Saturday, December 16, 2017

Donald Trump at the FBI Graduation Ceremony: Who Was the Audience?

Donald Trump at FBI Ceremony

Who is the speaker's audience? That sounds like a simple, obvious question with a simple, obvious answer. Sometimes it's not. President Donald Trump spoke yesterday at the FBI National Academic Graduation Ceremony. Shortly before his speech, Mr. Trump reamed out the FBI: "It's a shame what's happened with the FBI, but we're going to rebuild the FBI."  He may have been reacting to reports that some FBI agents involved in the Russia investigation opposed his politics. The FBI has long been considered to be among America's most conservative institutions, yet, during the Russia investigation controversy, some pundits claim that it has been taken over by liberals. This seems unlikely, but, well, people are entitled to their opinions. Mr. Trump said, "people are very, very angry" about perceived liberal bias in the FBI. Why, however, did the audience in an FBI facility not seem to be offended by Mr. Trump's anti-FBI stance? Why did Mr. Trump express opposite opinions on the same day?

Indeed, when he spoke a little later at the FBI ceremony, Trump effused praise: "For over 80 years, this rigorous and world-renowned program has trained America’s most dedicated local law enforcement officers from all across the country.  So respected." He continued: "You left home for 11 weeks to enroll in this program because you love your jobs, you love your communities, and you love your country." Quite different from "people are very, very angry!"

Actually, much of Mr. Trump's speech reviewed standard conservative positions such as that police departments were underfunded and "totally underappreciated." He lamented violent assaults against peace officers. He complained about urban violence, the MS-13 gang, and unfettered immigration.

What news reports often missed were two points:

1. Mr. Trump's real audience was his conservative voting base, not the group in the room. When a politician speaks, we should always assume that the speech represents political outreach. Mr. Trump knew that the speech would be widely reported, and, with his keen media sense, may even have known that the controversy would make it more widely reported.

2. Many in the room were not FBI people at all, but law enforcement personnel from across the country. It is possible that many FBI personnel would be offended by Mr. Trump's earlier anti-FBI remarks, but there were reports that most of the audience members were not FBI at all.  While he was addressing law enforcement in general during much of the speech, and by supporting law enforcement's hot-button issues, Mr. Trump knew that he ran less risk than one might think of a hostile audience reaction. Very clever? Or fortuitous?

Chaïm Perlman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca put forward the idea that the real audience exists in the speaker's mind. Mr. Trump's FBI speech worked from that exact principle.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Ordinary People in President Donald Trump's Tax Reform Speech

Donald Trump speaking on tax reform
How does a president sell an unpopular tax plan? Surrounded by Christmas trees, President Donald Trump discussed tax reform from the White House yesterday. The Republican Party's proposed tax reform plan has led to much controversy, as some authorities think that it gives disproportionate tax cuts to very rich people, while others worry that some ordinary Americans will actually pay more in taxes. The possibility that much of the tax savings will go to overseas corporations has received less attention, but there seems to be good reason to think that is likely. Others express the unpopular view that no tax cut is needed at this time. Numerous pundits have complained that the tax plan was hastily written and poorly studied.

Of course, no one likes to pay taxes, and Mr. Trump's campaign and his inaugural address pictured him as a populist who would stand up for the ordinary, forgotten American. So, how to sell the tax plan? Mr. Trump returned to his populist roots to pitch the proposed tax plan as a bonus for the American people.

First, Mr. Trump emphasized those parts of the proposal that target ordinary Americans, while skimming past the tax cuts for large corporations. He promised to cut unspecified "special interest loopholes" and to lower "tax rates for families." He promised that "A lot of jobs are going to be created with the money that you spend--very special." 

He also promised that "We want to give you, the American people, a giant tax cut for Christmas. And when I say giant, I mean giant." He said that "The typical family of four earning $75,000 will see an income tax cut of more than $2,000, slashing their tax bill in half. It's going to be a lot of money." He promised to "expand the child tax credit for working families" (which has actually led to much controversy among Republicans in Congress).

Typical, ordinary Americans turned out, as far as this event was concerned, to consist of people from pro-Trump regions. So, Mr. Trump introduced Bryant and Ashley Glick from rural Pennsylvania, promising to reduce their tax bracket. Mr. Glick then commented that he would use the tax break for "home renovations." Next, the Kovacs family from Ohio, who Mr. Trump said would get "nearly one-third of their money back," talked about home renovations and saving for their children's college. The Giampolo family from Polk County, Iowa, Leon and Maria Benjamin from Richmond, Virginia, and the Howard family from Tenino, Washington expressed similar sentiments. Ending his speech, Mr. Trump asserted that Democrats actually liked the plan but opposed it for purely political reasons, and summarized that "With your help, we will bring back our jobs; we will bring back our wealth as a country; and, for every citizen across this beautiful land, we will bring back our great American Dreams."

