Rhetorical Recap: Inside an Etch A Sketch, Over and Out

Analysis of Donald Trump's election night victory speech, Hillary Clinton's concession speech and President Obama's remarks on the election.

For the climax of this reality television serial the campaign trail was turned into a crime scene, with the cops (in the organizational form of the FBI) under suspicion along with the alleged perpetrators. The distrust extended to reporters, pundits, prognosticating data crunchers, and political operatives.  It was reality television noir, squalidly compelling. 

At the end more than one hundred twenty million Americans had ducked under the virtual yellow tape and entered the voting booth.

The result is arguably the biggest upset election in American history.  Clinton did not appear before her supporters, leaving it to campaign chair John Podesta to dismiss the assembled and send them home.

Hearing this, the crowd at Trump’s election party booed and chanted “lock her up.”  This subsided and turned to cheers at the news that the man converging on 270 electoral votes had arrived. The count stood at 266 EVs, not 270.

And then the AP called the election for president-elect Trump.  The news media informed the world that Clinton had conceded. 

Vice-President elect Mike Pence spoke first.  “This is a historic night.” He said he was humbled.  “USA” chants confirmed the result. Pence expressed gratitude to God, his family, and the American people, and for the opportunity to serve. He introduced President-elect Donald J. Trump as the man whose vision and leadership will make America great again.

Trump strode onstage and circled for a landing at the podium to his theme song, from the film “Air Force One.” At 2:49 am eastern time (by my bleary unofficial eyes) he began. “Sorry to keep you waiting, complicated business,” he said, in that staccato style of his. 

He announced the call he received from “Secretary Clinton,” and said he congratulated her on the hard fight.  We owe her a major debt of gratitude for her service to this country, he said.  There were no boos or “lock her up” chants that I could hear.  In traditional victory speech form, Trump called for a binding of the wounds of divisions, declaring that it is time for us to come together as one united people. He pledged he would be president for all the people:

For those who have chosen not to support me in the past, of which there were a few people, I'm reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country.

He repeated his characterization of what had happened as a movement, not a campaign. The government would now serve the people as they expected.  Working together, he proclaimed, we will rebuild the nation and renew the American dream.

There were sentence fragments, as usual: “tremendous potential, our country, a beautiful thing.”  The forgotten will be forgotten no longer.  Agenda item one: The nation’s infrastructure will be second to none, and millions would be put to work to rebuild it.  Second, “our great veterans. It’s gonna happen.”  More: We have a great economic plan, we will double our growth and have great relationships with rest of the world.  America will never settle for anything less than the best.  We have to dream of beautiful and successful things once again.  American first, but we will deal fairly with everyone. 

The president-elect thanked his parents, great people, his sisters, his brother, his wife and children.  This was tough, this political stuff. Then the inner circle potential administration roll call: Kellyanne (like Trump, a first-time winner as campaign manager), Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, Senator Sessions. Dr. Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee. General Mike Flynn. No mention of Newt Gingrich. Special extended plaudits for RNC Chair Reince Priebus, “really a superstar,” was asked to come to the podium for a bow and given the microphone for a cameo turn.  Trump thereby acknowledged that he needs Priebus and will work with others from and in the RNC.  Just so: the Republican Party now controls the entire federal government and retains control over a majority of state governments. The president-elect thanked the Secret Service and law enforcement.

We have to do a great job, I will not let you down.  The campaign is over, the work on this movement is really just beginning. You’ll be so proud, it’s been my honor, and I love this country.

The campaign recessional, the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” filled the soundscape with its driving beat and heavenly chorus.  

If you had been in a Rip Van Winkle-esque slumber for the last seventeen months and woke up to hear this speech, you would have little to no idea of the campaign just run. No wall, no ban, no deportation, no NAFTA, no ISIS, no crime wave, no disasters, no rigged election.  No FBI, no Russia, no Mexico.  No Crooked Hillary.

Four years ago, in March 2012, Eric Fehrnstrom, a top aide to then GOP nominee presumptive Mitt Romney, caused a minor stir by speaking of the coming transition from the primary to the general election campaign thusly:

“Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.

As I conclude this post at 10:42 am eastern time, awaiting words from Secretary Clinton and President Obama, I feel as though I am inside an Etch-A-Sketch.


As Pence did with Trump, Hillary Clinton was introduced at her concession speech event the day after the election by her running mate, Tim Kaine.  He was literary and precise in his praise and slid in a swipe at the victor:

KAINE: I’m proud of Hillary Clinton because in the words of Langston Hughes, she’s “held fast to dreams.” She was inspired at a young age to an epiphany that if families and children do well, that’s the best barometer of whether society does well. In everything she’s done, she’s focused on that. We know she would have made history as a president in one sense, but we never have had a president who’s made their whole career about the empowerment of families and children.

Nobody — nobody had to wonder about Hillary Clinton, whether she would accept an outcome of an election in our beautiful democracy.

Clinton took the podium to an outburst of tears and sustained applause.  Contained as ever, she described emotions better than she personified them:

CLINTON:  This is painful and it will be for a long time, but I want you to remember this. Our campaign was never about one person or even one election, it was about the country we love and about building an America that’s hopeful, inclusive and big-hearted.

I still believe in America and I always will. And if you do, then we must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.

She listed her causes, thanked the Kaines, Obamas, her family, staff and volunteers. She rang a last change on her glass ceiling metaphor, spoke to the young girls out there. And exited with her husband and daughter after a quarter century on the national stage.


Later in the day President Obama acknowledged the outcome. The acid wit on display in his vivisection of Trump as a non-serious person at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner was not for this occasion.  Obama indulged in sports metaphors, softening the viciously personal campaign into an American intra-scrimmage game, speaking of succession as passing the baton in a relay.

OBAMA: “We have pretty significant differences.  But one thing you realize quickly in this job is that the presidency and the vice presidency is bigger than any of us. So I have instructed my team to follow the example that President Bush's team set eight years ago, and work as hard as we can to make sure that this is a successful transition for the president-elect.”

He dwelled on his tribute to Clinton before returning to the president-elect:

We all want what's best for this country. That's what I heard in Mr. Trump's remarks last night. That's what I heard when I spoke to him directly. And I was heartened by that. That's what the country needs — a sense of unity, a sense of inclusion, a respect for our institutions, our way of life, rule of law, and respect for each other.

I hope that he maintains that spirit throughout this transition. And I certainly hope that's how his presidency has a chance to begin.

Coach Obama said he was proud of his team, of his fellow Americans. He bid them to presume good faith in other Americans. We will hear at least once more from him in a major address before he becomes a full-time narrator of the American experience and, perhaps, a major behind-the-scenes player in the reconstruction of the Democratic Party.

No such role seems likely for either Clinton. Trump made the most of a national fatigue with two dynasties this cycle, having located and tapped a passionate bloc of voters sick of Bushes and Clintons.  Although Trump will be the oldest person ever to take the oath of office, he is a transitional figure.  Given the fabulosity and inconstancy of his campaign words, and his penchant for not sweating policy details, there is scaringly little sense of what he and his administration and his fellow Republicans will try to do, much less be saddled with, in the months to come.

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