Trump’s inauguration speech was unlike most that he delivers. Though not short on his usual belligerence, it was heavily scripted, grammatically conventional, and, at times, lyrical.
The speech, which Trump originally implied he wrote himself, was largely composed by two of his advisers, Stephen Miller and the white-supremacist former chair of Breitbart, Stephen Bannon. Bannon said that it was an address unlike any “since Andrew Jackson came to the White House,” containing “a deep, deep root of patriotism.”
Bannon’s self-aggrandizing plaudits aside, the speech tells us a lot about Trump, and a lot about the poetics of the “alt-right.”
When Trump speaks, people listen — even if only, at first, to laugh.
With some glee, the Washington Post reported last year that Trump’s speeches betrayed a “sixth-grade level” of grammar. During the presidential debates, Twitter users reacted with the hashtag #GrammarMatters. Ironically, Trump has also been ridiculed for what looked to some like clumsy neologisms such as “bigly,” which is a dictionary term, and “braggadocious,” which is an authentic polysyllabic word that Trump may have picked up from his friend, WWE promoter Vince McMahon.
The critics are missing the point, bigly — or, “big league” as it may be. It is of course a staple of right-wing populism, in the tradition of George Wallace, for the candidate to feign a linguistic handicap as a way of connecting with less educated voters. But Trump, though he uses language in a very simple way, is not communicating at a sixth-grade level.
He is someone who is prepared, as Evan Puschak pointed out in a justly celebrated video, to sacrifice the rules of logical sentence construction in order to achieve a goal extraneous to sense-making. He decides, as many a good poet or orator does, in what order the words flow, freely dispensing with the rules of grammar in order to lay the emphasis where he wants it. The music of his sales pitch is punctuated by phrases and refrains that become so familiar that the rest of his speech fades into the background: sad, tremendous, loser, beautiful. That is why he is such a delight to parody, and so easy to mock.
But the pedantry of a certain kind of liberalism — DESTROYING Trump for various errors or slips, correcting “fake news,” “fact-checking” often deliberately metaphorical statements, and so on — involves a denial of something intrinsic to language: the fact that it exceeds signification. Because language is material, it always goes beyond sense-making, beyond meaning.
Rhetoric makes use of the materiality of words, their sensuous properties, in the art of persuasion. Trump’s habit of uttering short sentences, ended with monosyllabic words, is a case in point. They come, Puschak notes, “in a rhythmic series like a volley of jabs.”
At the inauguration, however, Trump had to achieve something else. He had to speak in a “stately” and almost ancient manner, with all the usual deference to protocol, while still casting himself as, in the words of the IMF, “Voldemort” to the old regime.
In some ways, Trump’s inauguration speech was duller than one might have expected (just like the festivities, which had a garish, tawdry aura). It was rained upon, poorly attended, and grim. There were none of his usual interludes of comedy or real menace. But it preserved the essentials of his rhetoric, translated to the inauguration format.
The trick that Bannon and Miller had to pull off was to incorporate the familiar Trumpian register into a more self-consciously “presidential” style. The phrases that his followers love — “beautiful,” “sad,” “America will start winning again,” “make America great again” — were all there, woven with the standard American lexis of “dreams,” “vision,” “destiny,” purple mountain majesty, shining sea, and the Creator, into a narrative of national decline and elite betrayal.
Absent from Trump’s speech was any reference to Wall Street. Although on the campaign he raged against the financial class, with thinly veiled antisemitism, since the election Trump has brought on several Wall Street appointees. So instead he focused on “Washington” whom he said had “flourished” while “the jobs left, and the factories closed,” and the “establishment,” which “protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.”
In November, Bannon complained in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter that “the globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia.” Trump’s speech did not invoke “globalists,” but it did blame the establishment for having
enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry . . . and spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay . . . The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world.
“America First” was the linchpin of Trump’s address, an echo of the pro-fascist “isolationist” tendency of 1930s America. “From this moment on,” Trump proclaimed, “it’s going to be America First.” In its original incarnation, the America First sentiment said, in effect: “Let’s not waste our blood and treasure helping Jews overthrow the Third Reich, let’s put white Americans first.” With its new inflection, it says: “Let’s stop these alien elites from sending our money to foreigners, let’s rebuild America’s fabled omnipotence.” It answers the widespread and polyvalent sensation of loss by saying that national potency has been lost, and must be restored.
Another key term in Trump’s speech, uttered seven times, was “protection.” The establishment has “protected” only itself, leaving “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape.” The solution: “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.”
Later, Trump added: “We are protected, and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement and, most importantly, we are protected by God.” With this, Trump promoted a version of what is sometimes called “paternal projection,” casting himself as a protective father figure to the nation. America first, and safety first.