There was no better way to identify with ordinary Americans than to bring them to the White House and give them a chance to speak. Linguist George Lakoff explains that people make political decisions on emotions, not logic. Mr. Trump did present a few facts and figures, but he ignored criticisms of the proposal and drew attention to ordinary, mostly rural Americans. This was powerful, populist, and emotional. Was it enough to make his case? Time will tell.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Donald Trump's Speech at the State Dinner in South Korea: A Unifying Speech

President Trump at State Dinner in South Korea
Although President Donald Trump is better known for divisive speeches, he gave a unifying speech at a November 7, 2017 state dinner with President Moon of South Korea, during President Trump's trip to Asia. My former professor Charles Urban Larson distinguished between the pragmatic speaking style, which we often associate with President Trump, and the unifying style, which brings people closer together.

The event started with a graphic in Korean and English: "We Go Together." President Moon's remarks emphasized the long alliance that the two nations shared. A toast was raised.

President Trump promised that the next day would be "exciting . . . for many reasons that people will find out." Well, surprise and suspense are classic Trump tactics. Mostly, however, Mr. Trump emphasized unity: "The partnership between our two nations and our two people is deep and enduring. We have been proud to stand by your side for many decades as an unwavering friend and a loyal ally." In what sounded like a response to North Korea's recent missile tests, he continued: "And you have never had a time where this ally has been more loyal or stood by your side more than right now." He also talked about "our close and abiding bonds of friendship."

Most ceremonial or epideictic speeches turn to values; this was no exception: "Together, our nations remind the world of the boundless potential of societies that choose freedom over tyranny, and who set the[m] free." That passage not only reaffirmed unity, but also reinforced democratic values. He praised South Korea for "South Korea's success and affirm our close and abiding bonds of friendship."

A notable feature was Mr. Trump's clear endorsement of the South Korea-United States alliance, which contrasted with Mr. Trump's earlier reluctance to fully endorse the North Atlantic alliance earlier this year.

Throughout the event, translators communicated the speakers' words. All in all, this was a safe speech: unifying, reassuring, dignified, carefully scripted. President Trump followed the script, caused no problems, and aroused no controversy. Sometimes, when danger lurks, calm reassurance is a speaker's best attitude.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Speakers Need Research: The Continuing Case of Donald Trump?

Donald Trump speaks to business leaders in Japan
Speakers need to do their homework before they say something, but I added a question mark to this blog post's title because the context of President Donald Trump's latest mistake remains unclear. Did he make a mistake at all, or did he just phrase his point a bit carelessly?

In a rambling, partly extemporaneous speech to American and Japanese businesspeople yesterday, Mr. Trump praised United States economic growth, complained about the United States trade deficit with Japan, and then said this:
"And we love it when you build cars -- if you're a Japanese firm, we love it -- try building your cars in the United States instead of shipping them over. Is that possible to ask? That's not rude. Is that rude? I don't think so. (Laughter.) If you could build them. But I must say, Toyota and Mazda -- where are you? Are you here, anybody? Toyota? Mazda? I thought so. Oh, I thought that was you. That's big stuff. Congratulations. Come on, let me shake your hand. (Applause.) They're going to invest $1.6 billion in building a new manufacturing plant, which will create as many as 4,000 new jobs in the United States. Thank you very much. Appreciate it. (Applause.)"
(I added the italics.)

The mainstream press jumped on Trump's statement because he implied that Japanese companies are not building cars in the United States. But is that what he meant?

Mr. Trump did, a moment later, talk about a Toyota-Mazda project in the United States. Second, he may have simply extemporized over his intended comment. He also promised quick approval for Japanese plants being built in the United States. Maybe he meant to say this: "And we love it when you build cars [in the U.S.A] . . ." but rushed to make his next point before he finished his previous point. Most of us make mistakes like that when we speak off-the-cuff. Still, from his phrasing, he didn't seem to know that about 3/4 of Japanese cars made in North America have final assembly in North American factories. If he had held that fact had firmly in his mind, he probably would have phrased his point more clearly. Research will often prevent a speaker from making mistakes like that.

Also, just before his controversial statement, Mr. Trump said this:

"I also want to recognize the business leaders in the room whose confidence in the United States -- they've been creating jobs -- you have such confidence in the United States, and you've been creating jobs for our country for a long, long time. Several Japanese automobile industry firms have been really doing a job."

