One common criticism of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign was that she lacked ethos, she simply couldn’t convince voters of her credibility and good character. To her supporters however, she was a savior figure, and after her defeat, many were left wondering what went wrong.
Clinton has created a rhetoric that highlighted many truths, portraying herself as the most experienced politician running, a strong female role model, a trustworthy friend to marginalized women and children across the world, and a champion of working class Americans.
Clinton has a strong professional ethos; she is celebrated by her colleagues and was certainly experientially over qualified to be President of the United States. Clinton has served many roles including First Lady and New York State Senator. As Secretary of State, Clinton navigated sensitive matters in the Middle East, and thus has unprecedented experience in diplomacy.
Clinton’s professional ethos begins with the fact that she has been a public servant for many years and thus has learned to compromise to produce results. Clinton’s identity and ethos has evolved to encompass many different types of constituents, from Arkansas to New York, and thus she could have been a president for a wide range of Americans.
Clinton has used visual rhetoric to create a more credible and trustworthy ethos several times. Clinton is well aware that in American politics, female candidates are not only expected to be both good leaders and good women, but they are also expected to dress professionally and look a certain way, namely attractive and polished.
Clinton, like other martyr figures, sacrificed her identity visually to deliver a message to voters about her conformity to traditional gender roles, in order to create a more positive ethos for herself and her husband. She created a visual rhetoric to portray herself as a governor’s first lady that voters could trust and identify with. Clinton began wearing more gendered clothing, lightened her hair and traded her glasses for contacts. Many women can commiserate with this pressure to change one’s appearance and thus she became a role model for working, independent American women.
In 1995, Clinton gave her famous “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” speech. Clinton focused on her gender and her role as First Lady to provide ethos as a voice for marginalized women and girls internationally.
Notably, buffington36 also examines Clinton’s use of visual rhetoric to deliver a message with her choice of outfit:
“In her speech in Beijing she wears light pink–a color associated with charm, politeness, sensitivity, tenderness, and femininity.”
In the 2016 election cycle, Clinton notably toned down her public wearing of expensive jewelry because her campaign wanted to draw attention away from her public identity as a wealthy former First Lady. Clinton shifted to wearing small hoop earrings, a small chain and a bracelet that contains pictures of her granddaughter Charlotte. It is clear that Clinton used jewelry as visual rhetoric to deliver a message to voters, specifically to communicate that she encompasses the identity of the relatable grandmother, which automatically gives her a trustworthy ethos. In American culture, who doesn’t trust their grandmother?
Clinton also used visual rhetoric to send a message in the first Presidential Debate. In her live Tweet of the debate, juliacanzoneri explains her positive reaction to Hillary’s red pantsuit, which communicated Clinton’s identity as a powerful candidate for the presidency.
After the primaries, to unite the Democratic party behind Clinton, her campaign adopted the slogan “Stronger Together” to address more liberal voters’ concerns that she was too conservative, and, to solidify her liberal identity. This rhetoric of inclusion included ethos driven appeals that she was a credible candidate for working class Americans, a tactic employed by other female politicians, like Shirley Chisholm in the 1970’s. This certainly portrayed Clinton as a savior to all Americans, including the working class.
In addition, to combat criticisms on her identity from both Republicans and Democrats, Clinton’s campaign directly addressed the issue of untrustworthiness and created a video that draws on the credibility and diversity of various Clinton supporters to add to her ethos.
Clinton also appeared in Humans of New York, which combines photography and personal stories to humanize interviewees. In this piece Clinton allowed herself to share anecdotes which showed the more vulnerable parts of her identity while visually allowing herself to be caught off guard by the camera. This delivered a message to voters that Hillary was not simply an established public servant, but also a human being, giving her an ethos that transcended the scandals of her political career.
It is clear that Clinton is a talented rhetorician, and that she carefully used visual rhetoric, delivery, and maintained a well crafted professional ethos, however, Clinton still lost the election. Thus, her image as a savior clearly did not speak to many people in the United States. I was dumbfounded on the day after the election, as were many of my classmates. The day after the election, BrieDanielle wrote:
“I have no words.”
