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The role of trust in the discursive construction of legitimacy and authority. The first address on Covid-19 in Argentina

Le rôle de la confiance dans la construction discursive de la légitimité et de l’autorité. La première allocution sur la Covid-19 en Argentine
Karina Masasa
Cet article est une traduction de :
Le rôle de la confiance dans la construction discursive de la légitimité et de l’autorité. La première allocution sur la Covid-19 en Argentine [fr]


Cet article se propose d’analyser la première allocution à la Nation du président argentin Alberto Fernández concernant la crise sanitaire provoquée par la Covid 19. Au moment de l’apparition du virus, le président argentin était nouveau dans ses fonctions. En Argentine, un pays qui vit dans une instabilité économique, sociale et politique presque constante, la population est particulièrement méfiante envers les politiciens et les institutions. Même si la légitimité du nouveau président lui a été conférée par des élections démocratiques, Fernández est obligé de construire un discours qui inspire la confiance des Argentins afin de consolider leur foi dans la légitimité des institutions aussi bien que du président élu, et de construire l’autorité nécessaire pour faire respecter des mesures destinées à contenir la propagation du virus sans faire appel à la violence. Les notions de confiance, légitimité et autorité sont les piliers de cette analyse qui tente d’analyser leur inscription dans l’adresse de Fernández au moment où éclate une crise sanitaire mondiale sans précédent.

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1The first cases of contamination and the World Health Organization’s official announcement (WHO) in March 2020 that Covid-19 is indeed a pandemic have led political leaders to address the Nation and to give press conferences, not only to inform the population of the spread of the virus but also to communicate the measures to be taken to fight the pandemic. However, to encourage citizens to adopt the recommended measures, leaders must benefit both from the legitimacy which grants them the power to say and to do, and from the authority which grants them the capacity to have things said and done (Charaudeau 2014: 52).

2Argentina, still struggling to emerge from the economic crisis that had hit it for two years, entered the health crisis relatively late: the country’s first patient was diagnosed positive on March 3, 2020, and the first death occurred on March 7. On March 12, the President of Argentina Alberto Fernández (AF) delivered a first address to the Nation broadcast on all radio and television channels in the country.

3This article aims to analyze this first address and to identify all the rhetorical strategies and verbal means with which Fernández tries to construct discursively both his legitimacy and the authority he particularly needs in the circumstances. More specifically, we propose to show that the attempt to restore the confidence of Argentines in their government’s discourse and actions is the key to an enterprise that must be understood in the context of the political history of the country. Indeed, the distrust aroused in the various Western democracies of restrictions that undermine the freedoms of citizens takes on a very particular meaning in this Latin American country where the too-often-defeated democratic legitimacy must prove itself. To fully understand AF’s strategy when announcing his measures against the pandemic, we must examine it within context and see that certain verbal practices apparently close to those used by the leaders of old democracies fulfill a particular function in this context.

4After a brief presentation of the political context of Argentina and a concise definition of the notions involved in this study (legitimacy, authority, trust), we will proceed with an analysis of AF’s speech.

5Previously, however, it is important to point out that Fernández’s speeches in the context of Covid-19 have already been explored in a few interesting publications by specialists of Discourse analysis, rhetoric, and communication sciences. In July 2020, the research group ADAL (Discourse Analysis of Latin America) organized a bilingual seminar, “The discourses of the health crisis in Latin America.”1 The research presented was about the discursive ethos of the Argentine President during the crisis. Maria Alejandra Vitale (UBA) shows that AF builds an oral pedagogical ethos2. Two other researchers (National University of San Martin) speak, for their part, of a consensual and paternal ethos3. As for Zanfardini and Giménez (Conicet)4, they maintain that the Argentinian President builds a composite ethos based on two pillars: that of reason, to which they refer as the ethos of “credibility”, and that of emotion, which would be the ethos of “identification”, two categories taken up from P. Charaudeau’s work (2014: 91-128). This research coincides in the importance given to AF’s prior ethos as a professor at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) and to the valuation of national unity, transversality and/or consensusas Montero and Cané aptly show. Let’s also mention a remarkable analysis by Montero, recently published, on the relations between political discourse and other types of discourse in the context of the pandemic. In addition. Alejandra Vitale published an illuminating article on argumentation, polemics, and emotions in AF’s speeches. The present study draws on these works but does not analyze the ethos of the speaker per se. When it deals with it, it is to examine the way in which the speaker endeavors to build his legitimacy and his authority in discourse in a context of global uncertainty and national mistrust.

1. The overall political context of President Fernández’s address

6It is in the very specific context of Argentina, with its political and socio-economic history, that Fernández is faced with the imperative need to construct a discourse likely to inspire confidence both in the institutions governing the State and in his person as a leader.

