Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Trump and Political Philosophy: Is Trump's Rhetoric Lincolnian? The Teleprompter Trump Versus the Turbulent Trump

                                Trump's Teleprompter Speech in Warsaw, Poland, July 6, 2017

                                           Trump Tosses Out His "Boring" Speech Notes

I have been thinking about how political philosophy might help us understand Donald Trump.  I have been prompted to do that by my reading of Trump and Political Philosophy, a two-volume collection of papers edited by Angel Jaramillo Torres and Marc Benjamin Sable (published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2018).  This will be the first of a series of posts on the questions raised by those papers.

One of those questions is whether Trump's rhetoric can be rightly understood as following in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln.  This question is posed sharply by the contrast between John Burt's paper ("The Lesson of Lincoln in the Age of Trump") and Kenneth Masugi's paper ("The Great Emancipators Oppose the 'Slave Power': The Lincolnian--and Aristotelian--Dimensions of Trump's Rhetoric").

Burt argues that Trump rejects Lincoln's view of the Declaration of Independence as affirming a Kantian politics of human equality and liberty, and instead Trump promotes a rhetoric of resentment and grievance based on a Schmittian conception of politics as a battle between friends and enemies.  On the contrary, Masugi argues, Trump's rhetoric affirms Lincoln's vision of the Declaration of Independence in declaring that "making America great again" will renew America's devotion to the principles of Lincoln and the Declaration.

The reason for this disagreement is that they are looking at two different versions of Trump's rhetoric.  Masugi is looking at the rhetoric of the Teleprompter Trump, who reads off a teleprompter an eloquent and thoughtful speech written for him by others--like his speech in Warsaw, Poland, on July 6, 2017.  Burt is looking at the rhetoric of the Turbulent Trump, who tosses out the speech notes prepared for him because he finds them "too boring," and then launches into a rambling rant full of resentment, boasting, and lying as he attacks those he identifies as his enemies.

Once one sees this, then the question is which of these two Trumps is the true Trump?  Or must Trump's populist rhetoric always be a confusing mixture of both?  Or can Trump's two rhetorical styles be understood as different ways of expressing the same ideas?


Burt is the author of Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism (Harvard University Press, 2013), which interprets Lincoln's political thought in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates as founded on Kantian liberal principles.  This connection between Lincoln and Kant runs through his paper in Trump and Political Philosophy.

Burt sees Lincoln's interpretation of the principles of the Declaration of Independence as based on the Kantian principle that all human beings are equal in their moral dignity as persons, and therefore that the legitimacy of government arises from the consent among equals who respect one another's worth as moral agents.  Against this is the contrasting view assumed by Stephen Douglas and elaborated in the writings of Carl Schmitt that politics is ultimately about the contest between friends and enemies.  Until recently, Burt believes, America has been on the side of Lincoln and Kant; but now Trump and his populist movement are pushing America to the side of Douglas and Schmitt.

Burt sees Trump as denying two ideas that have been core values for America until recently:
"1.  That America sees itself as destined to be an equal multicultural society that will root its sense of being a nation in a common political culture rather than in common blood; that in attempting to become a multicultural democracy America will blaze a path for democracy worldwide."
"2.  That America is committed to a world order founded upon multilateral agreements (as opposed to two-sided bargains of a temporary and transactional kind), to international institutions of collective security ruled by open covenants openly arrived at, in short to an order which extends to the world the political culture of liberal democracy" (215).
These two ideas are presented in Kant's writings--particularly, in his essay "Perpetual Peace."  The first idea comes from Declaration of Independence and Lincoln's interpretation of the Declaration as affirming the equal liberty of all human beings and of their right to establish governments to secure their rights by their consent acting as one people.  The second idea is the application of the first idea to international politics, which was expressed in Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points and elaborated by later presidents, as part of the post World War Two understanding of the liberal international order, in which equally sovereign nations would cooperate through international agreements to secure peaceful security, free trade, and human rights for the mutual benefit of all nations.

According to Burt, Trump's Schmittian populist rejects both of these ideas, because Trump sees both national politics and international politics as violent contests between friends and enemies.  As Trump sees it, American politics is a battle between the Elites and the People, and some Americans are not part of the American People because they are actually "Enemies of the People."  For example, Muslim Americans are not real Americans because they are in sympathy with foreign terrorists, as illustrated by the thousands of Muslims in Jersey City, New Jersey, whom Trump knows cheered the attack on the Twin Towers.  And Mexican Americans are not real Americans because most of them are rapists, drug dealers, and murderous gang members, although "some, I assume, are good people."  Consequently, American judges who are Muslims or Mexicans are "haters" of Trump who cannot be trusted to be fair judges.

For Trump, international politics is also a battle between friends and enemies, because in the competition between nations, there must be winners and losers.  Under the false appearance of an international order of globalist cooperation, the United States has been losing in its competition with other nations; and only now, with Trump's policy of America First, America is finally winning again.