“This American carnage,” Trump said, in a particularly evocative phrase, “stops right here and stops right now.” That he followed this with the promise to “eradicate” “radical Islamic terrorism” “completely from the face of the earth” highlights another dimension to the speech’s Jacksonian ideology. Although Trump has previously criticized the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, here he deployed clash-of-civilizations rhetoric, and alluded to the Tea Party trope that Obama was an appeaser (if not a secret Muslim).
What we are living through is one of the barbaric fruits of a vile era, in which a colonial metaphysics (not just East versus West, but barbarism versus civilization) is openly and proudly resuscitated by American ideologues. Trump is reproducing the classic, colonial idea of externalizing the nation-state’s internal dysfunctions. What he proposes is to export American carnage.
Nationalist language always obscures its own class valences, directly or indirectly mentioning diverse class experiences in order to tie the people-nation to a political project. Trump’s resonant phrases about “struggling families” and “the people” conjured up a multitude of daily lives and antagonisms, from anger about job losses to complaints about uppity women and immigrants; “carnage” fused the costs of deindustrialization with racialized panic about crime, migration, and rising Asian powers; “protection” invested Trump with an aura of power — the world must be terrifying if people need protection, and Trump must be bigly strong indeed if he can deliver that protection.
But to what class objectives is this poetics harnessed? From the point of view of most of Wall Street and its allies, Trump is a disaster. He’s cancelled the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a neoliberal trading and property rights agreement with twelve Pacific Rim economies that was the foundation of Obama’s “pivot to Asia.”
Nixing the TPP (worth hundreds of billions of dollars to US capital) and disrupting NAFTA (worth over a trillion dollars in trade) to “renegotiate” it is an extraordinary step for any US president to take. Proposing instead a series of bilateral treaties, including with post-Brexit Britain, while quietly supporting the breakup of the European Union, is a serious attack on corporate profitability. Not only that, but it frees up China to expand and forge new alliances across southeast Asia.
Trump’s retreat to what Doug Henwood calls “semi-autarky” is conducted in the name of the American (white) working class. One might suppose, since Trump talks of a trillion-dollar stimulus program, that the costs of low growth and reduced profitability will not be transferred to the working class in the usual pattern — that they will indeed be “protected.” But the nature of Trump’s stimulus plan is glaringly apparent: he plans to cut $10 trillion in spending over the next decade, presumably passing the savings on to corporations and wealthy taxpayers.
If Trump follows through, it will be austerity of the most savage kind. It will recompense corporations for lost overseas profits, at the cost of the social wage and social reproduction. In addition, the proposal by one of his appointees, Peter Navarro, to impose a 40 percent tariff on Chinese imports will drive up the cost of goods, sharply reducing the consumption of American workers.
There is a danger here in that the AFL-CIO, though it aligns with the Democratic Party leadership and has attacked Trump as a false friend of workers, has a history of flirting with right-wing protectionism. Its response to the Navarro appointment was mixed, and AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka has promised to work with Trump on trade issues. This despite the fact that the trade deals Trump actually negotiates will be even more anti-worker and anti-union than the current ones.
Trump’s is not so much a “project for the new American century” as a project for a retrenchmentist, protectionist, short-termist American capitalism: bad capitalism, savage capitalism, chaos capitalism. American carnage. What is striking about his project, then, is how central rhetoric is to its objectives. It’s often been said of Trump that one should pay attention not to what he says, but to what he does. But this is a misunderstanding. What he says is instrumental to what he does.
Trump has none of the structural advantages of the major social classes behind him, be it the collective organization of workers or the control over markets exerted by capital. He has behind him only the civic activism of the radicalized new middle class, the lobbying of some cowboy capitalists, the influential support of some powerful capitalist outliers (like Rupert Murdoch, and various declining old economy or statist sectors), and the passive support of some strata of downwardly mobile white workers.
Corporate America has not been behind him, and many state elites must be skeptical at best. He has already locked himself in a battle with the capitalist media, with no alternative infrastructure to shield him from any attacks. Insofar as there is a reinvigorated labor movement in the United States, all of its energies are pushing against those of Trumpism. To assemble the base he has, and guide it to electoral victory, Trump had to work rhetorical wonders, performing a sales job that will not soon be eclipsed.
Of course, Trump cannot govern with discourse alone, so his tenure will be marked by crisis. But his success tells us something.
It is a testament not just to Trump’s narrow-if-effective repertoire of bombast and grandiosity, but to the potential glamour, for millions of people on the downswing of their lives, of far-right discourse and its promise of power and restoration. That is the truly dangerous side of Trump’s rhetoric. And it’s what is missed in the gotchas and demolition jobs on his incoherence and poor grammar.