7According to Raanan Rein, “Throughout the 19th and first quarter of the 20th century, foreign travelers, merchants, and diplomats often referred to Argentina as ‘the giant of South America’” (1998: 10). How, then, has this promising country become nowadays a country that cannot manage to get out of its economic, social, and political crises? Both right and left-wing governments, democratic or military ones have failed to solve the serious problems of poverty, unemployment, insecurity, corruption, and social inequalities, so that they have found themselves at the head of a country where trust, legitimacy and authority in politicians and institutions were almost non-existent. These governments “while asserting State power, failed to legitimize their institutions,” argues Rapoport (2020: 116). Therefore, the power of the State and the weakness of the institutions are already apparent at the time when the Republic of Argentina is trying to organize its political structure.

  • 5 It should be remembered that the Peronist ideology was prohibited, so there was no electoral partic (...)

8Upon his coming to power in 1946 with the unconditional support of the working class, Perón succeeded in gaining the people’s trust and having the legitimacy of his person and of the institutions acknowledged. This “excess of legitimacy” transformed him into an authoritarian leader banning the political activity of opposition parties, reforming the constitution to be re-elected, choosing officials from his entourage in the Chamber of Deputies and Senators. This strategy of concentrating power in his person has contributed to weaken the institutions. Then, from the fall of Perón in 1955 until his return in 1973, Argentina experienced a period of political instability oscillating between weak governments with democratic dimensions5 and military governments. This situation has favored the emergence of groups with extremist ideologies. On his return in 1973 Perón failed to redress the situation and Argentina entered its worst decade, that of terrorist attacks, assassinations, corruption, in a country where the econoour was going from bad to worse. When Perón dies in 1974, his wife Isabel (Maria Estela Martinez de Perón) becomes President of the Republic. The situation gets chaotic. In March 1976, the commanders-in-chief of the constitutional government overthrow this democratic government. The civil-military dictatorship has imposed State terrorism and the violation of human rights; it has caused the disappearance of Argentine citizens and the theft of babies from the cradle. The advent of democracy in October 1983 with Raul Alfonsin succeeded in restoring the faith of Argentines in justice and respect for human rights, trampled underfoot during the dictatorship. However, the econoour was badly affected, unemployment rates were very high, poverty was increasing, and inflation reached 196%. It is in this context that Perónism returns to power with Carlos Menem (CM). His government (1989-1999) strongly contributed to weaken institutions and strengthen the presidential figure as “commander,” according to the classification of the images of political actors proposed by Charaudeau (2014: 122). The president uses the crisis as an “argument by force of circumstance” (Plantin 2016: 299) which gives him the possibility to justify the use of Decrees of Necessity and Urgency (DNU). In this way, Menem contributed to weaken the legislative power essential to the proper exercise of democracy. He took control of justice leading to its substantial weakening. This policy of weakening institutions added to the imperative need to concentrate power in the person of the leader. It accounts for the feeling of distrust in the Argentine society towards politicians as well as towards the institutions of their country.

9At the beginning of the 21st century Argentina faced an unprecedented economic and social crisis. The declaration of a state of siege intended to address this crisis led to a popular revolution resulting in the resignation of the President and the succession of five presidents in ten days. It was an unprecedented revolution in Argentine history, marked by violent street demonstrations, looting of supermarkets and a single motto: ¡Que se vayan todos! (Let them all go!) The lack of confidence in Argentine politicians and the absence of credibility is then indisputable and widespread.

10Even if the new President Nestor Kirchner (NK) enjoyed only dubious legitimacy, in four years of administration he “managed to rebuild the authority and legitimacy of the government, violently challenged during major street demonstrations and riots of December 2001” (Donot 2016: 79). Fernández was Kirchner’s campaign manager and in his own election campaign he made it clear that NK was his political referent. In the government of NK, Fernández held a key position, as the head of ministers. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK) succeeded her husband in 2007. The relations between CFK and the head of ministers were very difficult, and the current Argentinian President had criticized her harshly after the sudden death of her husband in 2010. However, after a decade of break, a reconciliation took place between Fernández and Cristina Kirchner, giving birth to a new political party that brings together parties out of “Justicialism” and “Kirchnerism” and other Argentine center-left groups: the discourse of Frente de Todos (Everybody’s Front) tries to convince the citizens to fight together to get Argentina out of its economic and social crisis.

