January 09, 2019
A rhetorical analysis of President Trump's address to the nation, and the response by House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Schumer.
Word-pictures painted by President Trump in his brief address last night evoked familiar scenes from horror, crime, and reality melodramas. His argument revolved around what might be termed “eye-worms.” Just as musical jingles and themes insinuate themselves through our ears into our memories, there to be summoned for years, so, too, do stock shots from staged scenes in countless movies and television series.
The president opened his first-ever Oval Office address with a shift in how he characterized the situation at the US-Mexico border. It was still a “crisis,” but he did not mention terrorists, and he prefaced the adjective “security” with “humanitarian.” His second sentence went visual:
Every day, Customs and Border Protection agents encounter thousands of illegal immigrants trying to enter our country.
The conjured swarm corresponds to familiar clips of people pressing against fences. The assertion that those who get through bring drugs, commit violent crimes, and exploit children “as pawns” has been a signature claim of Trump’s since he announced his candidacy in June 2015. Believe it or not, you get the picture.
A second eye-worm was intended to refute an accusation by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that the wall is “immoral.” It is common sense to build a barrier along the border to keep bad people from harming loved ones, the president suggested; after all, that is what walls around the houses of “wealthy politicians” do. Again, this is an easy image to recall.
Finally, the president luridly described four instances of “illegal alien” violence. “I have held the hands of the weeping mothers and embraced the grief stricken fathers,” he added. You probably could have channel-surfed last night and landed on pictures of crime scenes and consolations.
According to the president, wealthy politicians per sedo not represent the villains in this “choice between right and wrong, justice and injustice.” Instead, it’s Democrats. We saw and heard from their national leaders next.
In their remarks Pelosi and Schumer both purported to contrast fear and facts. The Speaker:
Sadly much of what we heard from President Trump throughout this senseless shutdown has been full of misinformation and even malice. The president has chosen fear. We want to start with the facts.
Yet the “facts” she listed fell more into the category of assertions:
And the fact is, President Trump must stop holding the American people hostage and stop manufacturing a crisis, and must reopen the government.
The facts Schumer referenced were not about the border, immigrants, crime, or even government workers not getting paid, but the shutdown negotiations:
There is bipartisan legislation supported by Democrats and Republicans to reopen government while allowing debate over border security to continue.
A fact indeed, but a procedural one that is hard to visualize.
Tomorrow (January 10) promises to bring live images from President Trump’s visit to the border in Texas. His threat to invoke a national emergency remains credible although subject to legal challenge. And there is always the possibility of an actual eye-worm occurring during his publicity jaunt capable of burning his argument into our brains. Of course, such an indelible image might not work in his favor.
Meantime, news footage of government workers and any parlous conditions their absences contribute to (long lines at airports, windblown trash skittering past the Lincoln Memorial) will proliferate. These will probably not be eye-wormy; this is the third shutdown in a year, after all. Nevertheless, such pictures may have a cumulative impact on public opinion and political calculations that would work in the Democrats’ favor. Poll majorities already blame Trump for the shutdown, and nothing that was said last night by any of the three speakers seems likely to change minds on that point or anything about conditions at the border and in the nation.