Donald Trump accepted the Republican nomination for the presidency in a speech destined to be remembered by history as the “I am your voice” speech – a phrase that Trump repeated several times to tie together his themes of economic revitalization, military strength and government honesty.
As a scholar of American political rhetoric, I have written about how presidential candidates will often use campaign speeches to depict a nation in crisis, with themselves as the saviors. True to tradition, Trump’s speech contained a narrative of crisis and heroism.
He also fulfilled the expectations for a typical presidential nomination speech by arguing for a united party, explaining his political philosophy and appearing presidential. Of the many topics addressed in his wide ranging speech, he was at his best when he railed against government corruption.
Make America isolationist again?
The culmination of four days of speeches organized around the themes of keeping America safe, putting America to work, putting America first and making America one, Trump’s speech offered a new version of American Exceptionalism. Since 1980 our understanding of American Exceptionalism has been framed by Ronald Reagan’s famous Republican Party acceptance speech:
“Can we doubt that only a Divine Providence placed this land, this island of freedom, here as a refuge for all those people in the world who yearn to breathe freely.”
Trump’s version was less tied to this sort of “divine” exceptionalism that’s welcoming of all people.
Nor was his American Exceptionalism grounded in America’s unique role as an “exemplar of liberty,” as this year’s Republican Party platform declared.
Instead, Trump’s American Exceptionalism was more isolationist and protectionist, devoting the first half of his speech to this theme under the guise of “America First.”
“Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo,” he said.
Speaking for the neglected and ignored
Consistent with his campaign so far, the speech was largely vague about his plans for accomplishing his campaign promises and specific about his criticisms of presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. His overarching criticism of Clinton is that she is “corrupt,” and rhetorically, his speech was most coherent in its critique of Clinton’s and government’s corruption.
His motivation for seeking office is to protect the “forgotten men and women”:
“Every day I wake up determined to deliver for the people I have met all across this nation that have been neglected, ignored, and abandoned.… These are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice.”
Perhaps drawing an analogy between the hardships of the Great Depression and the hardships of the Great Recession, Trump may have borrowed the “forgotten man” figure from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s April 7, 1932 Fireside Chat in which he explained:
“These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power, for plans like those of 1917 that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”
Like FDR, Trump positioned himself as an empathetic leader as well as defender of the downtrodden: “I AM YOUR VOICE,” he boomed.
We don’t see the word “corruption” used frequently in presidential nomination addresses. To the best of my knowledge, only Al Smith and Dwight Eisenhower used the word. Smith used it to talk about Prohibition, and Eisenhower used it to rail against the federal government:
“Our aims – the aims of this Republican crusade – are clear: to sweep from office an administration which has fastened on every one of us the wastefulness, the arrogance and corruption in high places, the heavy burdens and anxieties which are the bitter fruit of a party too long in power.”
Like Eisenhower, Trump argued that he is motivated to become president because our current politicians are too corrupt to help people:
“I have embraced crying mothers who have lost their children because our politicians put their personal agendas before the national good. I have no patience for injustice, no tolerance for government incompetence, no sympathy for leaders who fail their citizens.”
He then pointed his finger directly at the establishment.
“Remember: 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. No longer can we rely on those elites in media, and politics, who will say anything to keep a rigged system in place.”
So far, so good: Trump has laid out his argument that there’s widespread corruption and we know who to blame for it. However, what makes Trump the right hero to save the nation from corruption?
He never really gives a coherent answer.
According to Trump, he’s the nominee even though corrupt media and pundits said that he would not be; therefore, Donald Trump has been right all along and the system is “rigged.” It’s an awkward logical construction that equates his detractors being wrong with their being corrupt – which, of course, isn’t the exact same thing.
What evidence does Trump give to support that he is the right hero for stopping corruption? Again, his speech makes an odd logical leap. Trump argues (with a wink) that because he once got involved in corrupt dealings himself, he knows how it works.
He doesn’t specify how or why he’s no longer corrupt, however, and the audience is left to wonder whether and if his “conversion” has taken place. “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it,” he boasted. “I have seen firsthand how the system is rigged against our citizens, just like it was rigged against Bernie Sanders – he never had a chance.”
Despite reverting to some of his vague rhetoric, Trump did a much better job, stylistically, of performing his speech from the teleprompter than in the past. Only going off script occasionally, he delivered the speech with great energy, rousing the crowd to chant, at various points:
“USA! USA! USA!”
“Build a Wall!”
“Lock Her Up!”
To that last chant Trump responded, “Let’s defeat her in November.”