11We have just seen that since the end of the 19th century Argentina has practically lived in political, social and economic instability. Whenever a government seems to want to rebuild the Republic under a democratic regime, a new crisis arises, which destabilizes the general situation. The ability of leaders to master such situations seems to be increasingly compromised and their legitimacy as well as that of the institutions is in crisis. These crises of legitimacy which have prevailed for long in Argentina and for several years have been in the forefront of the discourse circulating in the public sphere, reinforce furthermore the mistrust towards governments. “Any crisis of legitimacy is, in a way, a crisis of confidence,” said Carlos Rosenkrantz, the President of the Supreme Court of Justice in 2019 in an article published in the newspaper La Nación.6

2. Legitimacy, authority, and trust in the Argentine context

12According to the statement of this senior Argentine official, the notion of trust is related to that of legitimacy. It should be remembered that in democratic countries, presidential legitimacy is above all conferred by the recognition obtained at the ballot box. However, as Charaudeau says, “the speaker, whether we like it or not, is always double. A part of himself takes refuge in his legitimacy as a social being, another wants to be built by what his discourse says” (2014: 50; our translation). Moreover, institutional recognition is not enough to ensure the legitimacy of the leader: in a democracy, it is necessary to add moral recognition, which endorses the nature of a governance respecting the fundamental rights of citizens. We know that a decision can be legal without being deemed legitimate.

13However, the nature of the measures adopted to contain the pandemic seems to jeopardize the democratic freedoms that ensure the legitimacy of government policy. The need to ask citizens of an entire country not to leave their homes and avoid contact with others or to refrain from moving around unnecessarily, seeing their relatives, going to their workplace, and sending their children to school, constitutes a threat to the value of freedom, to the ideals of education and more generally to social life. The problem gets even thornier when the faith in the democratic character of a regime is weakened by a long history of authoritarianism, corruption, and economic crisis, as is the case of Argentina.

14This erosion of the democratic legitimacy of the powerful could seriously undermine their authority and the impact of the measures enacted. Let us note at this point the distinction made by Charaudeau (2014: 52; our translation) between legitimacy and authority:

We shall not confuse […] legitimacy with authority. The first […] is an acquired right. Authority, on the other hand, is intrinsically linked to the process of submission to the other. It places the subject in a position that allows him to obtain from others a behavior (to make people do things) or conceptions (to make them think and make people say them) that they would not have had without his intervention. Legitimacy does not put the subject who is endowed with it in a situation of having to submit the other.

15In his book La Rhétorique de la confiance et de l’autorité (The Rhetoric of Trust and Authority), Marc Angenot, for his part, divides the notion of authority into “Authority 1—power to be obeyed and authority, 2—presumed competence and/or superior wisdom” (2013: 14; our translation), This “power to be obeyed” is practically given with the acknowledgement of the legitimacy of an elected president. He could obviously use this power and in this case impose himself on his people by decrees and the announcement of radical rules endangering democracy. To avoid this pitfall, which is well known in Argentina, AF must build a discourse that helps him put authority 2 into words, namely, to command respect by virtue of his wisdom and competence, a necessary condition for obedience without coercion. The authority constructed in discourse will be measured in the light of the citizens’ behavior, in other words, of the degree of obedience granted to the required measures.

16Angenot clearly shows that trust is largely what makes it possible to obtain voluntary obedience, which is the attribute of authority. He defines trust as “a feeling of security with respect to someone that makes me ‘commit’ to his word, that I believe as if it came from ourself […] that I obey if applicable| […]–an essential element and constant requirement of life in society” (ibid.: 19). In this context, he emphasizes the importance of reasons for trust–indeed, trust must be backed up “with reasons and with reasonable criteria, although still subject to the principle of insufficient reason” (ibid.: 22; our translation). As soon as it calls for a justification offered explicitly or implicitly, trust is linked to discourse credibility.

17In the specific case of Argentina, a remark by Charaudeau about the difference between Republic and Democracy turns out to be enlightening. The Republic, asserts Charaudeau (2013:166; our translation),

18says that power is based on a citizen’s will to work for the common good, and to do so it organizes itself into an assembly of the people’s representatives responsible for determining the law, reflecting popular consensus. It thus establishes the equality of citizens in law and the sovereignty by delegation. The social group that lives according to this principle has obligations of respect and trust: respect of individual citizens vis-à-vis each other, as a condition of life in community; confidence of the latter towards their representatives. […] The republic therefore includes in its process of political legitimacy a duty of trust on the part of the people.

19In the Argentine Republic, the people’s lack of trust in their leaders therefore undermines political legitimacy. It must be emphasized that trust can be in certain contexts an important condition of legitimacy, and not only (as we underlined above) a vector of authority. Citizens must have confidence in the “reliability of the institutional machine” (Origgi 2008: 78), the one that has invested the President with his functions and which must ensure that by virtue of “certain rules and procedures” he may be “forced to take into account [the] interests” of the governed (ibid.). When citizens no longer have confidence in the institutions that give the President his status and powers, his legitimacy is ipso facto undermined.

20Thus, the general mistrust of Argentines towards their rulers could question both the legitimacy and the authority of the president in his management of the pandemic. For the legitimacy of his speech and his person to be recognized, the President must therefore restore the shaken confidence of Argentines in the democratic legitimacy not only of their elected President, but also of the entire institution that has dubbed him and which he represents.

