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President Trump and the Virtue of Power

Le président Trump et la vertu de la puissance
Jérôme Viala-Gaudefroy

Résumés

En tant que « conteur-en-chef » de la nation, le président américain joue un rôle central dans la définition de l’identité nationale. Traditionnellement, les présidents américains évoquent la nation à travers les mythes héroïques de la puissance et de la vertu, deux caractéristiques distinctes au cœur de l’exceptionnalisme américain. Ce récit a été cependant largement transformé par Donald Trump qui a rejeté la vision morale de ses prédécesseurs. Cela ne signifie pas pour autant que ce président n’ait pas une vision morale qui lui est propre. L’étude de ses discours, remarques et tweets proposée ici révèle un récit cohérent dans lequel la puissance se confond avec la vertu. Cette analyse montre, dans une première partie, que le président utilise le christianisme comme une expression culturelle de puissance et que son récit de l’exceptionnalisme américain s’est réduit à une affirmation de la fierté, de la force et de la souveraineté nationale. La nature nationaliste de la rhétorique du Président Trump est caractérisée par les symboles du patriotisme tels que le sang, le drapeau et la famille. Ce nationalisme dessine la vision d’un monde qui n’est plus une communauté de nations travaillant ensemble pour un ordre libéral, mais plutôt une arène dans laquelle des nations souveraines hyper-individualisées se font concurrence. Enfin, le président évoque le mythe de la puissance violente à travers l’utilisation de métaphores de guerre et du jeu. Les racines de l’expression populiste de la vertu de la puissance chez Donald Trump sont à trouver dans le passé personnel du personnage, mais aussi dans un populisme politique qui ponctue régulièrement l’histoire américaine.

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  • 1 This community was the “city upon a hill,” a metaphor taken from the Sermon on the Mount by Puritan (...)
  • 2 Richard Vetterli, Gary Bryner, “Public Virtue and the Roots of American Government,” Brigham Young (...)
  • 3 Of course, this “liberty for all” was relative. In the early days of the Republic, most states only (...)

1If today, the word “virtue” has all but disappeared from the American political lexicon, the founding myth of the United States is rooted in the puritan ideal of a virtuous people that escaped the old corrupt world of Europe to build a community set apart from the rest of the world.1 More than “moral excellence,” virtue was understood as self-restraint and the submission of the individual to the requirements of a civic virtue. While the puritans pursued virtues to please God and expand His kingdom, the Founding Fathers did so to foster prosperity and preserve liberty. If religion was central to their political thought, it was not for its spiritual significance but for its social role in providing virtues. They saw virtue as a requirement for political leadership, and as an antidote to the threat of passion and divisions, necessary for Americans to live free, without the restraints required in other forms of government.2 In other words, it is only by exercising self-control that individual citizens and leaders could secure a Republic that would provide liberty for “all”.3

  • 4 Donald Trump, Trump: The Art of the Deal, New York: Ballantine Books, 1987, 58.
  • 5 This phrase was made (in)famous when top aide to the president Kellyanne Conway contested that Whit (...)
  • 6 Raymond Joseph Hoffmann, “Donald Trump and the End of Virtue,” The New Oxonian, February 25, 2017. (...)

2President Trump exemplifies almost perfectly the antithesis of virtue. His lack of moderation, his constant exhibition of emotion and exaggeration (which he has called “truthful hyperbole”4), his habit of lying and exchanging truths for “alternative facts,”5 his steady appeal to passion, fear and hatred, his attempt to pit one group against another and bully his critics – all are features of what historian Raymond J. Hoffman calls “the vice of incontinence.”6 This incontinence is also reflected in the president’s use of Twitter, and arguably in his Cabinet members’ unabashed display of wealth, which is emblematic of a plutocracy rather than a modern democracy.

  • 7 Colleen J. Shogan, The Moral Rhetoric of American Presidents, Texas: A&M University Press, 2006, 54
  • 8 Benjamin P. Marcus, “How Trump is reshaping American civil religion,” Crux, July 11, 2017. <https: (...)

3As the “storyteller-in-chief,” the president is expected to be the national moral leader and a unifier through a language of common shared values that makes power acceptable and principled, and if the idea of virtue has been transformed throughout American history, the belief in virtuous exceptionalism has been a consistent theme in presidential discourse since George Washington.7 Yet, President Trump has also failed in this role, having clearly repudiated the idealism and the moral vision that have always characterized American presidential rhetoric.8 This does not mean, however, that President Trump has no moral vision. A qualitative and quantitative analysis of the president’s speeches, remarks and tweets since his inauguration reveals that the underlying moral framework at play is power. Power is not only Donald Trump’s governing principle and the common thread of his words and actions, it is also the lens through which he defines the nation and sees the world.

