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Donald Trump, the Presidency, and National Identity- Mary Stuckey

The McCourtney Institute is proud to present Dr. Mary Stuckey's latest piece concerning the relationship between National Identity and the rhetoric of Donald Trump. Professor Mary Stuckey is new to Penn State this fall. She is an expert in presidential rhetoric. We hope to have more of her work to share with you.

Aug 16, 2017

Scholars of national identity often focus on the presidency because, as I’ve argued elsewhere, presidents historically have been expected to speak for the nation. This expectation is why so many people are currently so critical of Donald Trump—they are disappointed that instead of speaking for all of us, for our national character, as it were, he seems to be enabling its worst elements. This fear is exacerbated by reactions of avowed white supremacists to Trump’s comments on events in Charlottesville. But while the president’s apparent reluctance to disavow white supremacy is a failure, it also presents something of an opportunity. It means that the space normally reserved for his voice can be filled with the voices of those of those who disagree with him; that there can be a national conversation about who we want to be as a nation.

Historically, when presidents talk national identity, they tend to do it in two ways: (1) this is what the nation is; (2) this is what the nation aspires to be.

In the first instance, the rhetoric is often self-congratulatory, and wounds marginalized people by erasure. It tends to presume that things have always been inclusive, are inclusive now, and will only get better. For example, Franklin Roosevelt, a president who served for twelve years without signing a single piece of civil rights legislation, and who refused to support an anti-lynching bill for fear of alienating powerful Southern Democrats whose support he needed to enact the New Deal, said, in his 1938 Annual Message that, “We have sought by every legitimate means to exert our moral influence against repression, against intolerance, against autocracy, and in favor of freedom of expression, equality before the law, religious tolerance, and popular rule.”  Many white Americans would have been able to hear his comments as condemnation of Nazi Germany. But many people of color might have justifiably wondered why the president was so willing to defend these things in Europe while being so reluctant to do so here at home.

In the second instance (which, to be fair, is also often self-congratulatory), has greater potential for acknowledging past and present failures and exclusions and to lay out the necessity for change. Jimmy Carter, for example, noted in 1978 that “A major priority for our Nation is the final elimination of the barriers that restrict the opportunities available to women and also to black people and Hispanics and other minorities. We've come a long way toward that goal. But there is still much to do. What we inherited from the past must not be permitted to shackle us in the future.” Here, he doesn’t assume that there have been no problems with equality, but does assume that the nation is committed to making it a reality.

Examples like these are replete in American history, from both Republican and Democratic presidents. While the precise message changes across time and over party, presidents speak to and for the nation, telling us who we are at any given moment in history, and often reminding us of who we want to be. It is an important role, and one that has fallen largely to the president, as the only political leader empowered to speak for the entire nation.

This role is particularly evident in times of crisis and upheaval. Abraham Lincoln is beloved at least in part for his evocation of national values during the darkest years of our nation, most notably at Gettysburg and in his second inauguralRonald Reagan spoke powerfully to the meaning of the nation on several occasions, and is perhaps most remembered in this regard for his speech after the Challenger disaster.

At our current moment of crisis, this president is not speaking presidentially. What he has said is meaningful, and many commentators attributed meaning to it. The White House responded first by issuing a statement, and, when that proved insufficient for the moment, the president spoke briefly, and then tweeted his dismay at the likely reaction. My aim here is not to analyze the meaning of either Trump’s silence or his speech on this matter, but to note that both are controversial.  This controversy is itself perhaps the most unusual thing about this moment. For generally, presidents speak in clichés when it comes to national identity, precisely because such speech is noncontroversial, and is thus considered unifying.

But in the aftermath of Charlottesville, the president violated our expectations that he would quickly and forcefully denounce racism and its attendant violence. Because he was silent, because he ceded the interpretive space, there is an opportunity for others to take that space. This is tricky, because no one but the president occupies the institutional role that allows them to speak for the nation. But others can push the president to speak; scholars of history, political science, and rhetoric can provide historical context for his speech; can amplify the multiplicity of voices raised in response to his implicit and explicit version of national identity.

Perhaps only the president can speak for all of us, but the public square belongs to us all.  

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