  • 7 These words are are borrowed from UBA communication science researcher José Luis Fernandez (2020: 6 (...)

21Let us add that the acknowledged legitimacy of AF was at the time of the pandemic outbreak particularly precarious. He had just taken office heading a coalition government in which it is said that “President Fernández is the one who has the least political weight of his own.”7 The elected Vice-President, the previous President of Argentina (2007-2015), CFK, is involved in corruption cases. These two obstacles are in addition to the overall lack of trust that Argentines have in their leaders. For the newly elected President, strengthening his legitimacy at the time of the pandemic is therefore a bold challenge. Successful efforts in this case could help dispel doubts about his legitimacy and show the world who is Alberto Fernández, namely a leader capable of managing a health crisis of the most extreme gravity in a country of 45 million people amid an economic crisis.

3. Analysis of Argentine President Alberto Fernández’s discourse

22The first address to the Nation delivered by AF on March 12, 2020, had to be a clear, concise and above all credible official speech, likely to inspire trust. The Argentine people were unaware of what was happening, and the President had to update his country about the crisis and explain his policy to deal with it. Therefore, the need to build in his speech an ethos of “credibility” was essential. “Credibility, asserts Charaudeau (2014: 91; m translation),

23is not, like legitimacy, a quality attached to the social identity of the subject. On the contrary, it is the result of a construction, a construction operated by the speaking subject of his discursive identity in such a way that others will judge him as worthy of credit. The speaking subject […] must construct a self-image according to this quality.

24For AF, as we have seen, the task is not easy. To validate his legitimacy and impose his authority, he must become “worthy of credit” and inspire confidence not only in himself, but also in the institutions and in the State as an institution. The analysis of this first speech shows a construction using transparency and based on arguments from authority. We will also see how the speaker puts into words values ​​rooted in the Argentine collective imaginary as well as values ​​that took off in this time of health crisis. Finally, we shall analyze the way in which AF tries to build a strong and powerful image of the State.

3.1. From transparency to trust

25AF’s legitimacy and the people’s trust in him being initially in deficit, we will try to show how Fernández seeks to build a discourse of transparency which should help him awaken a feeling of security in his audience. Two statements clearly show the desire to be transparent:

Voy a compartir con ustedes información importante sobre el coronavirus […]

  • 8 All quotations translated from the Spanish are ours.

Quiero que sepan qué es lo que estamos haciendo para dar respuesta al avance de este virus que se extiende cada día en todo el mundo8

I will share with you an important information regarding the Coronavirus […]

I want you to know what we are doing to respond to the advance of this virus which is spreading every day around the world.

26The use of the verbs “share,” “know,” “do” and “respond” as well as of a noun such as “information” expresses the intention of the speaker to present himself as a leader who is both transparent and active. “Sharing” and “letting [the people] know” contribute to transparency; “do” and “respond to” are also verbs reinforcing the impression of transparency because they describe to the public what is happening; at the same time, they build an image of an enterprising leader who seeks solutions and will provide answers. The head of state shows that he values informing his audience of the circumstances of the crisis, while reassuring the citizens and showing that he will act to manage the situation effectively. Transparency, says Koren (1998: 480; our translation),

27is one of the essential qualities of the utterance which the subject refers to himself without ambiguity and explicitly shows the stakes of the enunciation. It is also one of the essential values of political or democratic administrative culture: any institution that waives the practice of secrecy is deemed to be “transparent.”

28From this statement we can understand that AF, in his attempt to inspire confidence, wants to present himself as a defender of democratic values, or even possibly position himself as such. The idea of transparency also implies proximity which, in this statement by Fernández, is reinforced using the personal pronoun “you:” he intends to include the people in the sense that sharing the information means to address a common challenge. From the beginning, Fernández does not simply present himself as a guarantor of the Law but rather as a guarantor of shared values, who recognizes the people he governs as a fellow traveler.

29Towards the end of this first speech, AF describes the actions that the government plans to implement to circumscribe the spread of the virus. The enunciator is clear, explanatory, and agentive: “We will continue to monitor the evolution of this pandemic from moment to moment in order to keep it up to date and take the necessary measures.”

30Putting this statement into words helps him to strengthen his legitimacy by showing that he cares for the common good and fulfills his responsibilities in relation to his audience. This is meant to reassure the citizen by clearly showing him what will be the successive steps of the government: monitoring the evolution of the virus, informing and then, taking the necessary measures. Thus, responsibility and credibility go hand in hand: from the moment the Argentines perceive there is a clear agenda and that the government is ready to account to them for his actions, they can place their trust in him. The speech aims to give the audience the feeling it is in good hands.