Power as the New American Exceptionalism

  • 9 Jesse Byrnes, “Trump in 2015 on American exceptionalism: ‘I never liked the term,’” The Hill, June (...)
  • 10 [The American Puritan Jeremiad’s] function was to create a climate of anxiety that helped release t (...)
  • 11 Greg Grandin, “There’s Nothing Un-American About Donald Trump,” The Nation, July 22, 2016. <https:/ (...)

4When asked about American exceptionalism in 2015, Donald Trump rejected the term and said “we’re not exceptional,” adding that other countries “have been eating our lunch for the last 20 years,” and that “we’re dying.”9 This somber comment about national humiliation and decline has roots in the Puritan tradition of the Jeremiad, the lament sermon of fall and resurrection that has permeated American discourse.10 It is illustrated by the image of the “American carnage” used by the president in his inaugural address to paint a dark vision of a nation overrun by crime and economic decay.11

  • 12 Kevin Mattson, “President Trump’s “American carnage” speech fit into a long American tradition,” Vo (...)

5However, it is a failed Jeremiad.12 Donald Trump’s evangelism of fear offers an apocalyptic vision but, contrary to tradition, it is not about the lack of national virtues or values, but rather exclusively about its lack of power, due to weak leaders and a corrupt elite:

Washington flourished – but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered – but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.
Inaugural Address, January 20, 2017

  • 13 While scholars may offer various definitions of “populism,” it is a minimum a discourse with at its (...)

6This is a rhetoric of victimhood, and it is the foundation of a populist discourse that divides the nation between a perceived corrupt establishment and an unidentified decent “people”.13 Populism is indeed about empowerment.

But we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People […] the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now. Inaugural Address, January 20, 2017

  • 14 It must be added that the idea of American exceptionalism has been used to justify both multilatera (...)

7Donald Trump claims that by giving power back to the people, “the forgotten people”, he will restore the nation to its rightful place of greatness. So despite his rejection of the term, he has been a practitioner of his own version of “American exceptionalism” since becoming president by claiming the superiority of the American model. This is reflected in his unilateralist policy of opting out of multilateral frameworks and acting alone rather than choosing collective action.14 It is also often articulated in his language through his recurrent use of superlatives, a common rhetorical device in presidential speeches. Americans are “the greatest people” and America is “the greatest country” (11-29-2017) and “the most powerful country in the world. […] getting more and more powerful” (07-12-2017). Here again, however, as these examples illustrate, America’s exceptional status and “greatness” lie in its power and strength rather than its virtue of freedom and democracy that has traditionally been part of American exceptionalism in presidential discourse.

God’s People, God’s Power

  • 15 Elvin T. Lim, “Five Trends in Presidential Rhetoric: An Analysis of Rhetoric from George Washington (...)
  • 16 Emma Green, “Donald Trump Declares a Vision of Religious Nationalism,” The Atlantic, Feb. 2, 2017. (...)

8This obsession for power is also made visible in the way Donald Trump links the nation to God. Christian rhetoric and references to America’s special place in God’s design are nothing new in U.S. presidential discourse. God has always been part of the political rhetoric, particularly since Ronald Reagan in the modern era.15 Like many presidents before him, President Trump sees America’s freedom as a “gift from God” (02-17-2017a, 07-01-2017), a gift that goes back to the founding of the nation. However, his religious rhetoric is considerably more nationalistic, culturally based and antagonistic than his predecessors’.16

  • 17 Walter A. McDougall, “Does Donald Trump Believe in American Civil Religion? If So, Which One?,” For (...)
  • 18 The expression “God’s people” was actually used twice by Gerald Ford, but only in religious venues (...)
  • 19 For a detailed explanation of the reason why evangelicals see themselves as a community under threa (...)