After Clinton’s loss, the question I asked myself, was what sort of rhetoric was Clinton up against? I decided to ask my conservative family members why they voted for Trump, and was shocked at the amount of false information they gave as justification. After some research it became clear that indeed, fake news stories plagued the 2016 Presidential election. This article, by the New York Times examines how fake news has become a viral phenomenon because of social media platforms.
Indeed, social media platforms allow anyone to share any story, regardless or whether it is true or not. In the 2016 election, Donald Trump’s sons and advisors shared countless untrue articles on Twitter, encouraging their followers to do the same.
In addition, a recent analysis of news on social media showed that a significant percentage of stories shared on Facebook are false. Conservative leaning sources are nearly twice as likely to contain fake news than liberal sources.
An examination of these fake news articles and other anti-Clinton propaganda from conservative leaning sources reveals a false version of Hillary Clinton. This propaganda uses visual rhetoric to deliver a false identity for Clinton, and thus creates an untrustworthy and corrupt ethos for her and other liberals. In these inaccurate works, Clinton becomes an untrustworthy, evil, and corrupt villain.
The exaggerated and mostly fictional movie “Hillary’s America,” was featured on the top charts on iTunes in the weeks leading up to the election. This movie was written, edited, and produced by a single person, yet was still placed in the “documentary” section of iTunes. It has been described by Variety magazine as paranoid piece of “ahistorical propaganda.” Visually, the film’s cover features Hillary’s eyes in the background, tinted red. The use of color here is meant to depict her as evil, perhaps even demonic. In the film’s trailer, an actress portraying Clinton can be seen peering out windows of a dark oval office and folding her hands menacingly while she sits at the President’s desk. The darkness of the movie trailer delivers a message that Clinton is corrupt and villainous.
This false news article regarding the 2016 debates, used photoshop and video editing tools to create an image of an “earpiece” in Clinton’s ear. The article claims that throughout the debate, an outside party was “feeding Clinton lines during the debate to explainin why she preformed so well. This idea of “cheating” removes the prepared and experienced professional ethos from Clinton’s campaign and creates visual rhetoric that delivers a message of corruption and untrustworthiness to viewers.
Breitbart, a conservative “news” platform became quite popular before the 2016 election as it has released several stories regarding scandals in the Democratic Party, including wrongdoing by politicians like Anthony Weiner. Although the platform has at times posted true content, it also has encouraged several conspiracy theories, many of which were centered around Clinton during the 2016 election. This article, uses visual rhetoric to connect Hillary Clinton to white supremacists who use the Confederate Flag. Although the origins of the pin cannot be credibly verified, an image of it is shared as proof that Clinton is secretly racist, and thus holds an untrustworthy, evil identity and ethos.
Sarah Parente examined the fact that Clinton’s identity as a liberal politician was called into question after the primaries by Bernie supporters who actively created a social media
narrative using memes which focused on Clinton’s alleged corruption and untrustworthiness. These memes often deal with conspiracy theories but are accepted and shared by many young voters as fact. Thus, memes also contributed to the climate of false news and Hillary’s vilification, and untrustworthy ethos.
False news articles clearly played a negative role in the election, creating an untrustworthy, corrupt and entirely false ethos for Clinton. A study released by Stanford University in June 2016 found that 80% of students believed that sponsored content was a real news story. In addition, more than 30% of students thought a fake Fox News account was more trustworthy than the real one. There is clearly, then, a need to educate high school and college students on how to tell fake news from real news. Over 100 million people who visit BuzzFeed.com each month are between 18-34, and can be considered young voters. BuzzFeed thus is a great way to reach high school and college students. To call attention to fake news in a fun and new way, I have created a short but educational BuzzFeed quiz that asks the user to determine whether a news story about Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is true or false. Each answer contains helpful tips for spotting fake news that will help young people determine whether a story is legitimate in the future. I encourage any student in my Democratic Rhetoric course to take it, the answers may surprise you!