3.2. Reinforcing his legitimacy: the argument from authority

31As an argument of “confirmation,” the argument from authority appears “when the Proponent gives as an argument in favor of a statement the fact that it was uttered by a particular authorized speaker, on which he relies or behind which he hides” (Plantin 1996: 88). Fernández’s first argument is the World Health Organization’s statement reported in indirect speech:

Yesterday, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the outbreak of the new coronavirus was a pandemic, after the number of people infected worldwide exceeded 118,000 so far in 110 countries.

  • 9 Koren quotes in this passage words from Charaudeau in his book Grammaire du sens et de l’expression(...)

32This argument from authority is for AF a way of “holding others under his power in order to guide them towards a decision” (Plantin 2016: 398; our translation). From the outset, he provides an expert argument that helps him to discursively build the legitimacy of the measures he adopts and thus acquire the authority necessary to enforce his instructions. The consolidation of the argument from authority is done using figures which, according to Koren (2009: 72-73; our translation) “benefits a priori from an indisputable prestige: the prestige of objective appearances, of evidence and rationalist scientific discourse. To rely on an interpretation based on figures is to build from the outset a rewarding ethos.9

33Towards the end of this speech Fernández once again refers to scientific authority: “We act according to the recommendations of the World Health Organization, to the authorities of the most affected countries, our experts and scientific societies.” He does not only rely on an argument from authority by referring to the WHO and to Argentinian experts: AF adopts the recommendations of the affected countries, thus appealing to the practical experience of others. He seeks everywhere to build an image of self that inspires confidence: he shows that he is serious and does not adopt measures impulsively; on the contrary, he takes advice and listens to the authorities in the field. The principle of responsibility once again reflected in this statement reinforces the confidence he wishes to inspire and presents him as a credible leader.

34We have seen how transparency, the use of arguments from authority–experts as well as figures–help AF to build a discourse with objective and rational appearances which allow him to validate the institutional legitimacy granted to him by democratic presidential elections and to consolidate his authority. Apart from these strategies based on reason, we can note the use of terms referring to values ​​rooted in the collective consciousness and in the social imaginary.

3.3. Between the staging of value and the role of the State

  • 10 Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1971: 74)

35As Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca assert in The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation, values ​​are “objects of agreement that make possible a communion with regard to particular ways of thinking […]”.10 The use of values in political argumentation is therefore necessary and in no way trivial. In this speech, a link emerges between two notions: “values” and “State”. The latter as an abstract entity is supposed to ensure the common good, the “common good” that is anchored in the ideal of democracy and the Republic.

  • 11 Doctrina Peronista (1947)

36Regarding the context analyzed here, the reference to the Peronist State is essential. As a matter of fact, this notion has been staged in the Peronist rhetoric and frequently comes back till the present day in discourses stemming from the same ideology. Perón says, in the exposition of his doctrine,11 that the State is “the legally organized Nation” (1947: 71). This idea of ​​organization seems essential to him in a new country where there is a need for an “organization of the State, an organization of work, of rest, organization in all these aspects […]” (ibid.: 72). According to Rapoport (2020: 324)

The justicialist State was born to resolve the crisis of the oligarchic hegemony. [It] had to resolve the power vacuum generated by the inability of the traditional groups to impose their interests as a project of the whole society and that of the emerging groups which, without political representation and in a subordinate position, did not have the force to present theirs.

  • 12 Let us not forget that until the arrival of Perón those who had the right to vote were a minority.

37The Peronist state therefore seeks class equality, equal opportunities, and rights12. Or as its founder says in his doctrine (112): “the State [is] the guardian of social justice […].” Thus, the question of values ​​and of the role of the State used to be a significant issue in Argentine political discourse. The speeches of Perón and Evita in the second half of the 20th century abounded in values that provoked in Argentines an identification with and idealization of the political leaders who advocated for social justice. In a lexicometric analysis of Argentine presidents’ speeches since the advent of democracy and up to Kirchner presidency (2003-2007), Morgan Donot notes the significance of values–distinct for each one (2010: 69; our translation):

38President Alfonsín emphasized democracy in his speeches, Menem the stability, De la Rúa the reform and Duhalde the recovery. While the lexicometric results in the study of NK corpus indicate that he insisted on terms with a social connotation, such as salud (“health” 51), educación (“education” 56), pobreza (“poverty” 51), vivienda (“housing” 23).

  • 13 They were activists in the Peronist youth of the left in the seventies.
  • 14 Generación diezmada”: Kirchner uses this denomination in one of his speeches in 2003. Quoted by Do (...)
  • 15 Here, for example, is an excerpt from a speech by NK: “We want to recover the values of solidarity (...)

