Features, Politics

The Rise of the Right and the Triumph of Rhetoric

The great conservative historian Maurice Cowling was once criticised in the London Review of Books for being unable to defend his opinions with arguments. Cowling, who was famously sardonic, wrote in his response:

Given that I have a certain articulateness, it is, it seems to me, quite likely that I can argue them. Argument, however, is not what it seems to me suitable to do with opinions. What one does with opinions — all one needs to do with them, having found that one has them — is to enjoy them, display them, use them, develop them, in order to cajole, press, bully, soothe and sneer other people into sharing (or being affronted by) them. To argue them is, it seems to me, a very vulgar, debating-society sort of activity.

As amusing as this is, he did not write in jest. Cowling taught in Peterhouse college, the oldest college of the University of Cambridge, and formed around himself a sort of conservative mafia through which to preserve and promote his cynical elitist traditionalism. Members of the “Peterhouse Right”, he wrote in Mill and Liberalism:

…share common prejudices — against the higher liberalism and all sorts of liberal rhetoric, including ecclesiastical liberal rhetoric, and in favour of irony, geniality and malice as solvents of enthusiasm, virtue and political elevation.

Ann Coulter

Why dredge Professor Cowling from obscurity? Because in recent years “irony, geniality and malice,” as a means to “cajole, press, bully, soothe and sneer” people into sharing (or being provoked by) one’s opinions, has triumphed on the right. James Delingpole, Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos, for example, have revelled in employing both irony and malice to undermine liberal enthusiasm, while the blokeish geniality of Nigel Farage allowed him to transcend the awkward and impersonal Westminster establishment.

Their triumph, in the year of Brexit and Trump, was a triumph less of argument than of rhetoric. Leftists, who had once prevailed with their iconoclasm, irreverence and egalitarianism, had become censorious, pious and out of touch. Right wing populists defeated them with satire, provocation and skillful if somewhat disingenuous projections of themselves as being outsiders sticking it to the man.

Consider a small example. The term “virtue signalling,” modish in recent years, implies that people voice opinions less to promote their ideas than to promote themselves. Now, it is applied to almost all assertions of any left-wing belief. Recycling? Virtue signalling. Pro-immigration? Virtue signalling. Critical of President Trump? Well, that’s just virtue signalling. In dialectical terms, this is a blatant and shameless attempt at poisoning the well. In rhetorical terms, however, it is a masterful act of well poisoning.

One has to admire their success of these ideologues. Conservative intellectuals like Roger Scruton and Theodore Dalrymple, for all their argumentative and literary talents, had been preaching to the choir for years because their sombre, bookish, elegiac rhetoric appealed to few beyond the ageing conservative crowd. Even right wing populists, like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, blustered to the Republican faithful. Their tirades were too predictable and too monotonous to capture the imaginations of the young and undecided.

Yet of course one’s admiration only goes so far. There are those of us, conservatives, liberals and left wingers, who like arguing and, more significantly, treasure the importance of dialectic as a means of ascertaining truths. It is a depressing feature of modernity that our discourse has become so hostile, so vulgar and so crude, and these new right wing ideologues seem to be enjoying the decline. Anyone who trusts a news item on Breitbart is a potential bridge-buyer, while, if you’re like me, watching Yiannopoulos prance about America discussing his sexual proclivities during arguments about “trigger warnings” will make you want to retire to the library out of boredom.

But this would be weak. It is despair. It is surrender. We have to engage with our culture if we have ideas and standards to defend and promote and that requires rhetoric.

Naïve liberals speak of the “marketplace of ideas,” suggesting that free and open public discourse allows people to judge theories before arriving at the truth. Yet are customers good judges of products? Often no. Salespeoples’ patter has convinced a lot of us to buy t-shirts that wear-out in days, fake watches and disgusting food. We are swayed, often foolishly, by presentation and appearances, and that is as true of ideas as it is of products.

Mural by Melbourne street artist Lushsux

If one is to enter the “marketplace of ideas”, then, one cannot be naive enough to think arguments sell themselves. One must make them appealing. One must use rhetoric: humour, irony, satire, flattery, bombast, eloquence, emotion and, yes, in the 21st Century, even memes.

