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US President Donald Trump speaks to supporters from The Ellipse near the White House on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. – Thousands of Trump supporters, fueled by his spurious claims of voter fraud, are flooding the nation’s capital protesting the expected certification of Joe Biden’s White House victory by the US Congress. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Philip Collins: Trump’s paean to untruth

Philip Collins: Trump’s paean to untruth

US President Donald Trump speaks to supporters from The Ellipse near the White House on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. – Thousands of Trump supporters, fueled by his spurious claims of voter fraud, are flooding the nation’s capital protesting the expected certification of Joe Biden’s White House victory by the US Congress. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

It was just another rambling Trump speech to his supporters. Except it wasn’t. This was the speech that got the president impeached for a second time.

On 6 January, Donald Trump spoke at a rally on the Ellipse in Washington DC under the banner of “Save America”. The crowd listened for an hour to a parade of popular songs which included Elton John’s ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ before the man they had come to see mounted the stage. Behind glass bulletproof screens, President Trump spoke for an hour, interspersed with chants from his supporters of “We love you, we love you”.

Trump: The media will not show the magnitude of this crowd. Even I, when I turned on today, I looked and I saw thousands of people here, but you don’t see hundreds of thousands of people behind you because they don’t want to show that. We have hundreds of thousands of people here, and I just want them to be recognised by the fake news media. Turn your cameras please and show what’s really happening out here because these people are not going to take it any longer. They’re not going to take it any longer. Go ahead, turn your cameras, please. Would you show? They came from all over the world, actually, but they came from all over our country. I just really want to see what they do. I just want to see how they covered. I’ve never seen anything like it. But it would be really great if we could be covered fairly by the media. The media is the biggest problem we have, as far as I’m concerned,  the single biggest problem is the fake news and the big tech. Big tech is now coming into their own. We beat them four years ago. We surprised them. We took them by surprise and this year, they rigged an election. They rigged it like they’ve never rigged an election before.

Donald Trump has always had a rhetorical character all of his own and it is on vivid display in this rambling, swirling hour-long address. His first great advantage, denied to many speakers accomplished in other ways, is that he has such a defined character as a speaker. Everything he says is so immediately Trump-like which means that much of the communication to his supporters is done through their reading of this character rather than to any strict parsing of his words. Which is just as well because Trump’s speeches are structured like nobody else’s. This opening passage introduces all the themes of the speech – the fake news media are denying you, the people, the truth that the election was rigged – but, where any other speaker would deepen and illustrate a theme before linking it to the next, Trump swirls in on his material before veering away and circling back. It gives a strangely symphonic effect as we return to a recurring motif. In a sense, therefore, the whole of the speech is here. The argument does not develop, it just repeats – and it has to be stressed just how often he repeats his themes. Trump makes the false allegation of voter fraud over and over again, almost at random. Certainly, any listener who gave up after this opening – and given what follows that might have been advisable – would have got the point, albeit only once.

Trump: We will never give up. We will never concede. It doesn’t happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough. To use a favourite term that all of you people really came up with, we will stop the steal. Today I will lay out just some of the evidence proving that we won this election, and we won it by a landslide. This was not a close election. Almost 75 million people voted for our campaign, the most of any incumbent president by far in the history of our country. 12 million more people than four years ago. I was told by the real pollsters (we do have real pollsters) if I went from 63 million, which we had four years ago to 66 million, there was no chance of losing. Well, we didn’t go to 66. We went to 75 million – and they say we lost! We didn’t lose. Nobody knows what the hell is going on. There’s never been anything like this. We will not let them silence your voices. We’re not going to let it happen. Not going to let it happen.

Interrupted by chants of “Fight for Trump! Fight for Trump! Fight for Trump!”, the president here begins the argument that leads to the articles of impeachment moved by the House of Representatives. The resolution carried by the House quotes what it says is Trump’s false claim that “we won this election and we won it by a landslide”. It goes on to quote the president saying that “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country any more” as, in the words of Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, an “act of sedition, an incitement to insurrection and treasonous activities”. From the first speeches as a candidate in 2016, Trump’s main rhetorical trick has been to set the people against the elite as the tribunes of true democracy. Hence, the strategy, which is set up in this passage and repeated throughout, is to make a righteous case. This was a victory which was stolen and you, the good people of America, cannot let it happen. This is not yet an incitement to revolution but it is a fundamental repudiation of the honesty and integrity of American democratic process.