While Burt supports his view of Trump's ugly rhetoric by citing Trump's inflammatory remarks at his campaign rallies, in his Twitter messages, and in some informal remarks, Masugi supports his view of Trump's noble rhetoric by reading three of Trump's formal speeches in 2017, in his first six months in office--his Inaugural Address (January 20), his first State of the Union Address (February 28), and his Speech to the People of Poland in Warsaw (July 6).  For each of these three speeches, Trump was careful in reading his prepared speech off a teleprompter.  Notably, Burt never mentions any of these speeches.

In his Inaugural Address, Trump began by acknowledging the presence on the platform of four former presidents--Carter, Clinton, Bush, and Obama--by thanking President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid, and by noticing that "every four years, we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power."

But then he asserted that his inaugural ceremony was different from previous presidential inaugurations in a way that set the theme for his entire speech.
"Today's ceremony, however, has very special meaning.  Because today we are not merely transferring power from one Administration to another, or from one party to another--but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People."
"For too long, a small group in our nation's Capital has reaped the rewards of government, while the people have borne the cost."
"Washington flourished--but the people did not share in its wealth."
"Politicians prospered--but the jobs left, and the factories closed."
"The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country."
"Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation's Capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land."
"That all changes--starting right here, and right now, because this moment is your moment: it belongs to you."
"It belongs to everyone gathered here today and everyone watching all across America."
"This is your day.  This is your celebration."
"And this, the United States of America, is your country."
"What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people."
"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."
"You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before."
"At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction that a nation exists to serve its citizens."
Here Masugi sees Trump condemning all previous administrations--both Republican and Democrat--as promoting what Aristotle and the American Founders called a "faction"--promoting the narrow interests of "the establishment" rather than the common good of the People.  But now as "the people became the rulers of this nation again," Trump reaffirmed the teaching of the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address that just government must be of, by, and for the People.

The most often quoted passage of Trump's speech was his description of "American carnage":
"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."
In the middle of the speech, Trump uttered the one and only sentence in which he shifted from "we" to "I."
"From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land."
"From this moment on, it's going to be America First."
"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, 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."
"American will start winning again, winning like never before."
So here Trump clearly identified himself as the one Leader of the People against the Elites who have exploited the People.

In some parts of this speech, Masugi sees Trump affirming what Aristotle called "political friendship"--the communal feeling or allegiance of all citizens to one another that creates a patriotic solidarity.
"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.'"
"We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity."
So here, it seems, there need be no Schmittian division of the American people into friends and enemies as long as they live together in patriotic solidarity.

But notice how Trump did point to some divisions within the American People.  First, he set "the establishment" against the People, as what Masugi calls a "faction" that exploits the People.  And then when Trump identified the "tens of millions" who became part of "this movement," he was apparently referring to those voters who elected him, as opposed to those who voted for Hillary Clinton in opposition to "this movement."

Here we see the fundamental problem for all populist rhetoric that claims to speak for the People as opposed to the Elites.  Who are the People?  All of the citizens?  Or only some of the citizens--only those who support the populist leader against the Elites?  Is the contest not only between the People and the Elites but also within the People divided into opposing groups?

In his review of Trump and Political Philosophy in the Claremont Review of Books, Michael Anton said that Aristotle's distinction between "the many" and "the few" does not clearly apply to the United States, where there is no clear-cut "many" comparable to the demos of the ancient Greek cities.  Anton observed: "We instead have two popular classes: unmarried and mostly poor blue-state urbanites, and red-state, rustbelt, heartland blue-collar workers, middle managers, and homemakers."  Yet like the ancient city, "we have only one ruling class" that has chosen to take the side of "the urban mob."  So now we have three groups--the ruling class, the "urban mob" that supports the ruling class, and the rural or small town working class and middle class that supports Trump.

If Trump speaks for the American People, does that mean that those in the "urban mob" who oppose him are not real Americans?

As I have indicated in some previous posts (here and here), this analysis creates serious problems for those Claremont Straussians like Anton and Masugi who want to defend Trump.

According to Anton, the election of 2016 was a life-or-death war, with Trump fighting for the true Americans, the working class and middle class Americans, who are not Third World immigrants or urban poor minorities or cosmopolitan elites, and these Trump voters supported constitutional republicanism.  On the other side of the war, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats represented "half the country and all our elites," who wished to overturn the constitutional republic and replace it with one-party rule with absolute power to rule over the country.

Actually, "half the country" was a majority of the voters, because as Anton indicated, the Republicans have lost the popular vote for the presidency in every election since 1988 except for 2004; and in 2004, Bush won with only 50.7 percent.  And, of course, Trump  lost the popular vote to Clinton in 2016; and he lost again in the mid-term congressional elections in 2018, which Trump turned into a referendum on his presidency.

