James Phelan • Assessing Nonfictional Narratives in Contest: The Rhetoric of Devin Nunes

About the blog: The Instrumental Narratives blog aims to popularize the insights and methods of narrative scholarship and features analyses of instrumental storytelling by high-profile narrative scholars. The analyzed cases deal with uses or abuses of the narrative form, storytelling practices or narrative sense-making in many areas of life: politics, journalism, business, identity work, artistic or literary sphere, activism, and forms of social participation. The blog texts evaluate possible societal risks or benefits of contemporary storytelling, for example through cases from the author’s own national, linguistic, or cultural sphere.


The impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald J. Trump provides so much material for those interested in “instrumental narratives and the limits of storytelling” that I can imagine some scholars devoting their whole careers to analyzing it. Too late for me to do that, but not too late for me to zero in on the eight-minute speech Devin Nunes delivered as the Intelligence Committee of the House of Representatives (HIC) ended its hearings on November 21, 2019: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VlIjunHrgTM.

Devin Nunes
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

 

I was initially dumbfounded by Nunes’s speech.  He says almost nothing about the testimony of the many witnesses who appeared before the HIC over the previous two weeks. He never directly engages with the specific question the HIC was deliberating: did President Trump abuse his power by withholding aid to Ukraine until that country’s s recently elected President, Volodomyr Zelensky, announced an investigation into Trump’s political rival Joe Biden? Epic fail! My negative judgment only deepened when I compared Nunes’s performance to that of his Democratic counterpart, Adam Schiff, who spoke immediately after him: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4ssrr2OsQ0. Schiff begins by directly addressing the day’s witnesses and continues by making the case that (a) the collective evidence brought forth at the hearings supports an affirmative answer to the question about Trump’s behavior; (b) the defenses offered by his Republican colleagues are unpersuasive; and (c) the appropriate ethical response to Trump’s unethical behavior is to hold him accountable for it. In this contest of narratives—and narratives in the service of arguments—Schiff seemed to me the clear winner. (See Phelan 2008 for more on the contest of narratives.)

 * * *

As I thought more about Nunes’s speech as a rhetorical performance, however, I began to question whether I had judged it too hastily and missed some key features of its rhetorical logic. In what follows, I will attempt to shed some light on the relationship between the standard rhetorical situation of nonfictional narratives in contest and the decidedly nonstandard way Nunes concluded his participation in the HIC contest. Understanding that relationship can then, I hope, illuminate some larger issues involved in assessing the efficacy of narratives in contest.

I find it helpful to start from the default rhetorical definition of narrative: somebody telling somebody else on some occasion and for some purpose(s) that something happened.  Viewing a contest of narratives from the vantage point of this definition means attending to the ways in which each of the somebodies-who-tell takes some shared common ground—the something-that-happened—and shapes that material in ways that they believe the somebodies-who-listen will find more persuasive than the story told by their competitors. Not surprisingly, the competing tellers will sometimes dispute the something-that-happened because that common ground is so important. The tellers must be responsible to it. It puts constraints on the ways they can plausibly and effectively shape it. Ignoring, distorting, or contradicting what happened weakens any teller’s narrative. Furthermore, when tellers fail to acknowledge any common ground, there can be no genuine contest between their narratives.

* * *

The inquiry played out as an integral part of a larger unfolding contest of narratives about President Trump’s behavior and about what, if anything, Congress should do about it. In September 2019, the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, had declared that Trump’s actions, as described in a report by an anonymous whistleblower about a phone call involving Trump and Zelensky on July 25th, had made it incumbent on the House to conduct an official impeachment inquiry. The House must act, Pelosi said, because it now had credible evidence that the President had violated his oath of office by making U.S. aid to Ukraine contingent on Zelensky’s agreement to investigate Biden. On the other side, Trump denied any wrongdoing, characterizing the phone call as “perfect,” and many Republicans came to his defense.

During the hearings, the contest of narratives followed a predictable pattern: Democrats attempted to use their questioning of the witnesses to confirm and further develop the whistleblower’s story about Trump’s actions, while the Republicans attempted to use their questioning either to discredit that story or to contend that neither the story nor the testimony indicated that Trump had abused his power. Nunes and other Republicans such as Jim Jordan tried to expand the relevant something-that-happened to include evidence of past corruption in Ukraine and Biden’s possible connections to it through his son Hunter, who was employed by a Ukrainian energy company.  By attempting to expand the common ground, the Republicans tried to advance an alternative narrative about Trump’s behavior: he wasn’t abusing his power but expressing legitimate concerns about Ukraine’s history of corruption.