9In his Inaugural Address, for instance, he likened the American people to “God’s people” and quoted Psalm 33 to illustrate his exhortation to unity, loyalty and patriotism, equating commitment to country with faith in God (01-20-2017). American historian Walter A. McDougall has called Trump’s inauguration “the most overt, explicit equation of the cross and the flag in American history.”17 No other president has defined the American people as “God’s people.”18 This expression is usually reserved for the Hebrews in the Old Testament. Of course, Trump is not making a theological point here but a political and cultural one, aimed at his religious base. It was in front of a supportive audience at Liberty University, a conservative Christian university founded by Jerry Falwell, that he argued at length why the United States was founded and developed as a Christian nation “of true believers,” (05-13-2017). The God he mentions in his inaugural speech has the same function as the military and law enforcement – a provider of strength and protection: “We will be protected by […] our military and law enforcement and, most importantly, we are protected by God.” This promise meets the expectation of a white evangelical audience that sees itself as a mistreated minority under siege by a secular cultural and political elite.19 Donald Trump has long adapted his discourse of empowerment to his Christian base, but it is also part of a more general discursive trend that emphasizes the protection and defense of the “people”. The following computer analysis of presidential speeches shows how President Trump has used the words “defend” and “protect” significantly more than any of his predecessors in the last four decades.

Figure 1: Frequency of the words “protect” and “defend” in presidential speeches of U.S. presidents from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump during 6 months of their first term

Figure 1: Frequency of the words “protect” and “defend” in presidential speeches of U.S. presidents from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump during 6 months of their first term

Comparative computer-generated analysis with the R program for Statistical Computing of the presidential papers archived online on The American Presidency Project, University of California < http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/​>.

  • 20 The term “deep state” was originally used for the state apparatus in autocratic countries, it has b (...)

10His declaration that “freedom is not a gift from government [but a] gift from God” must also be understood in the context of a series of attacks against the government, the so-called “Deep State” (06-16-2017, 11-28-2017), and against Federal employees whom he repeatedly insults by calling them “unelected bureaucrats” (02-17-2017c, 03-07-2017, 01-26-2018).20 This also explains in part his attack against his own government agencies such as the CIA, the FBI or even the Department of Justice or the undermining of the Environmental Protection Agency. In addition to representing a threat and a constraint to his own power, the federal administration is supposed to be the embodiment of the power elite. In reality, the deconstruction of the administrative state is at the core of the alt-right ideology represented by president’s senior advisor for policy Steve Miller or former White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon.

11This deconstruction also resonates with Trump’s electoral base: the “freedom-loving Americans” of the National Rifle Association whose right to keep and bear arms is “under threat” (04-28-2017), the “people of faith”[i.e. Evangelical Christians] whose freedom has been threatened by “the Federal Government” (05-04-2017), or the audience at the Heritage Foundation who understands the importance of defending “our God given rights […] from any threat, foreign or domestic, that would seek to […] diminish our freedoms” (10-17-2017). So “God’s people” are Donald Trump’s people, and the threat is defined as existing within the nation. The president’s promise of success is dependent on the loyalty of America’s citizens and their devotion to its creator (05-17-2017), thereby excluding those outside the faith. “As long as we have pride in our country, confidence in our future, and faith in our God,” he concluded at a rally, “then America will prevail” (10-13-2017).

  • 21 This redefinition is meant to serve Donald Trump’s own agenda: except for a mild reference to Russi (...)
  • 22 Rebecca M. Townsend, “Trump’s Warsaw Address, or How the “West” Was Widened,” Journal of Contempor (...)
  • 23 Jérôme Viala-Gaudefroy, “In Trump’s America, immigrants are modern-day ‘savage Indians,’” The Conve (...)

12Donald Trump’s brand of Christianity is essentially cultural. It is a combative defense of Christendom as his speech in Poland exemplifies (07-06-2017), centering on Christian culture and “civilization” by fusing the “West” (repeated 14 times), “freedom” (15 times), “civilization” (11 times) and “God” (10 times). The West and freedom are no longer defined by their opposition to communism but by their religion (Christianity) and their new enemy: “radical Islamic terrorism.”21 In other words, the West and freedom are now racialized, religious, and nationalistic. This new definition reflects a convergence between Trump and the ruling Law and Justice (PIS) party in Poland. Both convey anti-immigrant and anti-European Union sentiments (the EU being seen as weak and overrun by Muslims). It also evokes what communication scholar Rebecca M. Townsend calls a “connection between the West as a symbol in public memory and whiteness, even in a postcolonial place like Poland,” including, for the U.S., the “foundation myth of the Frontier.”22 This is consistent with Trump’s rhetoric on immigrants that is somewhat reminiscent of the depiction of the “Indian” in the Old West of the Frontier myth.23

