Trump’s Paradoxical Rhetoric and the Power of Kinship

I am your voice … Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it. –  Candidate Trump, Republican National Cleveland, Ohio, 16th August 2016

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. – President Trump, Inauguration Speech, Washington DC, 20th January 2017

How did he do it? We watched aghast as (then) candidate Trump ripped up the rhetorical rulebook and charged headlong into the most powerful job in the world. During his campaign, decency, decorum and common humanity slowly died as he mocked disabled people, called Mexicans rapists, and bragged about sexually assaulting women. Many words have been written about how he achieved the presidency. And about how we all misjudged the situation, despite having a ring-side seat at the most grotesque political campaign in a modern democracy.

Was it simply the triumph of divisive emotion over intelligent argument? I don’t think it’s that easy. For one thing, I think drawing such distinctions is arbitrary. Public debate is a melting pot of different kinds of speech; rhetoric has always been the art of convincing both the head and the heart (not to mention the gut) with a mixture of reason and emotion. And for another thing, we need to stop pretending that all of Trump’s voters are stupid, racist, gullible fools – a ‘basket of deplorables’. Trump won 62.97 million votes. Perhaps I am being overly good-natured, but I refuse to believe that all those people are simply ill-educated idiots. I’m sure some of them are, but there are stupid, racist, gullible idiots everywhere, of every political hue.

No, we must find a different answer.

We all need to feel like we belong; it is a fundamental human need. Throughout our lives, we belong to different kinship groups: family; friends; jobs; nationality; interests – all these different groups give us a place in the world. They give us security and self-worth. These kinship networks change over the course of our lifetimes: we leave some, join others, even create kinship networks. But what if we feel our networks are crumbling? What if we feel that our sense of belonging is being taken away from us, and that we can do nothing about it? We feel helpless. And in the political sphere, we can turn to those politicians who respond to that sense of helplessness and give us back a sense of belonging. Economic disruption and stagnation, societal changes and technological revolutions have fundamentally changed the kinship networks of family, work and community. Many Trump voters have found themselves in kinship systems that are dying or have died out. Naturally, they feel vulnerable. This is not their fault. Trump took these decaying kinship systems and refashioned them in his own image.

I have written before about how we need a new type of rhetoric for a networked world – one of empathy, of working together and leading with people. If that is one side of the coin, Trump’s rhetoric of kinship is on the other. Through his language, he constructed a new kinship network both with and amongst his supporters. But paradoxically, Trump’s rhetoric of kinship places the future firmly in the past. ‘We will rediscover our loyalty to each other’ his said. It is a kinship that places family, and loyalty to the family, at the heart of politics and power. It is a blood kinship, based on family and identity. He metaphorically attacked peoples’ bodies (consider his mocking of a disabled reporter, or his bragging about sexually assaulting women) and bound peoples’ racial identity to their behaviour (calling Mexicans rapists).

But in this kinship network, power is not dispersed evenly. Trump is at the head of this kinship system: the successful father, businessman and leader. But paradoxically, Trump convinced his voters that he and people like him (rich and successful) wanted to be part of that system with them. His voters could now think of themselves as symbolising the strength and future of the USA, rather than its despair and decline.

What I believe we see in candidate Trump’s rhetoric of kinship is a paradoxical mixture of networked power (I am your voice) with the old-fashioned nationalistic rhetoric of authoritarian patriarchy (Nobody knows the system better than me which is why I alone can fix it). In many ways, Trump followed the new rules of networked power. Candidate Trump created a network in which both he and his voters felt they had successful roles to play. He is the outsider candidate. The system is rigged against both him and the voters. His voters could see themselves, for the first time in a long time, as part of a new system, where their kin were people like themselves. And they felt that people like Trump (rich and successful) wanted to be part of that system with them. They were not abandoned but embraced. But he also achieved this sense of kinship using the divisive language of authoritarianism. He is the billionaire businessman who, because of his immense power, is the only one who can get the job done. He played these paradoxes off against each other, and in doing so, created a campaign it was nigh-on impossible to destroy. You cannot destroy a paradox.

In his Republican National Convention speech given in Cleveland, Ohio, Trump proclaimed that he ‘will honor [sic] the American people with the truth, and nothing else’. The word ‘honor’ is important, connoting an old-fashioned sense of family and biblical hierarchy (“Honour thy Father and Mother”). His voters are worth honouring; they are as important as he is. ‘I am with you – the American people’ he said. When you contrast this with Clinton’s pledge ‘I am with her’, it is not hard that Trump understood the nature of the political situation and the language he had to use. He is claiming to stand with the American people against those who ‘have total control’. He has ‘seen first-hand how the system is rigged against our citizens’. But this is not the rhetoric of leading with but rather the rhetoric of leading for. By creating a sense of kinship with and amongst his voters against the ‘rigged’ system, he can claim to be the only candidate worthy of leading them. ‘Remember’, he says, ‘all of the people telling you that you can’t have the country you want, are the same people telling you that I wouldn’t be standing here tonight.’