* * *

As I watched Nunes’s closing speech, I expected him to use the occasion to offer a narrative defending Trump’s behavior that would be as persuasive as he could possibly make it for his multiple audiences: the members of the HIC, the House, and the Senate, as well as those watching the hearings on television, and the members of the media who would represent the speech in various ways for their viewers, readers, and listeners. But the most important member of Nunes’s audience was Trump himself. Trump’s tweeting throughout the hearings continually reminded everyone that he was not only watching closely but also trying to influence the interpretation of the testimony. In appealing to all his audiences, Nunes needed, I thought, to contest the Democrats’ Narrative about the Abuse of Power. Such contestation might proceed by either establishing a Narrative about the Appropriate Use of Power or by arguing that the Narrative about the Abuse of Power is inadequate, or by doing both.

Nunes, however, shows no interest in any of these strategies. Instead, he sets forth a different narrative, and he begins with its abstract: “I have stressed in these hearings that the whistle-blower complaint was a pretext for Donald Trump’s political opponents to do what they’ve been trying to do since he was elected, oust the President from office.” Nunes then sketches this Narrative of Ouster by drawing a time-line upon which he places a wide range of events involving different, often unspecified people, expressing opposition to Trump. The turning point in Nunes’s narrative is that, after the Mueller Report fails to find clear evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign in the 2016 election, Trump’s opponents need a new pretext for ousting him. They find it in the whistleblower report, which gives rise to what Nunes calls the “Ukraine hoax.” Nunes then draws on his Narrative of Ouster in order to label the impeachment inquiry a “show trial” in which the “verdict was decided even before the trial began.” He rounds off this use of narrative in the service of argument by characterizing the inquiry as a waste of time, by attacking its process as an example of the “tyranny of the majority,” and labeling it a “farce” and a “travesty.” His final move is to wish his colleagues in the House Judiciary Committee well as they seek to defend the idea that the “American people’s vote actually means something.”

Nunes marshals the Narrative of Ouster in the service of an argument from motives. Since the Democrats’ Narrative about Abuse of Power is driven not by their professed concern for the rule of law but by their unrelenting effort to get rid of Trump, their narrative is no more credible than the ones underlying their previous attempts to oust him. The problem, in short, is not Trump but the Democrats.  Although Nunes does have some valid points (the Democrats have shown that they are committed to the position that Trump’s behavior warrants impeachment), his general strategy has several problems. An argument from motives is a version of an ad hominem/feminam argument, and it suffers from the same logical fallacy: it substitutes an assessment of one’s opponent for an assessment of their argument (or, in this case, their narrative). Some additional problems arise from the particular way Nunes constructs his narrative. The two most significant are that (a) Nunes ignores key recalcitrant evidence in the common ground of the relevant historical record, namely, Nancy Pelosi’s strong stance against impeachment prior to the whistleblower’s report; and (b) in tracing his time-line, he treats the disparate actions by a range of agents as parts of a larger collective effort.

I will come back to these secondary problems, but now I want to focus on an extraordinary consequence of Nunes’s performance. By attacking the Democrats’ motives instead of engaging with their Narrative of Abuse of Power, Nunes effectively opts out of the contest of narratives. Not surprisingly, then, if we assess his performance within the frame of the unfolding contest, we’ll find it deficient. Let’s set aside my spontaneous overflow of powerful judgment (“epic fail!”) and more soberly consider the effectiveness of his speech for one segment of his audience. How might it help Republican voters genuinely concerned about the Democrats’ shaping of Trump’s phone call into the Narrative of Abuse of Power? Nunes’s performance wouldn’t help at all, because it fails to provide what such voters need: an alternative narrative about that crucial event. By opting out of the contest of narratives, Nunes also opts out of trying to persuade such listeners. Amazing. But that observation raises the next questions: what is he opting into, and how might that move illuminate his purposes?

* * *

Nunes’s purpose is less about persuasion and more about consolidating Republican opposition to impeachment. In other words, when he opts out of the contest of narratives, he opts in to circling the wagons. Nunes, to be sure, would be happy to hear that some listeners found his speech persuasive, but his main goal is to fashion a negative characterization of the Democrats that those already on his side can endorse. The speech is far less committed to logical reasoning than to political solidarity. For that reason, the logical problems of the speech are beside the point. What ultimately matters is whether Nunes’s fellow Republicans in Congress and in the electorate find the Narrative of Ouster a useful mechanism for attacking the impeachment inquiry itself.