The Shining Example of Wealth and Power

13Donald Trump’s call to “fight like the Poles – for family, for freedom, for country, and for God” (07-06-2017) echoes his call to the students of Liberty University to “serve God, family and country” (05-17-2017). This nationalistic vision that fuses God and country leads citizens to look inward, but it should not be confused with isolationism. What is certain is that, contrary to his predecessors, nothing in President Trump’s words suggests that this God-given right entails the slightest responsibility towards mankind and the rest of the world. God may have intended “for every person to live in freedom on this Earth” (05-23-2017), but that does not bestow the United States with any responsibility towards the rest of the world. There is nothing in President Trump’s words that may resemble George H. Bush’s call to “extend the blessings of liberty” (01-29-1991), or Bill Clinton’s proposal to “expand the frontiers of democracy” (02-26-1993), or George W. Bush’s appeal “to advance freedom” (06-11-2003) or again, Barack Obama’s appeal to “carry forward that precious gift” (01-20-2009).

14For Trump, it is now up to “each nation to take more responsibility to bring peace to their people” (06-02-2017), and, contrary to his predecessors, he has shown very little interest in political freedom and democracy with the few occasional opportunistic exceptions of Cuba, Venezuela, Syria and North Korea.

  • 24 The equivalence between the Christian God and the free market in the United States was developed by (...)

15President Trump also stands out not only for not alluding to the quasi-religious mission of spreading the free market system in the world, but for hardly mentioning the “free market” at all, preferring the “stock market” whose continued growth he has attributed to his election. 24 Donald Trump has also clearly rejected the idea of a mission by action, repudiating involvement abroad as ‘nation-building’ (21-08-2017, 12-18-2017).

  • 25 Sébastien Fath, Dieu bénisse l’Amérique ! La religion de la Maison-Blanche, Paris: Seuil, 2004, 185

16However, he has fully embraced the idea of mission by example by using traditional metaphors of light. America, he claims, is “a beacon for the world” (10-06-2017), and “the light to the world” as opposed to the darkness of evil (25-04-2017, 10-13-2017), and the United States only needs to “shine as an example […] for everyone to follow,” (01-20). This language is of course reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” and evokes both John Winthrop and the book of Matthew in the Bible (Matthew 5:14-15). Compared to the discourse of mission by action, it tends to focus on domestic issues so as to make the nation a model for the rest of the world.25 This is precisely what Trump said when he laid out his national security strategy of advancing “American influence in the world” by “building up our wealth and power at home” (12-18-2017). In Trump’s speeches, this mission by example always comes with expressions of national pride, strength and sovereignty and the celebration of “American greatness” (01-20-2017, 09-19-2017, 12-18-2017). He links the past to the present by using the metaphor of the “torch of truth, liberty, and justice [passed] in an unbroken chain, all the way down to the present,” a fire/flame metaphor that is connected to purity (02-28-2017).

Nationalist Power

17The power Donald Trump brings forth is also nationalistic in nature. “America First” exalts loyalty and devotion to the nation and places the American nation above all others and, even more so, above supranational institutions. If the idea itself is not uncommon, he has redefined the notion in a dramatic break from tradition.

United Blood of America

18Donald Trump’s nationalism focuses on national unity through blood sacrifice:

It’s time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are Black or Brown or White, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American flag.
Inaugural Address, January 20, 2017

  • 26 Scholars such as Emile Durkheim, René Girard, or more recently, Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet, Michael (...)
  • 27 Memorialization is part of a process of sacralizing the sacrifice through official rituals. These r (...)
  • 28 The meaning of the death of Christ is, after all, the redemption of sin through his blood and sacri (...)

19To conceive the nation in terms of blood sacrifice is a common trope in nationalist discourse. Scholars have long observed that the nation is about the renewal of blood sacrifice shared in concrete terms through wars, or in metaphorical terms through memorials and commemorations. The bodily sacrifice is what Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle call “the totem core of American nationalism.”26 Blood sacrifice is at the heart of any national myth – its primary function is the cohesion of the national community and the assertion of national power in the sense that nations alone can lawfully demand blood sacrifice. In the United States, there has been a real development of the mythology of memorialization in the last four decades.27 This memorialization enables presidents to reaffirm the national unity and the founding value of freedom (08-21-2017). The idea that freedom is paid in blood also resonates with Christian theology.28

20This president insists particularly on claiming ownership of the blood of the fallen soldiers or police officers: it becomes “our” blood and the blood of all the “patriots” who really belong to the national community: “WE all bleed the same red blood of patriots,” he says repeatedly (01-20-2017, 03-15-2017, 04-29-2017, 05-13-2017). What makes Donald Trump unique among modern presidents is that he uses blood imagery significantly more than any of his recent predecessors, as our computer-generated analysis shows (figure 2). He also does so outside the traditional contexts of the ritualized memorial services or war speeches.