Anton and Masugi employ a populist rhetoric that presents a Manichaean war between good and evil--the Virtuous People versus the Evil Elites.  This becomes complicated, however, as soon as one notices that some of the People are evil, because they vote for the Evil Elites, and some of the Elites (like Trump, Anton, and Masugi) are virtuous because they lead the Virtuous People against the Evil Elites.  Doesn't this sound like Schmitt's Friends Versus Enemies?  Where's the "political friendship"?

That the Virtuous People who support Trump are a minority was suggested at Trump's Inaugural Address, because the crowd of people on the Washington Mall for the speech was smaller than the crowd for Obama's Inaugural Address.  Trump was so resentful about this that he had to lie by insisting that his crowd was the largest inaugural crowd in American history.

 The Crowd for Trump (Left) Was Smaller than the Crowd for Obama (Right)

The next day Press Secretary Sean Spicer declared: "This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration--period."  A photographer for the National Park Service was asked by the White House to crop out the empty space in the photographs of Trump's crowd to make the crowd appear larger than it was.

Five weeks later, in his first State of the Union Address, Trump continued to claim that he spoke for the People; and Masugi sees in this speech more evidence that Trump appeals to the principles of the Declaration of Independence as interpreted by Lincoln.  Masugi rightly points out that Trump placed his speech in the flow of American history from its founding in 1776 to its future 250th anniversary in 2026.

Trump began the speech by saying:
"In nine years, the United States will celebrate the 250th anniversary of our founding--250 years since the day we declared our independence.  It will be one of the great milestones in the history of the world.  But what will America look like as we reach our 250th year?  What kind of country will we leave our children?"
He then indicated that "in 2016, the Earth shifted beneath our feet," and "the chorus became an earthquake, and the people turned out by the tens of millions, and they were all united by one very simple, but crucial demand: that America must put its own citizens first.  Because only then can we truly make America great again."

Most of his speech was a summary of his policy proposals, which included a quotation from Abraham Lincoln as a congressman speaking for a protectionist trade policy.  It's certainly true that trade protectionism was part of Lincoln's Whig ideology.

In speaking about the need to build a great wall on the southern border to restrict immigration, Trump appealed to what Masugi identifies as "natural law":
". . . we will soon begin the construction of a great, great wall along our southern border.  As we speak tonight, we are removing gang members, drug dealers, and criminals that threaten our communities and prey on our very innocent citizens.  Bad ones are going out as I speak, and as I promised throughout the campaign."
"To any in Congress who do not believe we should enforce our laws, I would ask you this one question: What would you say to the American family that loses their jobs, their income, or their loved one because America refused to uphold its laws and defend its borders?"
Masugi says that this is a "natural law" stated in the Declaration of Independence in that it is natural for the people to establish government to secure their "safety and happiness."  But is it a matter of  "natural law" that we must agree with Trump's claim that undocumented Mexican immigrants are mostly "gang members, drug dealers, and criminals" who want to steal from and murder innocent Americans?  Or is it possible that the proportion of criminals among immigrants is actually lower than among native-born Americans?

At the end of his speech, Trump declared:
"When we have all of this, we will have made America greater than ever before--for all Americans.  This is our vision.  This is our mission.  But we can only get there together.  We are one people, with one destiny.  We all bleed the same blood.  We all salute the same great American flag.  And we all are made by the same God."
"When we fulfill this vision, when we celebrate our 250 years of glorious freedom, we will look back on tonight as when this new chapter of American Greatness began."
As Masugi indicates, Trump is suggesting here that in 2026, a year and a half after an eight-year Trump presidency, we will see how his "Make American Great Again" policies renewed the greatness of the American founding with the Declaration of Independence.  And while Trump does not explicitly affirm the Declaration's principle of human equality, there is perhaps an echo of "created equal" in Trump's "we all are made by the same God."

While Masugi respects Trump's rhetorical achievements in his Inaugural Address and his first State of the Union, he thinks "Trump's most profound speech of his presidency" (247) is the speech in Warsaw on July 6th, 2017.

In this speech for Trump's first presidential trip to Europe, the central theme was the survival of the Western world.  In the history of Poland in the 20th century, Trump saw the threats to the West coming from German Nazism and Russian communism and the noble triumph of the Polish people in prevailing against those threats.  But then he saw new threats both internal and external that will require the West to courageously and resolutely reaffirm its distinctively Western cultural identity.
". . as the Polish experience reminds us, the defense of the West ultimately rests not only on means but also on the will of its people to prevail and be successful and get what you have to have.  The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.  Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost?  Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders?  Do we have the desire and courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?"
"We can have the largest economies and the most lethal weapons anywhere on Earth, but if we do not have strong families and strong values, then we will be weak and we will not survive.  If anyone forgets the critical importance of these things, let them come to one country that never has.  Let them come to Poland.  And let them come here, to Warsaw, and learn the story of the Warsaw Uprising."
 One of the new external threats to the West, Trump declared, is "radical Islamic terrorism."  And he said that he had called on more than 50 Muslim nations to join in defeating these shared enemies.