These points about the relations among strategy (argument from motives), consequence (opting out of the contest), and purpose (consolidating opposition to the inquiry itself) become even clearer when we reflect on how Nunes’s performance implicitly appeals to his most important audience, President Trump himself. Throughout the speech, Nunes reinforces and extends allegations Trump has made throughout his time in office (the Mueller investigation was a “witch hunt”), and he incorporates more recent talking points (impeachment is about overturning the results of the election). More generally, in constructing the Narrative of Ouster, Nunes spends his eight minutes deploying two of Trump’s main strategies in his numerous tweets of 280 characters or less. (1) Deny the existence of any common ground upon which to conduct a contest of narratives (the inquiry is a “hoax”). (2) Attack those on the other side committed to the contest (“Do-Nothing Democrats,” “Crazy Nancy,” “Shifty Schiff”). Interestingly, a third Trumpian rhetorical strategy is conspicuous by its absence: the explicit assertion of innocence (the phone call was “perfect.”). If Nunes were to deploy that strategy, he would run the risk of falling back into the contest of narratives with its acknowledgment of common ground in Trump’s phone call. Far better to stay out of that contest and let Trump himself continue to proclaim his innocence.

In this account, then, Nunes opts out of the contest of narratives because he cares far less about Trump’s behavior toward Ukraine than about keeping Trump in office. Judged on its own terms, the performance, rather than being a failure, is quite effective:  impugning the motives of the Democrats fits his purpose of reinforcing Republican opposition to impeachment. Furthermore, subsequent events have indicated that Nunes achieved his purpose. Other Republicans have found the speech a useful jumping off point for their own attacks on the Democrats and the impeachment inquiry. When the inquiry moved to the House Judiciary Committee in December 2019, Republican members often invoked the Narrative of Ouster, and they repeated Nunes’s concluding allegation that the impeachment was an effort to undo the results of the 2016 election. Ultimately, every Republican member of the House voted against the articles of impeachment. As of this writing, the Republicans remain united in their support for Trump, and his acquittal by the Senate appears inevitable.

* * *

If this analysis passes the Horseshoes Test (that is, is close enough to count for something), then it suggests a few larger points about the efficacy of nonfictional narrative and about judging that efficacy.

  1. The efficacy of any nonfictional narrative is to some degree context-dependent, and contexts are frequently shot through with power differentials. Nunes has the luxury of opting out of the contest of narratives because the Republican majority in the Senate gives the Party the ultimate power about impeachment. Within its own terms, his Narrative of Ouster doesn’t need to be logically sound and scrupulous about adhering to the historical record. It just needs to be plausible enough to reinforce the beliefs of those already on his side.
  2. The efficacy of nonfictional narrative is not wholly context-dependent. Ignoring the common ground in a contest inevitably weakens the force of one’s narrative. The context and its associated power differentials do not eliminate the problems in Nunes’s Narrative: its failure to address the central question of the impeachment inquiry, and its significant logical flaws.

Thus, in assessing efficacy,

  1. We should make what I’ll call a step one judgment in relation to the terms the teller sets for the narrative. When I judged Nunes’s performance by terms he was no longer concerned with, I misjudged it. When I viewed it in relation to its own terms, I got a clearer sense of its appeal and its effectiveness.
  2. We should make a step two judgment by assessing the terms the teller sets for the narrative. In Nunes’s case, the U.S. Constitution provides terms within which to assess his. The Constitution calls for an inquiry into the President’s actual behavior. Seen in this light, Nunes’s performance is an ethically deficient act of evasion in the guise of a bold attack. Its logical and ethical problems bleed into each other. It’s hard to imagine that history will be kind to his rhetorical behavior.

Reference:

Phelan, James. “Narratives in Contest; Or, Another Twist in the Narrative Turn.”  PMLA 123 (2008): 166–75.


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James Phelan is Distinguished University Professor of English and the Director of Project Narrative at Ohio State University.  He has devoted his research to developing a viable account of narrative as rhetoric. He has written about style in Worlds from Words; about character and narrative progression in Reading People, Reading Plots; about voice, character narration, ethics, and audiences in Narrative as Rhetoric; about the rhetoric and ethics of character narration in Living to Tell about It; and about narrative judgments and progression in Experiencing Fiction.  He has taken up the relationship between literary history and rhetorical analysis in Reading the American Novel, 1920-2010, and he has further extended the conception and consequences of his rhetorical approach in Somebody Telling Somebody Else. In February 2020, he and Matthew Clark will publish Debating Rhetorical Narratology: On the Synthetic, Mimetic, and Thematic Aspects of Narrative.  Since 1992, Phelan has been editor of Narrative, the journal of the International Society for the Study of Narrative.  Since 1993, he has been a co-editor of the Theory and Interpretation of Narrative Series at Ohio State University Press.


 

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