Tag Archives: presidential rhetoric

The Divider

Nothing stands out more in the rhetoric of Donald Trump than his apparent pleasure in pitting Americans against each other. 

Classic studies of the American Presidency always include detailed histories of the office’s rhetorical style. In the most visible office in the world form usually follows function.  Presidents have always been called upon to find common values and beliefs that transcend regional and party differences.  In the words of analyst Mary Stuckey, the nation’s leader is the “interpreter in chief.”  His (and someday her) job includes finding the common threads of the American experience, then celebrating them in statements and appearances.  Others in Congress may function as professional partisans. But the Presidency has usually found its natural buoyancy when a leader tries to speak for the entire nation. Even past Presidents swimming in private resentments usually managed to celebrate the American experience. Most have not strayed from their constitutional oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  That includes not just honoring the independence of the press and judiciary, but celebrating the transcendent principles of tolerance and inclusion laid out in the expansive amendments to the Constitution.

Or so we thought.

Nothing stands out more in the Trump administration than his seeming delight it pitting Americans against each other.  To be sure, leaders have been intense partisans. We know from the record that this was true of F.D.R., John Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson.  Johnson is an interesting case. The former Senate Majority leader from Texas was an old ‘pol’ in the classic sense of the term. He learned about the uses of power from Richard Russell, an unreconstructed southerner. But he also understood how long-standing problems of race and poverty could be acted on in ways that would bring out the best in Americans. His televised address to Congress in 1965 supporting the Voting Rights Act remains an impressive demonstration of political courage.  In his slow drawl he reputed the racism of his mentor, embracing the promises enshrined in the nation’s founding documents.  Here are a few pieces of that address.

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Voting Rights Act Speech

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a landmark piece of federal legislation in the United States that prohibits racial discrimination in voting.

"What happened in Selma is part of a larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America.  It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.  Their cause must be or cause too.  Because it’s not just Negroes, but really all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.    

And we shall overcome."

It was an electric moment. Johnson spoke to our aspirations rather than our fears.  The act that passed eventually opened up local politics, leading to more registered voters and many more African American office holders.

It’s hard to fathom the horrible fact that some news organizations must supply their own security at Trump events.

Trump’s instincts are much more personal and strategic.  He seeks to celebrate himself more than the diverse corners of American life.  He feeds long standing resentments centered on race, vulnerable new arrivals, Muslims and any number of corporations and sports leagues. Most shockingly, he regularly campaigns against a sacred principle of public life: the value of a free and vigorous press.  He attacks the single feature of American political life that has been most admired and duplicated in emerging societies. His  vile and dangerous claim that the press is “the enemy of the people” is stunningly unamerican.  And from a more legalistic perspective, some verbal attacks at rallies approach the definition of felonious “incitement to violence.”  It’s hard to fathom the horrible reality that at Trump events some news organizations use their own security people to protect their journalists.

What motivates a person who publicly loathes so many?  If governing requires dealing with large segments of society that one finds distasteful, what rewards and motivations can exist?

One explanation from a psychiatrist writing in the New York Times doesn’t include a mental disorder, but a simpler habit of mind. He wrote that Trump has “a personality that privileges destructiveness and revels in the destruction of others and their ideals, whether they be refugees seeking asylum or carefully constructed policies that recognize the danger of Russian aggression.”  He notes that the President is not a “broken man,” but one “fully in tact” who simply gains pleasure from wreaking havoc on basic presuppositions grounding both conservatives and liberals raised in certain protocols and traditions of governing. He’s an anomaly in politics, not to mention the hospitality industry.

Trump will someday pass from the scene.  The more troubling problem is the mounting evidence that too many Americans seem to share his desire to destroy the values of liberal democracy.

A Pity-Party for the Man From the Penthouse

 

                              wikipedia.org

His utterances come with a vast victimology that ranges from the press, to former friends and GOP allies, to loyal members of his cabinet.

Our President seems unnaturally sustained by a rhetoric of grievance.  Any event that calls for a public comment includes lines that alert us to his belief that he has been the victim of grave injustices. It hardly matters where he is: speaking to the boy scouts, holding a press conference with foreign leaders, in the comfortable womb of a Fox News, or acting out a kind of sundowners syndrome in reverse, with incoherent morning tweets mixing self-pity and verbal abuse. And so one morning we learn that it’s “sad” that even Republicans “do very little to protect their President.” (Tweet of July 23).  That self-referential quote is typical and also concerning in its switch to the Nixonian third person.  With these kinds of utterances comes a vast victimology that ranges from the press, to former friends and opponents, to loyal members of his own cabinet.

Presidents typically emphasize transcendent values in their comments.

This is all uncharacteristic coming from the person who holds what was until recently the position of “leader of the free world.” And its 180 degrees from where a President’s traditional public rhetoric should be.

Presidents typically emphasize transcendent values in their words. John Kennedy’s quotable Inaugural Address called on Americans  to fulfill the nation’s basic goodness. Trump’s will be remembered for his offensive description of America as a dystopian land of “carnage,” a tasteless dig at his predecessor seated a few feet away.

I can remember when the nation was shocked to hear a president level criticism of an American industry. Presidents didn’t do such things. The occasion was the 1962 decision of United States Steel and others to raise the price on its basic product.  President Kennedy feared it would feed inflation. In a press conference he bristled with frustration at the news.  He thought he had an understanding with company leaders, but was blindsided by the announced price rise anyway. His annoyance was the headline of the day.

Even so, we don’t remember JFK as an angry man. The steel issue consumed no more than a few moments in a press conference. Instead, we remember the countless times he used the presidential pulpit to celebrate American institutions, innovators and ordinary citizens. He had the grace and apparent modesty to let his actions speak for themselves.  And we had the sense that he was bigger than his small frame; a charismatic if cautious tactician able to absorb setbacks without demanding that others notice.

For many younger Americans like myself Kennedy was also the model of cool, the presidential equivalent of a musician like Miles Davis or the young actor Ben Gazzara. Their personas were slightly enigmatic and their words were measured, understated to let their talent do most of the talking. They are a long way from the needy billionaire installed in the White House who is defined by his daily whining.