Not everyone has fallen into this trap, so I can only say, at best, that I was half right. (At this point, I’ll take it.) But nevertheless, analyses have appeared about Trump’s “hopeful tone,” and the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza has asked the Twitterverse if Trump can’t just “be praised for giving a good speech.”
If superficial speech analysis is your goal, then I can’t stop you. But for those of us who’ve made the questionable life choice of studying politics and political speeches from an academic perspective, an adequate response requires something more.
In evaluating the quality of Trump’s speech, the consensus seems to be that he used positive words, adopted a tone that resembles something like what we associate with presidential speeches, and had an effective emotional moment highlighting the sacrifice of the widow of recently deceased Navy SEAL Ryan Owens. This latter point seems to have divided opinions — on PBS, Mark Shields called it “unseemly.” Anecdotally, the people I spoke to had mixed reactions as well – some were moved, and others saw this use of private grief (a tactic used by politicians from both parties) as exploitative.
A good speech is more than just appropriate words and emotional manipulation. Rhetoric is also about context and audience. Trump’s speech was almost entirely removed from context: The section on health care was, if not detailed, then at least focused on core tenets of policy. Was everyone supposed to forget that a few days ago, Trump remarked that “nobody knew that health care could be this complicated”? Similarly, he began the speech by denouncing recent vandalism at Jewish cemeteries, hours after implying that these acts might be faked in order to score political points. A speech can only be so good if it requires the audience to forget what came before.
The audience itself is important, too. Trump called for unity throughout the speech, but there’s a big difference between calling for unity by offering your own concessions and asking others to make concessions for your agenda. Here, the power difference between a president and his audience — both citizens watching at home and individual members of Congress sitting in the chamber — plays a central role. He, not they, can speak and have the ear of the world. He, not they, can make policy with the stroke of a pen. A good presidential speech will recognize this unequal footing when calling for concessions or unity.
Without that acknowledgment, unity calls are dangerously close to invalidations of dissent.
The impact of changing communication technology on the presidency is tough to pin down. Recent politicians didn’t invent emotional manipulation or attack ads. There is real danger in glorifying the past as a time when politics was less cruel and more substantive. At the same time, the medium can shape the message.
Television lends itself to this kind of emotional storytelling. Manipulation in this vein is as bipartisan as deficits and apple pie. Bill Clinton’s promises that he felt our pain distracted from the crime bills and welfare reform that alienated his party base. Barack Obama painted such an appealing picture of liberal America that it diverted our attention from drones and deportations. In Trump’s speech, the emotional manipulations were directed squarely toward controversial policies, especially the idea of a governmental unit focused on crimes committed by undocumented persons.
Rhetoric in a democracy requires that speeches don’t just tell their audience what’s happening; they involve their audiences by asking them to do something. Obama frequently talked about mobilizing others to vote. George W. Bush drew liberal sneers for asking the country to go shopping, but he also often emphasized the importance of volunteering and especially mentoring children. In the State of the Union, the president addresses Congress as well as the public (as is the original purpose of the speech), and asks for legislation.
Last night’s address included only a few conventional legislative asks (on education and infrastructure), asked Congress for “swift” confirmation on Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, and to act on the “implosion” of Obamacare. This is consistent with a first month in which Trump, unlike most recent presidents, has not issued formal messages to Congress asking for legislation. It also means that in his first major address, with the world watching, the president barely asked his audience to do anything other than applaud.
A democratic speech is only as good as its democratic content.