Trump: Don’t worry. We will not take the name off the Washington Monument. We will not. Cancel culture. They wanted to get rid of the Jefferson Memorial, either take it down or just put somebody else in there. I don’t think that’s going to happen. It damn well better not. Although with this administration, if this happens, it could happen. You’ll see some really bad things happen. They’ll knock out Lincoln too, by the way. They’ve been taking his statue down, but then we signed a little law. You hurt our monuments, you hurt our heroes, you go to jail for 10 years, and everything stopped. We’re gathered together in the heart of our nation’s capital for one very, very basic and simple reason: to save our democracy.

There is a tradition of American presidents going to Gettysburg to pay homage to Lincoln. Most of them perform a pastiche of the famous speech and all are solemn and respectful, as befits the setting in a Civil War graveyard. All except the presidential candidate Donald Trump who, in 2016, delivered a tirade against rigged American politics, at Gettysburg. It was a portent of what Trump would be, in two senses. First, his Gettysburg address sounded exactly the notes he is still hitting but also, second, it showed he was keen to clothe himself in the apparel of the republic. This is what he is doing in this passage, which corrals America’s political heroes to his dubious cause. The key to Trump’s rhetoric is its brazen sincerity. He really believes he is speaking for the cause, as he puts it, of “the integrity of our glorious republic,” and so do his supporters. The speech is, therefore, on the face of it, not at all an attack on democracy but, like all the modern populists, a lament that democracy should have been so easily rigged. He is not attacking America, he is saving it.

Trump: For years, Democrats have gotten away with election fraud. And weak Republicans, that’s what they are. There’s so many weak Republicans. We have great ones: Jim Jordan and some of these guys. They’re out there fighting the House. Guys are fighting, but it’s incredible. Many of the Republicans, I helped them get in. I helped them get elected. I helped Mitch get elected. I could name 24 of them, let’s say. I won’t bore you with it. And then all of a sudden you have something like this. It’s like, “Gee, maybe I’ll talk to the President sometime later.” No, it’s amazing. The weak Republicans, they’re pathetic Republicans and that’s what happens. The weak Republicans, and that’s it. I really believe it. I think I’m going to use the term, the weak Republicans. You got a lot of them, and you got a lot of great ones, but you got a lot of weak ones.

Here is a glimpse of a smaller argument hidden inside Trump’s case for the integrity of American democracy. This is about his own future within the Republican party. This whole address is both inside and outside the beltway of American politics. Trump is inviting the crowd to continue what, later in the speech, he calls “the movement,” but he also needs the institutional endorsement of the Republican party. He knows that some senior Republicans are tempted to use the impeachment process to rid themselves of their turbulent president. With his eye on running for office again, with this chanting crowd at his back, Trump is here setting out battle lines within the party. He is, in effect, setting the crowd on the men and women he calls the “weak” Republicans. It is a glimpse into the politics of the would-be strong man – define opponents as weak and set the strong loose on them.

Trump: I thought, four more years. I thought it would be easy. Four more years, I thought it would be easy. We created the greatest economy in history. We rebuilt our military. We get you the biggest tax cuts in history. We got you the biggest regulation cuts. There’s no President, whether it’s four years, eight years, or in one case more, got anywhere near the regulation cuts. It used to take 20 years to get a highway approved. Now we’re down to two. I want to get it down to one, but we’re down to two. It may get rejected for environmental or safety reasons, but we got it down to the safety. We created Space Force. Look at what we did. Our military has been totally rebuilt. So we create Space Force, which by itself is a major achievement for an administration. And with us, it’s one of so many different things. So we’ve taken care of things. We’ve done things like nobody’s ever thought possible. And that’s part of the reason that many people don’t like us, because we’ve done too much, but we’ve done it quickly.