Yet this should not come at the expense of truth, for advertising a product does not mean that one must compromise its quality. Nor need one appeal to the lowest common denominator. Just as salespeople hope to attract wealthy clients, in arguments we hope to attract people whose intelligence and influence will make them useful allies, not the laziest, most boorish members of the crowd. One should often seek not to convince the most people but the right people. One should, again in the terms of the market, know one’s demographic.

This is not a radical departure from the norm. Burke’s Reflections, Mill’s On Liberty and even The Communist Manifesto have endured, to some extent, not because of ideas but due to  rhetoric. The force of Marx and Engels’ insistence that workers had nothing to lose but their chains was worth hundreds of pages on dialectical materialism. Yet as our societies grow more divided, and our discourse becomes more participatory, rhetoric becomes more significant.

One hopes that there can still be places where truth-seekers of all sides can meet for truly honest and productive conversation. In science, for example, every effort should be made to defend objective methods of analysis. But it would be foolish to imagine that political and cultural discourse can be conducted in such elevated terms. At best, we should hope for something more like a marketplace than a battleground.


Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland. Visit his website here and follow him on Twitter @bdsixsmith.


  1. bowneps says

    Here’s what has me bemused: during the last US election, every single day I got multiple news articles about how one lefty comic or another had ‘destroyed’ Trump. It seemed as if the entire Clinton strategy was rhetoric and humor, purveyed by experts in their deployment. It turned me off, and I’m a democrat!

    No amount of rhetoric will compensate for ignoring the voters’ pocketbook issues. Ann Coulter was against Trump, wasn’t she? And she was as ineffective as Clinton’s jesters. This election wasn’t an example of the triumph of rhetoric and humor but of their utter failure and irrelevance, from where I sit.

    • John Aronsson says

      Ann was vocal for Trump from the moment he road down the elevator in June 2015.

  2. c_gordon says

    “Naïve liberals speak of the “marketplace of ideas,” suggesting that free and open public discourse allows people to judge theories before arriving at the truth. Yet are customers good judges of products? Often no.”

    “if one is to enter the “marketplace of ideas”, then, one cannot be naive enough to think arguments sell themselves.”

    If the author thinks liberals actually believe, rather than *claim* (rhetoric!) to believe, in a ‘marketplace of ideas’, then he is far more ‘naive’ than they supposedly are. Even the ones who are or appear sincere in this belief almost always abandon it when faced with ideas they cannot tolerate, for whatever reason (usually “racism”, etc.).

    The issue is not so much with the customer or consumer being unable to distinguish the good ideas from bad as a result of poor marketing; instead it is a problem of the ideas themselves being intrinsically flawed or outmoded and therefore of limited wholesale value. The mostly implicit assumption in this article is that the right wing voting bloc was persuaded by ideas that are wrong. But are they wrong? As the author must know, very ingenuous, empirically-minded and persuasive persons have argued for ethno-states, autarky, limited suffrage, and other ideas which of late have resurfaced to much acclaim. These ideas may be unpalatable, unreasonable, or even stupid and evil to many self-styled liberals (and conservatives), but these arguments are popular and enduring not just because they are being marketed well through the astute use of rhetoric but because they *are* true, or at least as arguably so as their counterpoints. Some of these ideas really do, like good drugs or quality craftsmanship, sell themselves.

    Let proponents either make this a real open market place or just stop pretending to desire something that in its fullest fruition they would never actually care to see.

    • The author is a conservative, and not unhappy to see liberals defeated, but it is nonetheless true that the likes of Delingpole and Yiannopolous, for example, happily trade in lies and distortions as long as they are rhetorically effective. Do you think Breitbart News is a scrupulous media organisation? I don’t think even its employees would claim as much.

      • Sarka says

        Mmm. There are some sites and some “reporters” who peddle invented stories, but the “likes of Delingpole and Yiannopolous” strike me as much more just “opinion” presenters. Not that I have followed the works of either, in detail, but e.g. Milo tells you at great length that he thinks some modern feminists are in his view horrible and stupid, and the Islamic religion is awful and a threat. Obviously, on such issues “facts” can be adduced on all sides, and these “facts” can in some cases be real and in other cases be invented, or at least embroidered but I don’t think that these columnist/publicist (rather than reporter) types deal much in the kind of lies and distortions that could easily be “exposed” by an investigative journo or person well read in the academic treatments of the questions. Because this sort of opinion (even if you think it wild, out of synch with some reality) is – as much as the opposite opinion – OPINION – an interpretation of reality.

