Visiting the Rhetoric Society of America conference in Atlanta, Georgia, I knew there was one person I wouldn’t escape: Donald J. Trump. And so, in the last panel of the conference, I went to see five scholars from US universities tackle the question of ‘“Post-“ Presidentiality: Rhetoric, Identity, and Change in the 2016 Campaign’. As Mary Stuckey (Georgia State) noted, all five talked about representation in one form or another – either the representation of the candidates themselves or the way that they represent other people.
Robert Terrill (Indiana) did this by thinking about the way candidates in the presidential election talk about race. He started with a powerful reminder of the way Trump’s side deals with race, through a video he had made at a Trump rally in Indianapolis of an African-American woman being handcuffed and removed for vocally disagreeing. What is concerning for Terrill is the way that Trump fails to acknowledge race altogether and thereby refuses to participate in the ethical discourse. While the neo-liberal argument claims colour blindness, and a (perhaps) more realistic argument recognizes the significance of race and the responsibilities of those in power, Trump is disconnected from “any sense of racial burden”. But how can American society face problems in the present if it does not acknowledge this heritage?
Staying with race, J. David Cisneros (Illinois) examines the narratives of Latinos/as in the 2016 campaign. He identified two narratives that are at play in the discourse around Latinos/as. He termed the first the long-standing “vote” narrative, in which the Republicans and Democrats recognized the growing importance of the Latino/a vote. Marco Rubio was a particular hope for the Republican party in the 2016 campaign in this respect, being touted by some as the “Republican Obama”. This narrative sees the Latinos/as as a homogeneous “voting block” who needed “wooing” (and the sexual overtones of that word were acknowledged). He secondly identified the seemingly-opposing “threat” narrative, whereby Latinos/as needed to be removed or excluded from the debate. Trump’s rhetoric about Mexicans and walls is relevant here. However, these two narratives are not actually that different, argued Cisneros, as both start from the same logic – the homogeneity of the Latino/a vote. By thus denying the differences within the Latino/a community, Cisneros suggests that an ‘other’ is created and “norms of whiteness” are reasserted.
Karrin Anderson (Colorado State) moved on to talk about the way Hillary Clinton has been represented in the 2008 and 2016 campaigns, where she argues that Clinton has been subject to the First Timer/Front Runner double bind. Anderson began with what Clinton said in an interview last year (Face the Nation, 20/9/15) in response to the idea that this was the year of the outsider: “I could not imagine anyone being more of an outsider than the first woman President”. Since her 2008 campaign, Clinton has gained Foreign Policy experience, the support of the Democrat party elite, and money – but all of this is now being used against her as evidence of her sense of entitlement and threat to democracy. While male first-time presidential candidates are viewed “credibly and favourably”, female first-time candidates are seen to have “symbolic appeal not political strength”. And yet, this is still not recognized as sexism. Are these problems insurmountable?
Mary Stuckey is fairly sure that Hillary Clinton (“the most normal person running the most normal campaign”) will win in the end. But she is interested in this idea of democracy and dynasties. She identifies different kinds of dynasties affecting American politics – Clinton’s marital dynasty (unusual), the Bush family dynasty (“not weird”), and Trump’s long-standing back stage dynasty. Although the media present Trump as if he has come from nowhere, he and his father have both spent decades influencing politics behind the scenes. Stuckley asks, then, “is it only a dynasty if we worry about it? Do we only worry about it at certain times?” What she finds concerning is not the Clinton kind of dynasty, but the Bush kind – where money, support, and policies all seem inevitable. In fact, Clinton’s mix of the traditional and the new over a long campaign has shown that she can get voters to vote.
Finally, Jonathan Rossing (Indiana) talked about the way comedians can provide a critique on the presidential campaign – humour being a very important part of speechmaking and the reception of speechmaking. And yet, Rossing found that Trump was “no joke”, suggesting that Trump was “comedy proof” and even gained strength from the mockery. Although comedians at first found Trump’s campaign an excellent source of material, as time has gone on, it has become less of a laughing matter. Rossing discussed Larry Wilmore’s approach on The Nightly Show, where each of the comedians performing on the show stopped their sketch half way through and walked off stage saying “Fuck you Trump”. As Rossing argues, by aggressively performing their silence, comedians have identified a perhaps more effective way to counter Trump. By choosing not to speak, and by refusing to do what the audience expect, comedians can make their point that “nothing is funny here”.
Questions of self-representation, audience, prejudice and humour have concerned politicians for millennia, but this powerful combination (and not forgetting the questions of race) makes the 2016 election an unpredictable one. With the help of these complex and revealing analyses, I feel slightly more equipped to think about what might happen in November, as well as to consider similar challenges faced by public speechmakers in the past.
BY Jennifer Hilder