Figure 2: Frequency of the word “blood” in presidential speeches of U.S. presidents from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump during 6 months of their first term.

Figure 2: Frequency of the word “blood” in presidential speeches of U.S. presidents from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump during 6 months of their first term.

Comparative computer-generated analysis with the R program for Statistical Computing of the presidential papers archived online on The American Presidency Project, University of California. <http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/​>.

  • 29 Carolyn Marvin, David W. Ingle, “The totem myth: Sacrifice and transformation,” in Carolyn Marvin (...)
  • 30 Meg Wagner, “’Blood and soil’: Protesters chant Nazi slogan in Charlottesville,” CNN, August 12, 20 (...)

21In addition, President Trump employs unusually vivid images of the shedding of “red blood” to define citizenship as a cure to division, following other violent images such as the “American carnage.” Blood sacrifice is of course linked to the flag, the other totem of nationalism.29 This flag, Trump has clearly stated, “represents the blood of patriots spilled in defense of freedom” (05-27-2017). Blood is central to the ideology of white supremacists and the alt-right who believe in a mystical bond between the blood of their ethnic group and the soil of their country, a view epitomized in the chant “blood and soil”, the Nazi slogan used by the marchers at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017.30

  • 31 The nation-as-a-family is a common trope for states. It can be interpreted from a liberal or a cons (...)
  • 32 It must be noted that this “American family” does not include those who have sacrificed blood but a (...)
  • 33 George Lakoff, op. cit., 65.

22Metaphorically, sharing blood is related to the nation-as-a-family metaphor,31 a metaphor that combines biological and hierarchical principles. Accordingly, Donald Trump associates the heartache of sacrifice felt by individual families with the “sorrow shared by the entire family of the American nation” (05-15-2017).32 The shift from plural to singular allows Trump to play on the ambiguity of the “American Family […] at the heart of our great nation” both as metaphor and as a representative of all the American families. It provides a link between conservative family values and their political worldview: “family is the foundation of American life,” said Trump, and so “promoting and protecting family values” becomes a patriotic duty (06-08-2017). Even if the President recognizes that Americans come from different backgrounds, it is not its diversity that defines the nation but its singleness. This “one team, one people, and one American family” enables the American people to “do anything” (01-30-2018). It is essentially a patriarchal family that focuses on law, order and obedience to the head of the family, the president himself. It is a conservative model that linguist George Lakoff has identified as the strict father model.33 That is why it suffers no dissent.

The Power of Self

  • 34 Even if Donald Trump is supported by some self-professed libertarians, such as Senator Rand Paul or (...)

23In this conceptual metaphor, the president is the head of the nation-as-a-family. He makes the decisions for all the family members and because, like God, he is the protector and provider, his power and freedom should be maximized. He should be able to “make free trade deals without having somebody watching you and what you’re doing (01-27-2017). That is also why he rejects the idea that his power should be constrained by anything – international institutions (the United Nations), alliances or multilateral free trade agreements like NAFTA and the TPP. He wants to “negotiate one-on-one deals” (02-24-2017). In a typical conservative view, Donald Trump conceives regulations in terms of interference to freedom – they “tie down” the economy and “chain up” prosperity (06-09-2017). Similarly, the Paris Climate Accord “hamstrings the U.S.” and keeps it “tied up” and “bound down” (06-01-2017). This does not reflect so much a sophisticated libertarian philosophy as it illustrates an expression of raw instinctive belief in maximizing the power of the individual self.34 Seeing the world through the lens of a businessman, Donald Trump applies microeconomic principles to macroeconomics. By offering a hyper-individualized perspective in which there are no more communities but only individual nations, the President reinforces a sense of control and power thanks to his skill in bullying smaller nations. Through bilateral agreements, deals can be quickly “terminated” if these individual countries “misbehave” (02-24-2017) :

I like bilateral deals much more than multilateral. I like to be able to negotiate with one country, and if it doesn’t work out, you terminate. And during the termination notice, right after you consent, they call you and they say, “Please let’s make a deal”, and you fix the deal; When you get into multi, you can’t do that.
Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull of Australia - February 23, 2018

  • 35 This speech reflects a shift from multilateral to unilateral action, from international cooperation (...)
  • 36 See Tarun Chhabra, “Why Trump’s “strong sovereignty” is more familiar than you think, Wednesday,” B (...)