39Concerning the staging of values ​​in the speeches of CFK, who succeeded her husband as President of Argentina for two terms (2007-2015): she took over the militant ethos of her husband13 since both belonged to the “wiped out generation,”14 that of the young people mobilized in the 1970s and persecuted by the dictatorship” (ibid.: 73). Donot’s careful analysis seems to indicate that each president has tried to correct the faults of his predecessors. Kirchner defends values ​​that are part of everyday life, which are rather the challenges that Argentines face day by day.15 This is perhaps what allowed NK to find his place in Argentine politics and to form his political movement,

40This development will shed light on the analysis of the use of values ​​in Fernández’s speech who repeated several times during his election campaign that he identified with NK, his ideology, and his politics.

41After AF has based his discourse on transparency and arguments from authority, he moves on to the idea of the State as the center of power, namely the notion of an all-powerful State. Patrick Charaudeau’s remarks allow us to better define Fernández’s discursive strategy or strategies in this area (2013: 184; our translation):

In a conquest of power situation, the political discourse is staged according to a dramaturgy based on three components: the denunciation of social evil of which the people are victims and whose cause is stigmatized; the promise to redress this Evil by defending values and proposing radical means; the construction of an image of a charismatic and determined leader, the only one capable of redressing this Evil.

42The Argentine President presents, in this first speech, the pandemic as the Evil to be fought while giving the State a major role and a function of “protector” (ibid.: 185).

En situaciones de alarma generalizada es imprescindible el rol del Estado para prevenir, tranquilizar y brindar protección a la población.

Un Estado presente en materia de salud es la mejor manera de cuidar a la población […]

La realidad es que esta pandemia nos convoca como sociedad.

Nos convoca al Estado Nacional, a cada provincia, a cada municipio.

In situations of generalized alert, the role of the State is essential to prevent, reassure and protect the population.

A state which is concerned by health is the best way to take care of the population.

The reality is that this pandemic challenges us as a society. It challenges the national state, each province, each municipality.

  • 16 This article is the result of a virtual conference given by its authors, Lucia Zanfardini, from the (...)

43The verbs “prevent,” “reassure” and “protect” as well as “take care” help the speaker to construct a scenario: they suggest an atmosphere of security and trust. In parallel with the need to be transparent, there is a desire to present the State as “almighty,” and as the only body capable of truly controlling the situation. The state is indeed at the center, as two CONICET researchers assert in their analysis of Fernández’s speeches in times of pandemic (2013: 184): el estado que cuida, el estado presente, el estado que no abandona.16 In other words, citizens are invited to believe that when the State takes care of this global evil there is no need to worry. “The State is present and will support everyone,” says later the head of state.

44It should be noted that at the time of the speech some of the media took up in their titles Fernández’s sentence “Es imprescindible el rol del Estado para proteger a la población.” When Argentina moved to its vaccination campaign, Kicillof (Governor of the Province of Buenos Aires) posted a video in the Frente de Todos Instagram account where he praises and highlights the importance of the role of the State, expressing himself in these terms: “because, despite everything, the State is responding to the most serious emergency in our history.”

  • 17 “You must call everyone and tell them that they must collaborate. Let’s stop pulling the rope on on (...)

45This insistence on the presence of the State is marked by the notions of unity, common struggle, which are recurrent. AF reinforces the idea that if everyone must fulfill its responsibility it should not be forgotten that this “everyone” is part of a whole in which all participate without exception (“A cada uno y a cada una”). It is individual responsibility versus collective responsibility. Fernández puts into words the search for the common good, the key value of democracy and the Republic. He suggests on several occasions that although the State is present, everyone must take care of himself and watch over his loved ones, always with the idea that “all together” we will overcome this pandemic. It should be remembered here that he came to power with his political party Frente de Todos (Everyone’s Front) and that in his electoral campaign he insisted constantly on the idea of ​​overcoming problems together and always fighting together.17

46Nowadays, it is possible to see this insistence on the words “together” and “all together” in the government’s pages on social networks Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. On July 9, Argentina’s Independence Day, a post on the Frente de Todos page on Instagram said: “The Argentina we deserve, we will start building it together […].” There are also Argentina Unida pages where other government officials such as Axel Kicillof insistently use terms like: “a united and standing Argentina,” “we are working for all the Argentines,” “we are going to transform the whole Province of Buenos Aires.” The idea of ​​unity and equality occupies a very important place in the official Argentine discourse today, and the same is true in AF’s first address to the Nation intended to inform the public about the pandemic.

47The Argentinian President also seems to mobilize the value of equality – we are all equal and we must all invest likewise to be able to solve common problems. Teamwork reflects de facto the values ​​of solidarity and fraternity. Alejandra Vitale maintains that it is a search for the “national unity necessary to coordinate joint actions […]” (2020: 117) and Montero and Cané insist in this regard on the notion of consensual ethos.

