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Friday 18 September 2020

US Election

Divide and rule

Three speeches show how Trump might keep his grip on a split nation

For the large number of people who don’t support the Trump presidency, one of the most baffling things about it is the large number of people who do. There are about 67 million of them, and that hasn’t changed much in four years.

Trump’s poll and job approval ratings fluctuate with passing scandals and accomplishments, but within relatively narrow bounds. No amount of fulmination about race, lies, misogyny or Russia has eaten significantly into that 67 million. This is his base, and those baffled by it tend to forget two things: outside the political class, voters rarely tune into politics at all; and when they do they increasingly get their information through social media or no media – that is, from the horse’s mouth.

Trump has just shy of 86 million Twitter followers, which is fewer than Taylor Swift at 87 million and Barack Obama (112 million), but he tweets much more often than either – more than 17,000 times from the announcement of his candidacy to mid-2019.

His Twitter feed is, in a literal sense, out of control. He is in charge of it and the New York Times has called the result “a barrage of personal attacks, outrage and boast”.

His speeches are different. At campaign rallies he ad-libs freely, but for the set-pieces of the American electoral ritual he sticks roughly to the words on the teleprompter, and those key addresses repay analysis.

Considering Trump’s maverick persona, these formal declarations of agenda are models of message discipline. They’re drafted in most cases by Stephen Miller, a 35 year-old immigration hawk who is one of the few non-family members to have been at Trump’s side for the entire first term. The speeches are delivered by Trump with only occasional clunky asides.

In these speeches he returns again and again to three pillars of Trumpism: law and order (and their mirror image, crime and violence); jobs (and job destroyers); and God (via a range of coded references to judges, schools and free speech, included especially for evangelicals).

Extracts from three particularly resonant or repellent speeches, depending on your view, show the Miller-Trump mindmeld at work:

“I alone can fix it”

Address to the Republican National Convention, Cleveland, Ohio, 21 July 2016

This was the speech that forced America and the world to confront for the first time the very real possibility of a Trump presidency. It was delivered as he accepted the nomination to be the Republican presidential candidate, at the end of a convention in Cleveland at which Trump, to loud applause and chants of ‘lock her up’, openly invited Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails.

“Friends, delegates and fellow Americans, I humbly and gratefully accept your nomination for the presidency of the United States.

Together we will lead our party back to the White House, and we will lead our country back to safety, prosperity, and peace. We will be a country of generosity and warmth. But we will also be a country of law and order. Our convention occurs at a time of crisis for our nation. The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life. 

 Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country.”

Fifty-four words in, and bang, public order already tops the agenda. This is Trump’s way of picking sides on police racism without mentioning that two weeks ago a 32-year-old black man named Philando Castile was shot dead by police on a routine traffic stop in Minnesota, and still no one has been charged with a crime. The mention of terrorism is a reference to the deaths of 49 people in a mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub the previous month. Trump may not know that his speech echoes Richard Nixon’s 1968 acceptance address (“We see cities enveloped in smoke and flame; we hear sirens in the night”) but Miller almost certainly is.

“Hillary Clinton’s message is that things will never change. My message is that things have to change – and they have to change right now. Every day I wake up determined to deliver for the people I have met all across this nation that have been neglected, ignored and abandoned. 

I have visited the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals. These are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice.


Translation: the mainly-white non-graduates whom Trump also calls “the silent majority” – and who haven’t bothered to vote in recent elections. His campaign’s big gamble is that they will hear his anti-immigrant, anti-globalisation message and turn out in hope of a better job or at least in the conviction that life can’t get much worse. The gamble pays off.

“I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves. Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”

These five words follow a tendentious section about Clinton’s alleged crimes. In a narrow sense Trump is pledging to drain the swamp of DC politics-as-usual. In a broader sense he’s taking on the massive task of national renewal that candidates usually pledge to share with the American people. His hubris comes back to haunt him with the 2018 government shutdown, and again with the pandemic.

“We are also going to appoint justices to the United States Supreme Court who will uphold our laws and our Constitution. The replacement for Justice Scalia will be a person of similar views and principles. This will be one of the most important issues decided by this election.”

Scalia was a hardline social conservative and lifelong opponent of abortion rights. This is Trump’s promise to anti-abortion evangelicals and the reason most of them vote eventually for a man of no obvious faith who stands accused of serial sexual assault. Since his election victory Republicans have been able to deliver two conservative judges to the Supreme Court, tipping the balance for years to come.

