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Unlike Trump, most presidents emphasize our common ideals

- August 25, 2017
President Trump answers questions about his response to the violence, injuries and deaths at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville as he talks to the media in the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan, Aug. 15. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Presidents like to proclaim the United States is a nation founded on ideals, and our national story is one of coming ever closer to fully enacting those ideals. Ronald Reagan, for example, noted in his response to the Challenger explosion, “We’re still pioneers.” That claim both defined the spirit of the nation and explained the loss of the astronauts as part of the American quest. As part of that pioneering spirit, he pointed to specific virtues — the willingness to serve and sacrifice — and asked the nation to honor them.

Trump’s recent speech in Charlottesville stands out as unusual for failing to include language like this.

In times of crisis, presidential rhetoric can unite the United States behind a shared idea of American values

Such language can both define and unify the nation, as I explored in the research for my book “Defining Americans: The Presidency and National Identity.” Presidential speech often relies on platitudes, for a reason: Platitudes offer widely accepted versions of the national history and the national self, serving as common ground on which the diverse elements of the nation can meet. Presidential rhetoric is a mechanism through which Americans become the unum out of the national pluribus.

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The presidency has formidable power to set the national agenda and to define the terms of national debates. Literary theorist Kenneth Burke argued rhetoric is about identification: finding commonality between speakers and audiences, and among members of an audience. A successful presidential speech can persuade listeners that a political moment transcends specific circumstances and speaks to the greater national identity — turning a political event into a defining national moment, with a shared mission based on that identity.

To examine how presidents have used this formidable toolbox, I have studied presidents known for their rhetorical ability like Reagan and Franklin D. Roosevelt — as well as Jimmy Carter, thought to lack such ability. I have found even ineloquent presidents can use the rhetorical capacities of their office to their advantage, and adept orators can establish themselves among the nation’s greatest presidents.

Consider some of the great examples. Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg characterized the nation as “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lyndon Johnson, speaking after the march from Selma to Montgomery, defined race as “an American problem,” connected to “the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.” George W. Bush declared after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear from all of us soon.”

Such usual rhetoric has earned presidents the title of “Comforter-in Chief.” 

Dwight Eisenhower, for example, speaking after mobs sought to prevent the integration of public schools in Little Rock, said of Arkansans:

They do not sympathize with mob rule. They, like the rest of our nation, have proved in two great wars their readiness to sacrifice for America. A foundation of our American way of life is our national respect for law.

Bill Clinton, following the bombing in Oklahoma City, similarly exhorted the nation to defend national values:

Let us let our own children know that we will stand against the forces of fear. When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. In the face of death, let us honor life.

We have to think back to Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” speech, which sought to delegitimate opposition to the Vietnam War, for an example of a president who seemed to argue for disunity. Or consider Nixon’s statement after National Guard members shot and killed four students at Kent State University, in which he said, “This should remind us all once again that when dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy.” That placed responsibility for those four deaths on both sides.

Trump seemed to make a similar rhetorical move when he said people on “both sides” were responsible for the violence in Charlottesville, and equated Confederates who led a rebellion against the United States with the nation’s founders — an approach that fails to mobilize our national symbols to knit Americans together into a single nation.

Why is Trump’s rhetoric so different from that of other presidents?

Here Donald Trump is an outlier. While not every president manages to offer extraordinarily memorable rhetoric at moments of national crisis, it’s difficult to recall one who did not at least make an attempt.

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Presidents who choose not to speak at such moments incur heavy criticism, as did George W. Bush following Hurricane Katrina. The “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville, with its explicitly Nazi and racist symbolism and language and violent attacks, was a classic opportunity for articulating a shared American identity and mobilizing a shared endeavor — potentially akin to the 2015 funeral of Emmanuel AME churchgoers who had been shot by a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina. And yet Trump did not use this opportunity. Why?

Several factors are at work. Julia Azari has noted Trump is unmoored from his political party. He does not appear to have a consistent ideology and or a clear set of enunciated political principles. The president thus does not have the sources that focus most presidential administrations. He has articulated a bleak vision of the nation, describing the nation in his inaugural as “American carnage.” His argument that his administration “will make America strong again. We will make America wealthy again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again” emphasizes what we have lost, not what we can aspire to.

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Donald Trump’s speech on Afghanistan hewed more closely to our expectations for a major presidential address. He began by praising the military’s diversity and heroism, saying, “By following the heroic example of those who fought to preserve our republic, we can find the inspiration our country needs to unify, to heal, and to remain one nation under God.”

But he also echoed Nixon’s speech, noting the war was one he inherited and implying dissent was unpatriotic, saying, “The young men and women we send to fight our wars abroad deserve to return to a country that is not at war with itself at home.”

Rather than enunciating the values that unite Americans, the president here insisted on loyalty to the war effort, not to a shared set of principles that were being defended in that effort.

The bully pulpit is an institutional resource — but only if used wisely and well.

Mary E. Stuckey is professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State University and author most recently of “Voting Deliberatively: FDR and the 1936 Presidential Campaign” (Penn State University Press, 2017) and “Political Rhetoric: A Presidential Briefing Book” (Routledge, 2015). Find her on Twitter: @StuckeyMary.