By the time of his of his Inauguration Address on 20th January 2017, this paradoxical rhetoric, in which he is both his voters’ voice and their powerful leader, is in full swing. ‘We, the citizens of America, are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country and to restore its promise for all of our people.’ Here he is part of the citizenry, who will all work together to make America great again. His voters ‘came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before.’ [Is this how he creates a kinship of the future? Here he recognizes, in admittedly hyperbolic terms, this sense of kinship and network he has created amongst his voters. This network is the American people, who ‘will never be ignored again’. And those included in this network will have power transferred back to them. e. Note too the interchange been ‘we’ and ‘you’ in his inaugural speech. It is part of the paradox of Trump’s power: he makes people feel they have power, but also that they are safe because he is leading them.

Many people have noted the nationalistic and divisive rhetoric of Trump’s campaign speeches. Notice how he uses a metaphor of blood and kinship in distinctly nationalistic terms, ‘we all bleed the same red blood of patriots’. ‘We are one nation’, he says, who will stop ‘this American carnage’. This is the oldest bond of kinship, refashioned for America’s futurBut it’s also worth noting the authoritarian and paternalistic rhetoric in his speeches. Like the word ‘honor’, his imagery can be biblical, for instance when he talks about ‘one more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders’. He has ‘embraced crying mothers who have lost their children’. Here Trump is the comforting, paternalistic father-figure, the “strong-man” who comforts the needy and ‘ensure[s] that all of our kids are … protected equally’. He is also the authoritarian patriarch, ‘the law and order candidate’ who will ‘make our country rich again’. By bringing together both of these symbolic roles, he creates an identity for himself as the comforting but powerful father-figure, not the dangerous monster than so many of his detractors see. Of course, his authoritarian rhetoric is also manifested more obviously, but it is interesting to note that, certainly in this speech, his most blatant claims to outright power are reserved for the economic sphere. Here he does not play the role of the authoritarian patriarch, but rather that of the successful businessman who can get the job done and ‘make our country great again’. He is a man of action: what other ‘politicians have talked about … I’m going to do’.

Looking at Trump’s inaugural address, it’s interesting to note that his language of authoritarianism now includes all Americans. It’s as if his authoritarian power, that of the only candidate who can get the job done, has been symbolically transferred to his voters. This is an authoritarian, nationalistic, paternalistic power that puts the needs of the American “family” above those of the rest of the world. It’s another paradox: he has given the “power” back to the American people, but it is a simple transfer of power from him to them (his voters), rather than a dispersal of power throughout the political and social system. The paradox is most blatant when he proclaims ‘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.’ ‘Total allegiance’ to the country is distinctly authoritarian, but ‘loyalty to each other’ is a comforting image of kinship and family. This is not our modern networked power in which every citizen has equal power. This is the old patriarchal power of authority and allegiance – right or wrong – to  the head of the household, refashioned for the 21st century.

But the truth is, we failed these voters as well. I wrote in a previous post that ‘if we fail to regain peoples’ trust, there will always be those who are willing to take our place’. And this is what Trump did. We failed to win people over, with our rhetoric and with our actions. Trump saw an opportunity and took it. He recognised that the modern world demands a different sort of rhetoric and politics. But the path he took was very different to the one we should choose. Instead of saying ‘I am your voice’, instead of demanding ‘loyalty’, we should perhaps seek a new kind of kinship. Kinship networks where we work with people, not for them. Where ‘voice’ becomes ‘voices’ and ‘I’ becomes ‘we’. And ‘loyalty’ becomes ‘mutual trust’.

Trump’s greatest power lies in his creation of a sense of kinship and loyalty amongst his supporters, but perhaps so does his greatest weakness. Kinship, family and loyalty are not words that sit well in the world of national politics and international diplomacy. These networks demand a different sort of power: one of trust, rationality and mutual understanding: three qualities President Trump does not have in abundance. The very thing that made him such a successful candidate – his ability to create a sense of kinship amongst his voters – is the very thing that makes him such a weak president. And instead of refashioning his rhetoric for his presidency, he is simply carrying on as before. He is even trying to run his presidency like a family firm. But as he is finding to his (and our) cost, this does not work.

Though kinship bonds are a universal human need, they have specific historical roots too. I think the way Trump has refashioned them is particularly American, rooted somehow in the history and historical of that country. I want to carry on exploring the relationship between kinship, history and rhetoric. Perhaps we can look to the past for our future, just as Trump did. But instead of trying to recreate an imagined past in our future, we can use our knowledge of the past and our new kind of rhetoric to imagine a future where these bonds of kinship are based on trust and understanding. This will not be easy. But as Trump’s victory shows, if we want a brighter future, we have no choice but to try.

 I cannot write much more about Trump and his rhetoric. I find it too disheartening. He has promised so much to so many vulnerable people. He has promised them better jobs, better schools and better healthcare. More than that, he has promised his voters that, through kinship with him and their fellow voters, they can be part of a family, part of a nation with a brighter future and that their self-worth can be restored. But he has convinced them that their self-worth lies in his power. And I find that terrifying.

 

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