That wasn't wrong, but maybe it was a bit unclear. Was he praising Japanese companies for creating jobs in the United States? Or not? Maybe . . .

Lost in the brouhaha is that Mr. Trump also complained that few American cars are exported to Japan, which is absolutely true, and which contributes to the trade imbalance. If he not have made his slip of the tongue, the press might have focused on that more important policy comment.

To his credit, a Washington Post columnist pointed out that Mr. Trump did acknowledge a new Japanese factory being built in the United States, and accused other reporters of "cherry-picking" Trump's comments.

More broadly, when I took college communication classes, my professors pointed out that important people like presidents often read their speeches precisely because the entire world will jump on them if they make a mistake. Judging from the video, Mr. Trump read part of the speech from a text, while extemporizing part of it. His delivery and presentation were much better when he was not reading, but his language was clearer when he was reading. For you and me, off-the-cuff speeches are sometimes the best. For a president, not necessarily so.

I've often blogged to show that speakers need research; for example, here.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Rose McGowan's Me-Too Speech: A Study in Language

I'd like to take a break from politicians and talk about Rose McGowan's "Me-Too" speech, which discussed sexual abuse, at the Women's Convention in Detroit, Michigan. McGowan's character resisted evil on the television show Charmed, and it was interesting to hear her talk about real-life evil. I'll talk little about her actual allegations and motivations--other people are more qualified to discuss them--and instead look at her language use, which featured sophisticated rhetorical tropes and figures of speech. Powerful language helps a speaker emphasize key points. The audience remembers points that a speaker expresses in powerful language.

First, the #MeToo hashtag is itself a neologism, that is, an invented term attributed to Tarana Burke. Unfamiliar phrases, especially if they are short and pithy, grab our attention. Referring to her own history as a sexual assault victim, McGowan used the "me-too" phrase to identify herself with her audience: "Thank you, Tarana Burke, thank you to all of you fabulous, strong, powerful me-toos, because we are all me-toos -- and thank you to Tarana for giving us two words and a hashtag that helped free us." McGowan continued by linking "I" and "we" statements to establish identity: "I have been silenced for twenty years," soon followed by "We are free. We are strong. We are one massive collective voice."

In that opening section, one also notes McGowan's parallel language: "We are free. We are strong. We are one massive collective voice." The "we are's" have a cumulative effect. She continued: "Its time to be whole. It's time [to] rise. It's time to be brave." Also parallel, also a cumulative effect.

A "monster" metaphor then drove home her attack on evil: "In the face of unspeakable actions from one monster, we look away to another: the head monster of all right now and they are the same and they must die." Repetition then drove her point home: "It is time. The paradigm must be subverted. It is time."

People respond well to groups of three, leading us to notice McGowan's rhetorical tricolon: "Name it, shame it, call it out." She ended with a brilliant allusion to Nathaniel Hawthorne: "The scarlet letter is theirs, it is not ours. We are pure, we are strong, we are brave and we will fight."

At the end of her speech, she tied her sense of unity and female empowerment into a thinly-veiled attack against Donald Trump's Access Hollywood scandal.

Effective, powerful language made this speech memorable.

Alas, McGowan was later charged with a drug offense. Too bad.  

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Responses to Jeff Flake's Retirement Speech

Every communication student learns that a message is never complete until someone receives and interprets it. Just as every speaker brings his or her knowledge, attitudes, and experience to the speech, so every audience responds in terms of their own previous experience, attitudes, and values. Jeff Flake's dramatic retirement speech, which I wrote about earlier today, generated responses across a wide field. In that speech, Flake criticized President Donald Trump's behavior as "reckless, outrageous, and undignified." I will sort the responses into three categories: people who thought that Flake gave a great speech, people who think he should have done even more, and people who thought his speech was awful.

Let us start with the positive responses. CNN Editor-at-Large Chris Cillizza called Flake's speech "a clarion call to the governing wing of the Republican Party to wake up from the fever of Trumpism." He continued that Flake had given "the most important political speech of 2017 – and one of the most powerful political speeches in the modern era of the Senate." Sounding sad, Cillizza thought that "it is uniquely possible that it will not change a thing." Noting that Flake faced a difficult primary challenge from an even more conservative opponent, Slate's Jim Newell said that Flake "admitted that in order to win the primary, he would have to become a hard-right, bullying caricature." Commenting on Flake's speech, an editorial in the Baltimore Sun lamented that the rise of "Trumpism" was "the logical conclusion of a cynical bargain Republicans have pursued over the years to stoke cultural resentments as a means of rallying voters who do not benefit from the party’s real priorities of cutting taxes for the wealthy and removing constraints on corporations." The editorial did express, hopefully, that Flake's speech could be one of the first steps on the difficult path to a new, more functional political reality." Conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin said that Flake spoke "with a moral clarity we have rarely seen among his fellow elected Republicans — and never from GOP leadership on Capitol Hill."

