The Importance of Presidential Rhetoric | Sojourners

The Importance of Presidential Rhetoric

As I listened to President Donald Trump’s inaugural address on Friday, I couldn’t help but be reminded me of a book titled The Anti-Intellectual Presidency by Elvin T Lim.

In his book, Lim draws from interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate the qualitative decline in presidential utterances. Lim writes that to keep up with the pressures of managing public opinion, presidential rhetoric is increasingly being designed to render applauses and partisan punchlines, which has created a “pathology of vacuous rhetoric and imagery” where appearances matter more than fact.

On hearing Trump’s address, all of Lim’s statements rang true.

“Today’s ceremony however, has very special meaning, because today, we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people.”

Trump’s messages seemed simple, while being lean on meaningful content, and the fact that it wasn’t sincerity, only a semblance thereof, was lost in all the cheer.

It is often forgotten that simplicity comes from clarity in thought — an exercise that requires overcoming complexities, not ignoring them. It takes hard work and patience to make something simple, to dig through all the layers and come up with true solutions instead of surface-level responses.

“Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.”

These words most likely resonated with his supporters. But such abstract generalizations are meant to play with emotions because their purpose is inspirational.

In an effort to appear “down home,” Trump’s speechwriters have held the people lacking in general awareness on policy matters and, in this process, have bypassed the need to discuss and debate. Trump brought in imagery with his declarations and assertions — not discussion points. This “dumbing-down” process also neatly aligned with Trump’s insistence that he speaks for ordinary Americans, not elites.

There have been and will be times that call for electric, unifying rhetoric. But they should not occur so frequently that the need for debate is diluted.

Lim also sees this anti-intellectual stance as a deliberate choice rather than just happenstance. Throughout the campaign, both Trump and his partners in crime — speechwriters and those who would hold key positions in his Cabinet — knew full well the implications of phrases like “We don’t win anymore,” “Listen, I've made a lot of money," “They are pouring in, they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing in crime,” etc. Consequently, his audience was never presented with refined arguments and policy proposals — calm inquiries that take time and cannot satisfy the need for immediacy. The inaugural address continued in the same vein.

“Donald Trump’s inaugural speech may be his most religious yet,” the Washington Post reported. And while it isn’t unusual that Christianity was a part of the inauguration (incoming presidents always lay their hands on the Bible to be sworn in), the way Donald Trump chose to involve faith was most certainly unusual.

The first reference to faith came when he promised to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth,” and said that unity will be “total allegiance to the United States of America.” He then quoted from the Bible saying, “how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.”

By trying to appeal to loyal evangelical supporters, what was clearly excluded was acknowledgement of the fact that the United States is a religiously diverse place and references to faith that are not wholesome would only further divide the country.

Again, Trump and his team knew full well the implications of such sentences. Sadly, because such appeals were carefully crafted, partisan uses of faith were lost in the spectacle.

Lim makes an important observation:

“Rhetoric, of course, does not tell us everything. Technically, speeches and presidential statements cannot be anti-intellectual (or emotional, or inspirational, or so forth). Only persons can. So when we say that a speech has a certain quality, say, that it is anti-intellectual, we really mean to say that its speaker is anti-intellectual, and his anti-intellectual sentiments are conveyed in his speech.”

Presidents, relative to others holding public offices, have many resources at their disposal – time, attention, credibility, etc., and choices on allocating these resources play a pivotal role in setting the tone of their leadership. Words — especially spoken by leaders like the president of the United States — matter. They go on to infuse the content of politics, and form most of what ordinary citizens have to hold their representatives accountable. The words spoken thus far by this president — and lack of investigation into their sincerity — are quite telling.