48Fernández ends his first speech with a reference to known values rooted in the collective consciousness. The search for the common good dear to social-democratic ideology leads him to express himself in these terms to close the first discourse of crisis:

Tenemos que demostrarnos una vez más que en los temas importantes estamos unidos. […]

Somos la Argentina. Un país unido en el que cada uno debe comprometerse con los demás y todos con cada uno, empezando por el Estado.

Un país unido en el que comprendemos que lo que le pasa al otro nos afecta a todos.

We must demonstrate once again that on important issues we are united.

We are Argentina. A united country where everyone must commit itself to others and all with each and every one, starting with the State.

A united country where we understand that what happens to each other affects us all.

49We could conclude this part by saying that Fernández used the strong effects of transparency and the reference to democratic and republican values ​​which inspire his health policy, to construct a discourse intended to reinforce his legitimacy and that of his measures. Although the expression “respect for democracy” hardly appears in the mouth of Fernández, it was referred to by the notions of solidarity, individual and collective responsibility, teamwork, unity, and equality. This legitimacy, once validated and well-established, should lead to the recognition of the laws and measures he enacts in fighting the pandemic. It must also contribute to his positioning in the political field by strengthening his legitimacy as a democratic leader.

3.4. Building discursive authority

3.4.1. Fernández guarantor of the law

50To announce the measures to be taken for the management of Covid-19 Fernández announces the signing of a Decree (DNU) by which he will enact the laws to be respected: “Therefore, I have issued a decree of necessity and urgency that extends the public health emergency.”

51At first reading, it might appear that the sentence concerns taking action in the field of health and deals only with the people working in these organizations–but in what follows, the speech by offering a detailed explanation of what this DNU means, contradicts this first impression. This vagueness blurs the transparency he showed at the beginning of the speech and helps him impose “his law.”

52Fernández tries to soften the “blow” by announcing from the start:

It confers powers of action and prevention to various ministries. Among them, avoiding shortages and setting maximum prices for hydroalcoholic gel, face masks and essential products.

It also allows the preventive suspension of shows and the closure of public spaces. This decree suspends flights from Europe, the United States, South Korea, Japan, China, and Iran for 30 days. In the framework of this restriction, it announces that measures will be implemented to facilitate the return of Argentine residents from these countries.

53The President chooses to be vague: who is the “it” in the position of subject–the personified decree that would be responsible for people obedience? Different ministries, and if so, which ones? Moreover, Fernández tempers this law enforcement while choosing to present first the less painful and more encouraging part. He begins by announcing that the shortage of necessary products will be avoided during this pandemic period and furthermore, the decree will fix maximum prices for necessities such as alcohol gel and masks. AF uses verbs that together with their co-texts have a mitigating effect, such as “avoid” and “fix.”

54Later he begins to use words (verbs, nouns) relating to law enforcement, for example: suspend, restriction, isolation, violate (the law), obligation, severe, take necessary measures.

55To briefly summarize the content of the DNU at the start of the pandemic (let us not forget that this speech was delivered on March 12 when there were ten confirmed cases and one death): it suspended the entry into the country of people coming from countries with high contagion, attendance at theatres, cinemas, conference rooms, etc., it dictated a 14-day isolation for those who had been in contact with infected people or who had symptoms themselves. “It is important to understand that this preventive isolation is essential to reduce the spread of the virus.”

56Fernández repeatedly presents this DNU as a preventive measure against the spread of Covid-19. In this way, he gives priority to life. It is another way of pursuing the common good that contributes to the construction of a credible and trustworthy self-image. However, this appeal to values ​​and the pursuit of the common good is interrupted by the threat of sanctions: “Those who violate the established isolation will be subject to criminal liability.” This utterance reflects severity and a condemnation that did not appear beforehand in Fernández’s speech. The verb “violate”, a negative axiological term referring to a transgression of institutionally established laws, is completed by the noun phrase “criminal liability” explicitly mentioning the punishment. AF’s speech turned violent and may perhaps thus contribute to the exercise of his power. But it may also undermine the discursive construction based on values ​​that the President has carried out so far to demonstrate his democratic legitimacy and assert his authority as the ability to be obeyed without coercion.

57In addition, the decree compels each person to report symptoms compatible with the coronavirus: “And this also ensures that the population will receive everyday accurate information on the situation. But if the decree forces everyone to report if they have symptoms, the State is obliged, in return, to inform citizens of the progress of this health crisis and how to manage it.” The nuance of authoritarianism then disappears behind an exchange of information which could indicate the need for transparency expressed at the beginning, but also guarantee reciprocal responsibility and a bond of solidarity. Could it mark the beginning of a “popular democracy (in the sense of a democracy for the people) and not populist”, in the words of Charaudeau (2014 : 244)?