24This power is nationalistic. His slogans “Make America Great Again” and “America First” encapsulate this nationalistic outlook and his repudiation of globalism. For Trump, the only power that matters is the nation. Very significantly, in his speech at the United Nations on 19 September 2017, he repeated the words “sovereign” and “sovereignty” 21 times, and the word “nation(s)” 53 times.35 By insisting on the sovereignty of nations, Donald Trump implicitly rejects international law and the notion of balance of power in a community of nations. It is a form of “strong sovereignty” that repudiates any sense of obligations and duties toward other states or even one’s own citizens.36 In a world where the United States is the most powerful nation in the world both economically and militarily, this is a blank check to do whatever it wants, however arbitrarily, including bullying the world into stopping work with Iran after the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal on May 8 2018.

  • 37 Even though historically mercantilism includes other economic elements (such as the accumulation of (...)

25The point is to maximize national interests and national power, a worldview that revives the old philosophy of mercantilism.37

The Fortress Narrative

26This is where the Trumpian rhetoric constitutes a dramatic shift from all his predecessors’ at least since World War II. Whereas all modern presidents saw tariffs as un-natural obstacles to the natural “flow” of free trade, Donald Trump uses the very same water metaphor to come to the exact opposite conclusion: trade barriers are a protection against “foreign goods [that have been] allowed to flow freely into our country” (11-10-2017). This water-metaphor is one of Trump’s favorites, which he applies negatively to all sorts of exchanges and movement seen as potential or real threats from the outside world. The greatest threat of all, judging from how often President Trump mentions it, is illegal immigrants and refugees who have “flooded in” (04-29-2017) and are continuously associated with crime, violence (particularly the gang MS-13), drugs and terrorism (02-24-2017).

  • 38 As linguist Paul Chilton observes, “The word wall is linked to cognitions of spatial separation, at (...)
  • 39 Louis Edgar Esparza, Judith Blau, “Wired Nation: How The Tea Party Drove an AntiImmigrant Campaign, (...)

27The lesson of this narrative is the need to build walls and barriers for protection against this dangerous flow (01-20-2017). Even if the wall has not fully materialized yet, President Trump has continued to promise to build the “great wall,” “a real wall, not a little wall like some people said” (02-02-2018), “a great border wall to stop dangerous drugs and criminals from pouring into our country” (02-23-2018). This framing of the nation-as-a-container that needs to be closed and protected from a dangerous and threatening Other is also typically nationalistic.38 It is also the resurgence of a long tradition of anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Irish and the Italians were also associated with a wave of crime, mob violence and terrorism. A similar nativist view gained momentum under Obama, particularly after 2012, as the rhetoric of Tea Party movement became more obsessed with anti-immigration.39

28In addition to his border wall, President Trump also talks about a protectionist wall through the renegotiation of NAFTA (11-10-2017) or the imposition of higher tariffs as a form of punishment against countries deemed unfair to the United States, like China, but also against countries that refuse to take back their criminals (02-02-2018). He even connects the metaphorical and the physical walls by promising that the border wall will be paid for by Mexico with what it “makes from the U.S.” from NAFTA (01-18-2018). This fortress mentality, grounded in the nation-as-a-container metaphor, is consistent with our findings on the president’s use of the words “protect” and “defend” (figure 2).

The Power of Violence

  • 40 Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: the Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America, New York (...)
  • 41 Stephen Wertheim, “Quit calling Donald Trump an isolationist. He’s worse than that,” Washington Pos (...)

29Donald Trump’s brand of national power is also characterized by a rhetoric of violence that is deeply rooted in the American culture. As American historian Richard Slotkin concludes, “what is distinctively ‘American’ is not the amount of violence that characterizes our history but the mythic significance we have assigned [to it] […] the forms of symbolic violence we imagine or invent and the political use to which we put that symbolism.”40 Trump’s violent rhetoric takes many forms but I will focus here more specifically on the hard power of war and law enforcement, which is consistent with his claim that he is “the most militaristic person there is” during the primaries.41

The Shiny Power of the Uniform

  • 42 Jena McGregor, “Donald Trump’s revealing answer to a simple question about heroes,” The Washington (...)