“This American Carnage”

Inauguration address, Washington DC, 20 January 2017

The idea of a Trump presidency becomes real  and within its first few minutes the new chief executive tells Americans they are living a dystopian nightmare.

“January 20th 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now.”

Trump recalls the convention – “I AM YOUR VOICE” …

“You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before.

… and glosses over the fact that he lost the popular vote by 3 million votes.

“At the centre of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens. Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves.

These are the just and reasonable demands of a righteous public. But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.

This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”

Listeners were so struck by Trump’s harsh tone that many missed his message control. Here in one paragraph, reduced at the end to three words, is his justification for a trade war, a border wall and a veneration of law enforcement that will all help define the next four years (even if not much wall gets built). Satirists noted the echo in ‘This American Carnage’ of the reliably liberal ‘This American Life’ podcast. This may have been deliberate, but on the whole the Trump-Miller messaging style is less subtle.

“From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.”

Another echo, this time of the sometimes openly pro-Fascist America First movement that tried to keep the US out of World War Two. Note that the capital F in First comes from the official White House transcript.

“Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.

I will fight for you with every breath in my body – and I will never, ever let you down.

America will start winning again, winning like never before.

We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams.”

Trumpism doesn’t get much more concise than this: a highly distilled expression of the retro isolationism that he promises will benefit the silent majority once America’s trade deals have been torn up and its drawbridges pulled up. Note on bringing back “our wealth”: Trump’s 2018 tax reforms encouraged big US corporates to repatriate an estimated $500 billion in that year alone.

“We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow.”

Trump’s main objection to nation-building and military alliances is that they are expensive, and in these areas he has consistently sought to cut costs. 

“We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones – and unite the civilized world against Radical Islamic Terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.

At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.

When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. The Bible tells us, “how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity”.

Inaugural addresses traditionally hint at the incoming administration’s emerging foreign policy doctrine. Trump goes instead for a brutal juxtaposition of “Islamic” (as opposed to Islamist) terrorism, and the delights of God’s own country. Even his nod to world affairs is intended mainly for a domestic audience and a church-going one at that. He also foreshadows policies which have seen many of America’s old allies dismayed as he has undermined Nato, the United Nations, the G7 and the Paris Agreement on climate change whilst moving closer towards Russia and North Korea.

“We’re here, and they’re not”

Address to Republican National Convention, south lawn of the White House, 27 August 2020

Forty-two months into his presidency, Trump had a record to defend as well as a world view to expound when accepting the Republican nomination last month. So his speech was long. But it was also eerily familiar.

“This is the most important election in the history of our country…”

Never shy of hyperbole, Trump will also say “very modestly” a little later on that he has “done more for the African-American community than any president since Abraham Lincoln”.

“Your vote will decide whether we protect law-abiding Americans or whether we give free rein to violent anarchists and agitators and criminals who threaten our citizens.”

Four years ago the “violence” was in response to the killing of Philando Castile. This time anger over the death of George Floyd after a white police officer knelt on his neck has boiled over. In a separate incident, another black man, Jacob Blake is shot by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, five days before the speech. Neither man is named. Kenosha gets a mention later, but only as a Democrat-run city playing host to “rioting, looting, arson and violence”.

“From the moment I left my former life behind – and it was a good life – I have done nothing but fight for you… breaking the cardinal rule of Washington politics. I kept my promise.”

Trump then lists 10 accomplishments that his critics consider disasters, among them a claim to have built 300 miles of wall along the Mexican border. The real number is five miles, according to the San Antonio Express-News, but the president thinks he’s kept his promise and it is worth noting that the ‘promises made, promises kept’ slogan beloved of the administration has taken hold amongst his most ardent supporters.

“This November, we must turn the page forever on this failed political class. The fact is, I am here. What is the name of that building? But I’ll say it differently, the fact is, we are here and they are not.”

Here’ is right outside the White House, where Trump is violating tradition and probably the law by holding a political event on federal property. No matter. He’s the president and his signal achievement in his first four years has been to show that a president can ignore tradition, duty and the law and still command the loyalty of around 67 million Americans. Whatever happens on 3 November, that is remarkable.

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Further reading

The full transcripts of the three speeches are available here:

“I alone can fix it” – Cleveland, Ohio 2016

“This American Carnage” – Washington DC, 2017

“We’re here and they’re not” – Washington DC, 2020