58The analysis of AF’s first address to the Nation on Covid-19 reveals the capital importance of trust, which turns out to be the sine qua non condition of a very precarious legitimacy in the political context of Argentina. The attempt to construct a clear and explanatory speech that would be at the same time credible, and reassuring should enable the newly elected President to reinstate the confidence shaken by a long history of disappointments. It should reinforce the democratic legitimacy which had been granted to him in the last elections a few months earlier and build on this basis a discursive authority granting him the possibility to enact new restrictive measures in a coherent and moderate manner, in order to “get things done” without coercion. We have thus been able to see that trust is, in this context, a key notion for the construction not only of the leader’s authority (as Marc Angenot clearly shows in his Rhetoric of Trust and Authority), but also the legitimacy of his person and of the institutions which have endorsed him and which he chairs.

59The discursive analysis demonstrated that AF succeeded in validating and reinforcing his legitimacy and authority through transparency, appeal to the values ​​of responsibility and solidarity as well as national unity. It should be added that he tried to set an example by working elbow-to-elbow with Rodriguez Larreta (mayor of the city of Buenos Aires) who is a political adversary, as well as with governors of different provinces belonging to opposition political parties. This teamwork can be observed in the speeches and press conferences given afterwards where AF appears on stage with various officials of his government. In his March 30 speech when the Argentines had been in confinement for 10 days, Fernández asserts:

the reality is that more than 90% of Argentines have fully complied with the quarantine we ordered; they have stayed in their homes and protected themselves; they have protected their children and they have protected the elderly, who are–precisely–those who are most at risk among us.

60Apart from the obedience shown by the citizens, AF also managed to maintain the political line he had been defending since his campaign, speaking out for the idea of ​​getting Argentina out of the crisis “together.” The vagueness used when imposing the DNU could be understood as a way of distinguishing himself from one of his predecessors, Carlos Menem, who systematically used the argument of fear to impose DNUs intended to take Argentina out of the abyss into which it had fallen at the time. AF mitigates the coercive nature of the DNU and instead highlights Authority 2 as defined by Angenot, that which causes obedience when the powerful shows wisdom, competence, and honesty. Ultimately, his strategies used to construct a discourse that validates his legitimacy and authority proved effective in view of the high percentage of the population who respected the measures taken by the government, at least at the very start of the pandemic.

61It remains to be seen whether the speeches that followed this first address also succeeded in keeping this recognition in order to inspire confidence and be obeyed accordingly. Indeed, as Angenot claims: “whoever trusts […] compels the source, he creates obligations, requirements, first and foremost the requirement not to ‘betray’ this trust out of lie, concealment, negligence” (2013: 21; our translation).

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1 Accessed 3.4. 2022

2 In this article, the researcher analyzes the speeches and press conferences given between March 15 and July 17, 2020.

3 These researchers study a corpus made up of six press conferences, an address to the Nation and 194 tweets made between March 10 and May 11, 2020.

4 Zanfardini and Giménez (to be published) worked on a corpus made up of AF’s speeches delivered from the first speech on March 12 until August 14, 2020.

5 It should be remembered that the Peronist ideology was prohibited, so there was no electoral participation of Peronist political parties.


Accessed 3 April 2022

7 These words are are borrowed from UBA communication science researcher José Luis Fernandez (2020: 6).

8 All quotations translated from the Spanish are ours.

9 Koren quotes in this passage words from Charaudeau in his book Grammaire du sens et de l’expression, p. 237, 660, 665, 677, 692, 694.

10 Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1971: 74)

11 Doctrina Peronista (1947)

12 Let us not forget that until the arrival of Perón those who had the right to vote were a minority.

13 They were activists in the Peronist youth of the left in the seventies.

14 Generación diezmada”: Kirchner uses this denomination in one of his speeches in 2003. Quoted by Donot (ibid.: 73)

15 Here, for example, is an excerpt from a speech by NK: “We want to recover the values of solidarity and social justice that will allow us to change our reality to move towards the construction of a more balanced and fairer society”. (2003) Quoted by Morgan Donot (2010: 77)

16 This article is the result of a virtual conference given by its authors, Lucia Zanfardini, from the University of Rio Negro and Elina Giménez, from the University of Buenos Aires in August 2020.

17 “You must call everyone and tell them that they must collaborate. Let’s stop pulling the rope on one side, let’s build together. It’s a future with Alberto and a future with Cristina, it’s a future with everyone.” These words were spoken in the first speech of his electoral campaign on May 21, 2019, in the Province of Santa Cruz. (accessed April 3, 2022)

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Référence électronique

Karina Masasa, « The role of trust in the discursive construction of legitimacy and authority. The first address on Covid-19 in Argentina »Argumentation et Analyse du Discours [En ligne], 28 | 2022, mis en ligne le 25 avril 2022, consulté le 21 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Karina Masasa

Bar-Ilan University, ADARR

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Argumentation & analyse du discours est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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