Other external threats include "new forms of aggression, including propaganda, financial crimes, and cyberwarfare."

He also mentioned the new threat from Russia:
"We urge Russia to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes--including Syria and Iran--and to instead join the community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies and in defense of civilization itself."
The new internal threat to the West is "the steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and wealth of the people.  The West became great not because of paperwork and regulations but because people were allowed to chase their dreams and pursue their destinies."

To meet these new threats, the survival of the West, Trump claimed, would depend on a revival of the core values of the West.  He mentioned at least five values.  The first was "individual freedom and sovereignty."  The second was human rights: "above all, we value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom.  That is who we are.  Those are the priceless ties that bind us together as nations, as allies, and as a civilization."

The third value was the agreement of "this great community of nations" in affirming that "it is the people, not the powerful, who have always formed the foundation of freedom and the  cornerstone of our defense."  This "community of nations" was manifest in the NATO alliance of "free, sovereign and independent nations" for the defense of our freedoms and our interests.  In support of NATO, Trump declared the continuing commitment of the United States to Article 5 of the NATO treaty--the mutual defense commitment.

He also repeated his often expressed desire that the NATO powers should do more in spending their fair share of money on defense, and he praised Poland for being one of the NATO members that has made the target of military spending that is 2% of its GDP.

The fourth crucial value of the West that Trump mentioned was what Masugi calls "the divine and transcendent":  Trump told the story of Pope John Paul II's visit to Warsaw on June 2nd, 1979, when one million Poles gathered for a mass with the Pope.
". . . every communist in Warsaw must have known that their oppressive system would soon come crashing down.  They must have known it at the exact moment during Pope John Paul II's sermon when a million Polish men, women, and children suddenly raised their voices in a single prayer.  A million Polish people did not ask for wealth.  They did not ask for privilege.  Instead, one million Poles sang three simple words: 'We Want God.'"
. . .
"As I stand here today before this incredible crowd, this faithful nation, we can still hear those voices that echo through history.  There message is as true today as ever.  The people of Poland, the people of America, and the people of Europe still cry out 'We want God.'"
Masugi sees this appeal to the divine as comparable to Lincoln's appeal to the Biblical God in his Second Inaugural Address.

Finally, Masugi also sees Trump invoking another distinctive value of the West--the Socratic philosophic longing for knowledge, including self-knowledge (251, n. 12).  "We debate everything," Trump observed.  "We challenge everything.  We seek to know everything so that we can better know ourselves."

If these values of the West are defended, then, Trump declared at the end of his speech, "the West will never, ever be broken."

Although he did not exactly so it, Trump implied that he was putting forth a new slogan--"Make the West Great Again."

This is a remarkable speech for Trump because it truly does--as Masugi argues--strike the chords and themes of a Lincolnian rhetoric.  And against Burt, it even suggests the principles of Kantian liberalism--equality of human rights promoted by a community of nations.

But then we must wonder--how do we resolve the apparent contradiction between the Teleprompter Trump of this elegantly written and thoughtfully composed speech and the Turbulent Trump who goes on incoherent rants full of lies, insults, grievances, and narcissistic boasting about himself as the "very stable genius"?

I have no good answer to that question.

1 comment:

Jaffanese American said...

Thanks to Larry Arnhart for taking my essay seriously. I reply in haste and look forward to his observations on some other essays in the two-volume work.

Which Trump to take seriously, the "teleprompter Trump" or the spontaneous one? I would say both, but for different purposes. The tweets are more tactical, the prepared speeches more strategic.

I discuss his overall strategy in this RCP essay from March 2016. His presidency has followed the strategy of his campaign. He has forced welcome and long overdue changes in the establishments of both political parties. Above all, he has exposed the injustice of the administrative state, as we see from the impeachment proceedings.

Sometimes Arnhart takes literally what Trump intends seriously, e.g.: "But is it a matter of "natural law" that we must agree with Trump's claim that undocumented Mexican immigrants are mostly "gang members, drug dealers, and criminals" who want to steal from and murder innocent Americans?" The "mostly" actually moderates Trump's absence of any modifier. But Trump obviously did not mean those immigrants, even the illegals, are all criminals.

Just to stick to the immigration example: If the prospect of a "wall" seems oversold, then what alternative do its opponents have? It seems they would make America an open city.

One can argue similarly with Middle East wars, free trade, regulation, and above all political correctness. It's Trump who honors the best in the American political tradition, not any of his opponents, announced or still lurking.

Ken Masugi