30The president’s fascination for the uniform can be seen in his constant praise of military heroes. Even though President-elect Donald Trump once said he did not like heroes and that the concept was never great,42 once in office, he has celebrated heroes and heroism at every opportunity.

  • 43 This fascination for the military may come from his teenage years in the military academy but it is (...)

31Much as he may, at times, have praised the “heroism of everyday citizens” (10-13-2017), it is the hero in uniform whom he honors the most and with the greatest enthusiasm. The military are part of “an unbroken chain of patriots” who “defend the flag and freedom” (03-02-2017), including the Veterans celebrated for their “strength through adversity” in a line of “heroes from our Nation’s wars and conflicts, from the American Revolution to the World Wars, from Korea to Vietnam, from Desert Storm to the War on Terror” (04-07-2017). His love of the uniform is also visible in his open fascination for military parades such as the Bastille Day parade in France which he suggested should also happen in the United States in order “to show our military strength” (09-18-2017) and “the spirit of our country” (02-24-2018). His obsession for marching soldiers and gleamy weaponry seems more like a toddler-like fascination for a Hollywood dramatization of war than a true understanding of the sacrifices that war entails.43

32Likewise, he celebrates law enforcement heroes who constitute no less than “the thin blue line between civilization and chaos” (05-15-2017) to whom the rest of the nation […] “owes loyalty” (05-15-2017). The uniform is highly symbolic of a culture based on hierarchy, obedience and loyalty. It illustrates the moral debt that the rest of the nation owes the police or the troops, and ultimately the Commander-in-Chief.

33This also echoes his definition of the nation primarily through blood spilling. The heroic sacrifice of blood is traditionally framed through the conceptual metaphor of moral accounting and the specific trope of financial transaction. It is referred to as “a debt” (02-02-2017, 02-03-2017, 07-27-2017), and the “ultimate price” (09-09-2017, 08-21-2017, 05-15-2017) that “can never be repaid” (04-07, 05-29, 12-15) to which the nation “owes gratitude and loyalty” (03-16-2017, 07-28-2017) because freedom comes “at a cost” (05-29-2017). The power of this metaphor comes precisely from the fact that there is no possible restitution or reciprocation for this ultimate sacrifice. It implies that the rest of the nation is in a constant inferior moral position which makes dissent very difficult, if not impossible. This is exactly how the president has been able to turn protests against racial discrimination by the police into a narrative of unpatriotic expression of disloyalty towards the flag, the nation and the “courageous Patriots [who] have fought and died for our great American Flag” (09-24-2017). For Donald Trump, the cure to racial divide is patriotism, which means total loyalty and no dissent: “patriotic Americans of all backgrounds truly support and love our police” (05-15-2017), which implies that those who criticize them are disloyal to their nation, if not traitors altogether.

War Metaphors

34In presidential discourse, violence is often positively expressed through war metaphors, like Lyndon Johnson’s “war on crime” or Nixon and George H. W. Bush’s “war on drugs.” Donald Trump is also an aficionado of war metaphors, but contrary to his predecessors, he has been using them more for partisan issues like guns, coal, trade and religion than for consensual social problems like drugs or crime.

  • 44 The “War on Christmas” catchphrase was coined by former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, who claimed in (...)

35There are the “bad wars” that must be ended – like “the war on coal” (04-29-2017) or the “assault on Christmas,”44 and the “destruction of religious liberty” (07-12-2017) or the “assault on the Second Amendment” (04-28-2017). President Trump’s inaugural address set the tone: the word “carnage” of course, an expression usually reserved for mass killing in wars, but also other words evoking war and violence, such as “bleed”, “ripped”, “trapped,” “tombstone” had never been used in an inaugural address before (01-20-2017).

  • 45 Nancy Letourneau, “We Are in the Midst of a Cold Civil War in This Country,” The Atlantic Monthly, (...)

36Examples of similar war imagery abound in his rhetoric. From his numerous references to towns, cities, communities “under siege” or “once peaceful neighborhoods […] transformed into bloodstained killing fields” (05-23-2018), the president offers a gruesome view of a war being waged on the American soil. Essentially it is a lexicon that pits his electoral base against the rest of the nation, thus encouraging what Carl Bernstein has called a “cold civil war” that both reflects and encourages the growing polarization of the nation, spurred by media outlets like Fox News or Infowars.45

37This is also illustrated by what President Trump has called, his “running war with the media,” a “good war” to continue to wage (01-20-2017). This war has escalated – the “fake news” journalists have been referred to as “enemies of mine” (07-19-2017), then “the enemy” (05-28-2017), and finally as “the enemy of the American people” (02-17-2017b). Ironically, he has accused these fake “news of purposely caus[ing] great division & distrust.” And even “causing War!” (08-04-2018). This has allowed him to dismiss any criticism as partisan and to entertain the confusion between truth and fake.