Writing in the Washington Post, Stephen Krupin, a Democrat, complained that, although Flake was wise to complain about Trump's governing approach, he gave up: "Then he surrendered." His point was that, by leaving the Senate, Flake was giving up his chance to influence public decisions.

The conservative media, however, found Flake's speech appalling. Breitbart's Tony Lee gleefully reported that Flake's retirement was "another scalp" for alt-right leader Stephen Bannon, President Trump's former White House advisor. Conservative commentator Bill Kristol tweeted:

"Flake took on Trump.
Trump & Bannon took on Flake.
Flake's gone."

I guess that made a point – a point in which power and success measure one's moral qualities.

Complaining that "Republican voters don't appreciate an out of touch loon who lectures them every other week,"  Jim Hoft, in the popular conspiracy theory website Gateway Pundit, described Flake's speech as an "annoying screed." Of course, we do not want to miss President Trump's Twitter responses, which speak for themselves:

So, depending on their political perspectives, different listeners reacted to Senator Flake's speech in much different ways. It is unreasonable to think that one speech will change everything. All the same, Senator Flake stimulated a great deal of public controversy about President Trump's leadership methods. What will come of this, good or bad? Time will tell.

I have seen comparisons between Flake's speech and speeches responding to Senator Joseph McCarthy. Instead, I thought about John Kennedy's best-selling book, Profiles in Courage. Kennedy's book talks about courageous actions that United States Senators took at the risk of their careers. Such courage seems like a pipe dream today, does it not? Today, politicians seem to adjust their opinions according to the latest polls, and not according to any moral compass. Yet, even Senator Flake did not think he could run for re-election and still speak freely.

Senator Jeff Flake's Retirement Announcement: Appealing to Tradition

Jeff Flake's Retirement Speech
Announcing that he would not run for reelection, conservative Republican Arizona Senator Jeff Flake delivered on the Senate floor a carefully-crafted blast at President Trump. Flake said that "Reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as 'telling it like it is,' when it is actually just reckless, outrageous, and undignified." He warned that "when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else: It is dangerous to a democracy." He denied that "a pivot to governing is right around the corner." He protested the abandonment of American political tradition: "We must never regard as 'normal' the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals." 

As a thoroughgoing mainstream conservative, Flake filled his speech with appeals to tradition. For example, he cited Federalist #51: "Ambition counteracts ambition." Noting that many Republicans favor absolute loyalty to President Donald Trump, Flake responded by quoting Republican President Theodore Roosevelt to say: "To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public." He said that "Humility helps. Character Counts." He cited one of the United States' mottoes: "E Pluribus Unum. From many, one." He said that history had proven our ancient principles: "When we have been at our most prosperous, we have also been at our most principled." Continuing to address principles, he insisted that "These articles of civic faith have been central to the American identify for as long as we have all been alive. They are our birthright and obligation."

Flake then listed the harms that he felt President Trump had caused by deviating from our traditions: "Now, the efficacy of American leadership around the globe has come into question." He further said that "the beneficiaries of this rather radical departure in the American approach to the world are the ideological enemies of our values. Despotism loves a vacuum." He warned that "mischaracterizing or misunderstanding our problems and giving in to the impulse to scapegoat and belittle threatens to turn us into a fearful, backward-looking people." Yet he had hope: "This spell will eventually break. That is my belief. We will return to ourselves once more, and I say the sooner the better." Flake ended his speech by quoting Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural Address: "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

The definition of conservatism requires a speaker to talk about traditional practices or values. Many, probably most, people who call themselves conservatives do nothing of the kind, and instead advocate the triumph of their class over others. That leads to disruption, and conservatives fear disruption more than they fear cardiac arrest. Yet, President Trump identified worries and concerns that many voters experience, and, although he seems to have the wrong solutions -- stopping immigration and suppressing Muslims will not improve America's heartland -- those worries remain unaddressed. Flake articulated what may be the United States' defining conflict: can returning to ancient traditions restore us to health? Or do we need to move to new principles and, if so, what will those principles entail?

Reactions to the speech have split, not according to party lines, but according to alt-right versus everyone else. My next post will look at those reactions. Later, I will also post about the appeal to tradition, which some people (most often, liberal college professors) consider to be a fallacy. Is tradition a fallacy? Or is it wisdom's source?

Here's my follow-up, as promised.

Image from