        One of several depressing aspects of the Progressive inability to cope intellectually with the “populists”, or alleged “far righters” etc etc…is their revealing muddle over what to attack as “lies” (fake news bla bla), as literal untruth, and what to attack as an opinion (countering an opinion is a rather different intellectual challenge from exposing a falsehood). In their often very pathetic and inarticulate outrage, some of the lib-left have, like the far left, taken to accusing people who basically interpret some part of reality in a different manner – who have a different OPINION, of lying in the sense of deliberately and consciously misrepresenting/inventing facts on the ground. Coincidentally, the same sort of person tends to to some extent to defend the suppression of “hate facts”, i.e. facts that unfortunately seem to support an alternative interpretation…

        Rather than chucking mud at individuals, though, I would just sadly say that this lack of rhetorical/philosophical understanding (actual ignorance of when what is at issue is a report of events, or a report of an interpretation, and when what is at issue is an interpretation) seems to me to have become very common probably as a result of lousy teaching in the humanities…

        • Your condescension is unwarranted. I said Milo lies and distorts because lie and distort he does. That he does so in the context of giving his opinions makes that no less true. (Take, for example, his claim that only five percent of the Alt-Right is anti-semitic: a complete lie, angrily refuted on the leading Alt-Right platforms The Daily Stormer and The Daily Shoah, whose hosts were outraged to have their anti-Jewish sincerity challenged.) I suspect I agree with many of Milo’s opinions once the preening hyperbole and perverse embellishments have been stripped out of them. If I was talking about his opinions I would say so.

  3. Samedi says

    I don’t see the use of rhetoric as the core problem with our current political discourse. The problem, in my view, is the quality of the rhetoric. The articles and blog posts I read these days (Quillette thankfully excepted) are filled with demonization, hyperbolic emoting, and unthinking name-calling. This vulgar rhetoric is tedious and deeply unintelligent. It exacerbates divisions, driving people towards an us-versus-them mentality. My quixotic hope is that grown-ups on all sides will tire of the current trend and promote a more civil and intelligent discourse, one that promotes understanding instead of hostility.

  4. Intersectional Playboy says

    Rhetoric and fact-loose discourse is just as common on the left as the right. One need only take a gander at The Daily Show or, say, any of the numerous Hollywood personas that pronounce on cultural and political issues. There you’ll find spiels populated by atrocious arguments – and often non-arguments. And countless people see video snippets of partisan, propaganda-peddling ‘news’ items from The Young Turks, AJ+, and so forth, on their social media feeds daily (and there are right-leaning outlets pumping stuff out that’s just as bad, of course).

    People are partisans and like hearing confirmatory statements, regardless of warrant. And there’s probably much more added incentive, in addition to this, because rhetorical discourse can win over fence-sitters and the otherwise ambivalent and easily swayable – swayed because they simply aren’t exposed to anything else, or swayed because sensuous verbiage pushes the right buttons and elicits their latent preferences and opinions. So, to the author, I would say: If you think rhetoric is only a mainstay on the right these days, you should look harder. Moreover, when one side is deploying underhanded yet effective tactics and cannot be policed by an impartial third-party to desist from doing so, it is game-theoretically rational for the opposition to follow suit.

  5. Ben “One hopes that there can still be places where truth-seekers of all sides can meet for truly honest and productive conversation.” Herein lies the major problem. We have a great shortage of “truth seekers” (whatever that means), and a great many, well educated, brain manipulators and fighters for their view of truth and reality. The political class of the right wing seem incapable of fighting against these ideas ie the safe schools program in Australia.

    It is basically a left v right war of ideas that has just started. The right has not fought against the left with any determination until recently, I suspect they felt the left held a morally upper hand. They are just learning to develop some muscle.

    From my arm chair, it appears the left had become so weird they invited this fight into their well furnished living room.

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