On July 3 and 4, US president Donald Trump gave two major speeches, first at Mount Rushmore and then at the White House. In them he focused not on the struggling US economy, the soaring unemployment rate, or the raging Covid-19 pandemic, but on statues and the purported mortal danger of the left. In his speeches, the president used the word “hero” a total of 24 times, and announced an executive order to create a brand-new monument called the “National Garden of American Heroes”.
These speeches were praised by Trump’s supporters, particularly the first – the “best speech of his political career”, a “triumph” and a “profound speech”. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, never shy of rhetoric, claimed that it would make Donald Trump
“as essential to the preservation of freedom in America for the 21st century as President Abraham Lincoln was in the 19th century and President Ronald Reagan was in the 20th century”.
On the face of it, this was one of the occasional performances that earn Trump the term presidential: he didn’t go off script, he praised the Founding Fathers and he appealed to America’s core value of freedom.
But while both speeches evoked culture and identity by tapping into the tradition of glorifying presidential heroes, Trump also stoked fear by referencing the sometimes violent protests following the May 25 death of George Floyd. One goal was clearly to change the conversation away from the Confederacy and its leaders to appeal to still-persuadable suburban conservative voters. For all of its controversy, and even because of it, Mount Rushmore was the perfect backdrop.
The hero: a vehicle for conservate values
Despite the use of the heroic narrative by all presidents since Ronald Reagan, democrats or republicans, it is inherently conservative. Its moral is that solutions to problems – even political ones – depend on extraordinary individuals, not on collective action.
It often tends to promote patriotism and nostalgia for an idealized era (the “Greatest Generation”). It makes sacrifice for the homeland seem noble and heroic, thanks to metaphors of moral accountability. Trump remarked that “we pay tribute to generations of American heroes whose names are etched on our monuments and memorials” and have to be “worthy of their sacrifice.” Heroes are most often defined by the way a society sees its male and female ideals – in this case, favoring action and physical courage over diplomacy and compromise. Heroes exemplify what linguist George Lakoff identified as a “strict father” type as opposed to the more liberal model of a “nurturing parent.” Trump engaged this conservative idea of the hero when he said,
“Our children should be taught to love their country, honor our history, and respect our great American flag.”
Another important aspect of the heroic narrative is its binary structure. The “we” versus “they” is an illustration of the greater battle between good versus evil. There is no gray area and no room for nuance:
“The patriots who built our country were not villains. They were heroes whose courageous deeds improved the Earth beyond measure.”
In this worldview, moral relativism threatens to diminish the true heroic narrative:
“Every virtue is obscured, every motive is twisted, every fact is distorted, and every flaw is magnified until the history is purged and the record is disfigured beyond all recognition.”
A threatening American “Other”
Heroes exist in adversity. They are an idealized vision of a “Self” that stands against a threatening “Other.” In presidential discourse, national heroes help define national identity. President Trump’s heroes, however, face a different enemy – other Americans. Newt Gingrich praised this gambit, calling the Mount Rushmore speech
“the clearest statement against a domestic threat to American freedom ever given by a modern national leader”.
This process of “Othering” citizens of the United States is similar to what candidate Trump did with immigrants in 2016. He activated the trope of the “violent savage”, a familiar American enemy, by calling out the “angry mobs” that
“unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities […] the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters [and the] left-wing cultural revolution”.
The point is of course to stoke fear. Trump conflates the “liberal democrats” with “totalitarianism” so as to make it “alien to our culture and our values”, in the same way as a candidate in 2015 and 2016 he conflated immigrants with the gang violence of MS-13. Somehow, “Sleepy Joe” Biden is going to plunge America into hellish, apocalyptic future.
Culture is identity
Heroes, monuments and statues are expressions of a particular cultural identity. The right may have political power, but the left has enormous cultural power. The right has ceded ground on nearly all the major cultural issues of the culture wars since the 1960s – race, gay rights, immigration, secularism. The losses have hurt deeply and, rightly or wrongly, many conservatives feel besieged by progressive forces. It is a view shared by Attorney General William Barr, who said in an October 11 speech:
“This is not decay; it is organized destruction. Secularists, and their allies among the ‘progressives’, marshaled all the forces of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values. These instruments are used not only to affirmatively promote secular orthodoxy but also drown out and silence opposing voices, and to attack viciously and hold up to ridicule any dissenters.”
In Barr’s remarks, “organized destruction” suggests intent to harm. Once motives are impugned, there is no more good-faith argument to make. Everything becomes a political weapon, including a piece of cloth. A mask meant to save lives becomes an assault on personal freedom.
Redeeming shame and humiliation
Drawing on affect theory, Donovan Schaefer and Lawrence Grossberg have argued that what unifies Donald Trump’s [white] followers is not a particular economic or conservative policy but rather a deep sense of humiliation and shame over the loss of cultural hegemony. They share with Donald Trump “the terror of the humiliation of being a victim,” which he drew on in his speech:
“Those who seek to lie about the past in order to gain power in the present […] want us to be ashamed of who we are [and] their goal is demolition.” (July 4)
“They think the American people are weak and soft and submissive […] [and want] Americans to forget our pride and our great dignity.” (July 3)
Even the president’s foreign policy is about shame and humiliation:
“We want to be respected by the rest of the world, not taken advantage of by the rest of the world, which has gone on for decade after decade.” (July 4)
When he insults and humiliates their shared enemies, Trump has given these “forgotten Americans” a sense of redemption by promising to “make [their] America great again” by breaking the new cultural norms and by giving aggrieved whites a sense of revenge. Ultimately, he has turned the presidential bully pulpit into a bully’s pulpit. But the very things that shock mainstream and progressive media and, frankly, most Americans, is what makes Trump look like a savior in the eyes of his hard-core supporters.
Donald, the fake hero
Newt Gingrich called out the shared enemies after Trump’s performance on July 3. The president, he wrote, has stood “defiantly in defense of those values despite the ridicule and hostility of the elites, news media, academics.” The next day Trump called himself a protector who “will preserve our history, our heritage, and our great heroes” (July 3) and “defend, protect, and preserve American way of life” (July 4).
As I have written elsewhere, the heroic myth is ultimately about power and virtue, power being kept in check by self-restraint and submission to civic duty. Donald Trump has redefined heroism by making it solely about power. For Trump, “American freedom” is not first and foremost about democracy but about “American greatness.” His frequent Nixonian references to “law and order” are actually about force and power. Many of the terms repeated in his speeches build on these themes: tall, great, greatness, strong, respect, stand up, the flag, men and women in uniform, the Second Amendment, law and order, law enforcement, winning, and so forth.
The difficulty now is that the dissonance between Trump’s rhetoric and reality has been made particularly obvious by Covid-19. Part of the power of the president is rhetorical and performative. So it depends on his ability to make the country believe something good about itself. To unify the country would require that the president put himself above the fray and exercise the virtues of restraint as well as compassion and empathy, especially in these times of crisis.
With Trump’s support eroding even among his once-stalwart base, it’s perhaps time to admit that the strategy that gave him victory in 2016 may very well be his doom in 2020.