This is the campaign script that President Trump thought he was going to be reading. Before the pandemic struck and changed the course of the election, this is the case for the defence that Trump thought he would be making. Stripped of the Trump hyperbole it is a standard list of achievements that a one-term president seeks to defend in pursuit of a second term. In the event, none of it really mattered.

Trump: As you know the media has constantly asserted the outrageous lie that there was no evidence of widespread fraud. You ever see these people? “While there is no evidence of fraud…” Oh, really? Well, I’m going to read you pages. I hope you don’t get bored listening to it. Promise? Don’t get bored listening to it, all those hundreds of thousands of people back there. Move them up, please. All these people don’t get bored. Don’t get angry at me because you’re going to get bored because it’s so much. The American people do not believe the corrupt fake news anymore. They have ruined their reputation.

Having warned his audience that he might be about to bore them, Trump then promptly does just that. He proceeds from here through twenty minutes of detailed reporting of the electoral districts he believes to be guilty of fraud. We take a tour through Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia and Arizona. Throughout, Trump offers precise numbers, in great detail which raises a point about how he speaks. His signature style – “they are weak. So weak. The weakest people in the world” – is not written out in full on his script, but he is not ad-libbing entirely. There is a detailed, numerical speech buried in amongst all this riffing and that is quite tightly scripted, by Stephen Miller, the President’s closest counsellor. Trump is using a teleprompter, but he uses it rather like speakers use note cards, to supply the necessary facts around which he weaves his narrative. He hits us over the head with his twin themes – the fake media and the fraud – yet again, over and over.

Trump: … the Liz Cheneys of the world, we’ve got to get rid of them. We’ve got to get rid of them. She never wants a soldier brought home. I’ve brought a lot of our soldiers home. I don’t know, some like it. They’re in countries that nobody even knows the name. Nobody knows where they are. They’re dying. They’re great, but they’re dying. They’re losing their arms, their legs, their face. I brought them back home, largely back home. Afghanistan, Iraq. Remember I used to say in the old days, “Don’t go into Iraq. But if you go in, keep the oil.” We didn’t keep the oil. So stupid. So stupid, these people. And Iraq has billions and billions of dollars now in the bank. And what did we do? We get nothing. We never get. But we do actually, we kept the oil here. We did good. We got rid of the ISIS caliphate. We got rid of plenty of different things that everybody knows and the rebuilding of our military in three years, people said it couldn’t be done.

This section is the key to Trump’s appeal. It is blunt and to the point in a way that polished political rhetoric never is. Who else would be so brazen about oil? Who else would risk the grotesque image that soldiers are losing their faces? The crowd he is talking to hear this as language they might use themselves. It is unvarnished and unpolitical and this is precisely why Trump, the New York property tycoon, is able to pass himself off as the man of the people. It is a rhetorical trick and he is pulling it with great skill. At the end of this section the crowd returns in unison “we love you, we love you, we love you”.

Trump: Our exciting adventures and boldest endeavours have not yet begun. My fellow Americans, for our movement, for our children and for our beloved country and I say this, despite all that’s happened, the best is yet to come. So we’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, I love Pennsylvania Avenue, and we’re going to the Capitol. But we’re going to try and give our Republicans, the weak ones because the strong ones don’t need any of our help, we’re going to try and give them the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country. So let’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. I want to thank you all. God bless you and God bless America. Thank you all for being here, this is incredible. Thank you very much. Thank you.

Trump ends with words that helped usher him into history, as the only American president to be impeached twice. The egregious nature of the speech is, in truth, less in its overt incitement than in the way it parades falsehood and invites people to denounce an established democracy. It is a paean to untruth and it is, in the end, narcissistic beyond all imagining. When he was writing his 1801 inaugural speech, Thomas Jefferson went through several versions and with each successive draft he made the case less personal. With each draft, he shifted the focus from the president to the presidency. Though he has spent an hour pretending to be the saviour of American democracy, Donald Trump has shifted it all the way back.