repeatedly points to his successful business ventures, his great personal fortune and his trouncing of his Republican rivals as proof of his virtue (arete). Ethos. Ethos. Ethos.

In another skillful rhetorical move, the New York real estate mogul in June both tried to damage Clinton’s perceived goodwill with voters (eunoia) while building his own. Referencing Clinton’s campaign slogan, “I’m with her,” Trump told a crowd on June 22, “You know what my response to that is? I’m with you, the American people.”

It’s worth noting that establishing ethos doesn’t happen just because you say you’re great – there has to be some grounding in reality. Trump can promote his image as a dealmaker because of his successes in business. Clinton can frame herself as the foreign policy expert because of her vast experience as a first lady, senator and secretary of state. Me claiming either of those things? Not as persuasive. That’s why I stick to snarky grammar columns.

Coming up next week: “Moving mountains, and minds, with pathos.”