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President Trump’s “American carnage” speech fit into a long American tradition

President Donald Trump delivering his inaugural address.  Alex Wong/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s inaugural speech was a flawed jeremiad — or, at least, it had roots in the jeremiad tradition founded by the Puritans during the 17th century. The jeremiad, or mournful lament, was rooted in what’s called “covenant theology,” whereby settlers saw themselves as bound together in order to establish what the founder of the Massachusetts colony John Winthrop called “a city upon a hill” (a phrase that Ronald Reagan would return to and that glimmers in one part of Trump’s speech). It drew from a language of fall and resurrection, recognizing that a second generation was likely to devolve into slough and sin and forget the great achievements and high aspirations of the first generation.

The jeremiad, based as it was on a cyclical view of history, provided a structure in which a speaker would document just how debauched his brethren had become, how much backsliding had taken hold of a new generation, only to turn around to a call for redemption — moving from decline to reawakening. The historian who did the most to explain this structure of speech, Sacvan Bercovitch, believed the jeremiad permeated public rhetoric to such a degree that speakers and listeners became unconscious of the genre and its inherent tensions. The jeremiad established a scaffolding for American public rhetoric, including political speech writing.

Which brings us to Trump. What was the takeaway that so many drew from the speech (when they weren’t distracted by absurd claims about crowd size, and other controversies)? The doomsday rhetoric, the language of “American carnage.” When Trump assessed the state of “many” Americans, he turned apocalyptic and even surprisingly, if darkly, eloquent: “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 all knowledge; and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.” Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings come to mind at this moment. Notice the apocalyptic rhetoric: Our children have been deprived of all knowledge, not just some, or consider terms like “stolen,” “robbed,” and “trapped.” This sounds like a nation sunken into something hellish.

Jeremiads are supposed to turn toward a positive vision. Trump’s failed to.

Other presidents have dabbled in pessimism. President Jimmy Carter pronounced “a crisis of confidence” in a speech in 1979. (In popular memory this became the “malaise” speech, although Carter never used that word.) And President Barack Obama spoke of an atmosphere of “crisis” in his first inaugural. But where Carter was speaking to an oil shortage and growing confrontations in gas lines caused by shortages, and Obama was predominantly dissecting the Great Recession he inherited (quite unlike the decent economy Trump takes over), Trump talks of Americans descending into know-nothingness, killing sprees, and bloodbaths.

That this was the predominant takeaway many journalists snatched from the speech — what some called its “doomsday” portrait of America — means the speech didn’t work. Because the documenting of sins is only half a jeremiad. Here’s the inherent challenge of the form: How do you transition from dissecting self-inflicted wounds to trumpeting redemption? How to find a hinge, so to speak, between the fall and the rise. How can the people who have done so many bad things to themselves, who are “deprived of all knowledge” and who have descended into killing one another, be expected to turn the ship aright? A jeremiad relies on that inherent tension to build its suspense.

When Jimmy Carter gave his “crisis of confidence speech” — probably the most jeremiad-like speech by a sitting president — he dissected the woes citizens expressed. He opened by quoting numerous letters he had received that said things like, “You don’t see the people enough anymore.” Carter kept such comments close to his heart. They suggested to him an alarming state, that “people are losing … faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy.”

But he never suggested that he didn’t share in that problem. He then called those same citizens falling into despair to recognize their own selfishness before unifying to solve the energy crisis, in part by embracing the value of sacrifice over the self-indulgence that Carter associated with America’s materialistic, consumer culture. “Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns,” Carter explained.

President Carter’s misremembered exploration of American sinfulness

He warned too against his own conception of sin when he decried “a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others.” He wanted Americans to keep in mind their own failures and shortcomings — for Carter, as for his favorite theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, sin was endemic to the self-interest of human nature — even as they tried to tackle a pressing problem and struggle for a common good. For Carter, only holding one’s own sinfulness and selfishness in mind could citizens have the right sense of humility to proceed, to commit to a “rebirth of the American spirit.” That was the hinge, so to speak.

Trump doesn’t think in terms of humility and self-examination, to put it mildly. Not only does he barely remember what he’s said a few minutes ago, he is too self-enamored to imbibe Carter’s language of sin. Trump’s faith, if such a thing exists, stems from a variant of popular Christianity known for its “positive thinking,” to cite the term used by Trump’s favorite “theologian,” Norman Vincent Peale.

During the 1950s, Peale was a best-selling author of “how to” books who preached from the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan; his favorite brethren were successful businessmen, and he drew upon their pep to help him propagate ideas like “How to Think Your Way to Success.” (No surprise: Reinhold Niebuhr despised Peale.) In Peale’s view, everything could be overcome through positive thinking, and there was no sin since self-interest was crystalline. (Yes, there are connections here with what today is called prosperity gospel.)

Trump recently recounted to the Iowa Family Leadership Summit that listening to Peale’s speeches during his childhood brought him joy and an appreciation of Peale as a “great guy,” a phrase that Peale himself would have loved. It’s the spirit of positive thinking overcoming reality that grounds the second part of Trump’s jeremiad, and that also throws the speech off course.

For suddenly, and in a rather neck-wrenching way, after dissecting the abandonment of the nation by capital, lamenting border disintegration, and then descending into the unfortunate riffing on “America first, America first,” Trump switches gears and embraces the language of “winning” all of a sudden — indeed, “winning like never before.” (Sports metaphors were commonplace in Peale’s theology of self-help). Then there’s a line suggesting that the Bible supposedly exhorted Americans to live in patriotic unity (don’t ask for the passage), thereby making America “unstoppable.” When it comes to foreign policy, he sounds the language of a “city on a hill”: “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example.” But in the next breath, he promises to “eradicate from the face of the Earth … radical Islamic terrorism.”

Soon, Trump moves into taking a page from Ronald Reagan — the president who did more than any figure to deride Carter’s “malaise” talk as a sign of weakness. Trump channeled Reagan’s and Peale’s “positive thinking” when he pleaded, “We must think big and dream even bigger.” Spirited thought and dreams can overcome anything, even, the audience is supposed to think, all the violence of the inner-city and all those young people who lack all knowledge and all those capitalists who scurry abroad looking for cheap labor.

Despite how it is often remembered, Carter’s speech on the “crisis of confidence” worked — indeed, it became his most popular speech — because he connected the faults and sins of the American people to his own sinfulness and sense of humility. Without that sensibility, a jeremiad winds up sounding, well, nearly schizophrenic — abject decline up front, with a magical and overly dreamy conclusion that leaves a listener confused at best.

Trump’s difficulty in negotiating the transition between descriptions of “American carnage,” and a great America he will bequeath to the people tells a great deal about the challenges ahead for this president. He certainly can bluster as he describes the ills of the modern economy, and some people love him for that. But he continues to struggle in explaining to the people the whys and hows of the national transformation he expects to lead.

Kevin Mattson is the Connor Study Professor of Contemporary History at Ohio University and author ofWhat the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?' Jimmy Carter, America's 'Malaise,' and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country.


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