Election campaigns should be the occasion for soaring rhetoric and inspirational speeches, but as with so much else in this American presidential race the manual is being rewritten by Donald Trump. He is not so much an orator as he is a reality TV performer whose narcissistic monologues hold an almost feral attraction. He rambles, he piles digression upon digression, and he lets his brief flashes of thought trail off to allow his audience to finish his sentences in their own way. Above all, as the linguist George Lakoff tells us, Trump, a consummate salesperson, employs the time-honoured tricks of his trade. My mother used to say that a certain person “lies like a sidewalk.” That is what Trump does, but after making patently false claims he will add, “Believe me” or “That’s a fact, folks.”

Hillary Clinton, steady, cautious and controlled, is Trump’s rhetorical foil. As a result, she comes across as cold, calculating and remote. She lacks the salty language of Senator Elizabeth Warren and is not nearly as progressive. To use Canadian examples, Clinton would benefit from the scrappy populism of former deputy prime minister Sheila Copps or Canadian Alliance MP Deborah Grey.

Americans, it seems, are left with a choice between Trump, whose rhetoric marks him as a potentially dangerous demagogue, and Clinton, who carries a whiff of someone who is not quite trustworthy. Hers is the lesser of the evils.

One assumes that at this level most everything is choreographed and nothing is left to chance. For example, Trump has scapegoated Muslims from the earliest days of his campaign, saying that he would close the door to their immigration to the United States. He has also described Latinos as drug dealers, criminals and rapists and actually promises to build a wall between Mexico and the United States. As the Atlantic magazine points out, Trump has lifted some of his ideas from the arch-conservative author Ann Coulter, whose book Adios America talks about a “Latin American rape culture” and a lot more. Trump has called the book a “great read” and has occasionally used Coulter to warm up crowds at rallies. In other words, Trump’s attacks on Muslims and Latinos are central to his script and not just loose talk.

Trump accepted the Republican nomination at a convention in Cleveland on July 21. He spoke for 65 minutes, the longest such acceptance speech since 1972, and he used a teleprompter. He painted a dark picture of rampant violence in the streets, terrorists on the loose and the economic decline of America. “I am your voice,” Trump told the convention and the nation. “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”

If this is the rehearsed Donald Trump, what are we to make of his apparent off-the-cuff remarks? He has said frequently from the podium that protesters at his rallies should be “punched in the nose” — and that has happened. He says that the woman he describes as “crooked Hillary” should be locked up, and when he does, his audiences invariably shout “Lock her up” in return. One of his advisers has even said that Clinton should be shot by a firing squad.

Trump warned on August 9 that Clinton, if elected, would appoint Supreme Court judges who will overturn the Second Amendment, which enshrines the right for American citizens to carry guns. “If she gets to pick judges, nothing you can do, folks, although the Second Amendment people – maybe there is, I don’t know.” Those remarks were widely interpreted as suggesting that Clinton should be assassinated. The columnist Thomas Friedman said that he was reminded of how hateful rhetoric directed at Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for embracing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process led to his assassination in 1995 by an agitated right-wing extremist.

Trump blames the controversy that he creates on a conspiracy against him in the “liberal” media. Journalists, however, are left with the unenviable task of just how to report on someone who uses incendiary rhetoric for its shock value and to earn media coverage; someone who sends thinly coded messages to Trump Nation and who later retreats behind claims that he is either misunderstood or deliberately misrepresented by the media.

Despite all of her time in the public eye, Clinton approaches speech making with all of the comfort of a cat in a bathtub,” according to one seasoned Canadian observer. She worked into the early morning hours on the remarks she later delivered at July’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. She used her time at the podium to counter the negative descriptors of her. The truth is, through all these years of public service,” Clinton said, “the ‘service’ part has always come easier to me than the ‘public’ part. I get it that some people just don’t know what to make of me.” Then she told a story, selectively no doubt, about her grandfather, who was a blue-collar worker, her mother, who had been abandoned as a child, and Clinton’s own activism as a young person on behalf of children with disabilities.

The Functionary

Our newsletter about the public service.
Nominated for a Digital Publishing Award. 

Chelsea Clinton was also at the podium at the convention to highlight her mother’s softer side. Chelsea talked about progressive credentials but she also provided a mushy description of Hillary as a grandmother. “My mom can be about to walk onstage for a debate or a speech, and it just doesn’t matter,” Chelsea said. “She’ll drop everything for a few minutes of blowing kisses and reading Chugga-Chugga Choo-Choo with her granddaughter.” At the Republican convention it was left to Trump’s daughter Ivanka to speak about her father in a way that would humanize him and increase his appeal among female voters. She did it well, although it was not an easy task given that he had during the long nomination process described various women as fat, ugly, pigs and dogs.

When she spoke in Philadelphia, Clinton described herself as someone who may not be flashy or exciting but who pays attention to detail and gets things done. She also gave a tub-thumping response to Trump’s earlier speech in Cleveland, contrasting her vision for America with his: “So don’t let anyone tell you that our country is weak. We’re not. Don’t let anyone tell you we don’t have what it takes. We do. And most of all, don’t believe anyone who says: ‘I alone can fix it.’ Those were actually Donald Trump’s words in Cleveland. And they should set off alarm bells for all of us…Americans don’t say: ‘I alone can fix it.’ We say: ‘We’ll fix it together.’” This last line echoed Clinton’s campaign theme of Stronger Together.

It is worth remembering in all of this that the best orators are not necessarily great or even good leaders, and that not all good leaders are fine orators. A Canadian example will suffice. William Lyon Mackenzie King was a tedious and unremarkable speaker, but he led Canada quite successfully for 22 years. John Diefenbaker was a riveting speaker and marvellous campaigner, but between 1958 and 1962 he frittered away the largest parliamentary majority in Canadian history and provided only a mediocre record of accomplishment. Nor are there any Canadian Obamas on the stage at the moment. Justin Trudeau is adept in news conferences and debates and a master at using social media, but he has yet to arrive as a long-form speaker.

We don’t know what turns the American election will take between now and November, but stirring oratory, as our American friends may discover, is a double-edged sword. Powerful rhetoric can inspire people to commit acts of generosity and sacrifice, but also acts of hatred and violence. Words do count after all.

Photo: Evan El-Amin / Shutterstock.com


Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission. Here is a link on how to do it. | Souhaitez-vous réagir à cet article ? Joignez-vous aux débats d’Options politiques et soumettez-nous votre texte en suivant ces directives.

Dennis Gruending
Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author and blogger and a former member of Parliament. He has worked for three newspapers and for CBC Radio as a reporter, producer and morning-show host. He has written or edited seven books, including Great Canadian Speeches, a bestseller. He is currently working on another book, tentatively titled Speeches That Changed Canada.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License

More like this