38But Trump’s metaphorical wars are not only domestic. For instance, he embraced the expression “trade wars” in the wake of his announcement to put tariffs on steel and aluminum imports at the risk of creating an international economic crisis. “Trade wars,” he wrote on his Twitter account, “are good and easy to win. […] we win big. It’s easy!” (03-02-2018). Similarly, the president has singled out China and Mexico for “sending fentanyl” and “killing our people” which, he claims, is “almost a form of warfare” (08-16-2018). What is remarkable here is not simply his break from previous policies but the way he expresses his eagerness for a “trade war,” an expression that precisely emphasizes the military characteristic of political and economic power. However, the line between war metaphors and real wars can get dangerously blurry when, for instance, in a Freudian hyperbolic exchange with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the president taunts him about having a “bigger & more powerful [Nuclear Button] than his,” adding “and my Button works!” (01-02-2018).

Game Metaphors

  • 46 Philip Eubanks, A War of Words in the Discourse of Trade, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University (...)
  • 47 The deep narrative of this metaphor is linked to the notion of American exceptionalism.

39The game metaphor is an attenuated, less hostile version of the war metaphor. Free trade is commonly framed through game metaphors with its rules, winners and losers.46 It is a metaphor about power that brings into play concepts of fairness and justice and reciprocity: Americans will necessarily be the winners as long as the rules are fair.47 One of the main arguments put forth by all modern presidents prior to Donald Trump in their support of free trade deals was that they enable the U.S. to “level the playing field” of commerce and would ultimately guarantee world peace. It is a common sport metaphor used to say that one team would have an unfair advantage if the field had a slope. Donald Trump uses the same metaphor and expresses the same belief as his predecessors but draws the opposite conclusion. According to him, “the terrible trade deals” are the reasons why American workers were not given that “level playing field” (02-17-2017a, 02-18-2017). The Trumpian discourse underpins a semantic shift in which “fair trade” has entirely replaced “free trade” as the main goal put forth by this administration (02-27-2017).

  • 48 Christian Fuchs, “Donald Trump: A Critical Theory-Perspective on Authoritarian Capitalism,” tripleC (...)

40This game metaphor is extensive and central in Donald Trump’s presidential rhetoric, but it is a violent physical metaphor, like a wrestling match rather than a poker game. This is no surprise if you consider Trump’s strong ties to professional wrestling, which he even hosted before starting his notorious TV show The Apprentice. Both forms of entertainment center on individual survival and competition, and both played a significant role in shaping Donald Trump’s public persona that gave him fame and popularity in the United States.48 It also reflects his own business culture and the idea that you can run a country like you run a family business. Trump see his presidential power like that of a CEO who decides and fires at will, while others execute. That is exactly how he has been running his cabinet. When asked about chaos in the White House, the president was very direct about how much he enjoys people fighting and the power that derives from it:

[The White House]’s got tremendous energy. It’s tough. I like conflict. I like having two people with different points of view, and I certainly have that. And then I make a decision. But I like watching it, I like seeing it, and I think it’s the best way to go. I like different points of view.
Remarks by President Trump and Prime Minister Löfven of Sweden in Joint Press Conference, March 2, 2018.

41This reveals a binary view of the world made of “losers”, such as “those who have nothing to brag about but failure” (02-18-2017) and “winners”, such as the members of his Cabinet (02-22-2017). This is a common narrative structure of presidential discourse, except that it is no longer about good vs. evil.

42Power has become a virtue and losing a sign of immorality. This is very well exemplified by the way the president calls terrorists “evil losers”:

So many young, beautiful, innocent people living and enjoying their lives murdered by evil losers in life. I won’t call them monsters, because they would like that term. They would think that’s a great name. I will call them from now on losers because that’s what’s they are. They’re losers. And we’ll have more of them. But they’re losers, just remember that.
Remarks With President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority in Bethlehem, Palestinian Territories, May 23, 2017.

43This belief that winning is the ultimate virtuous goal is also a feature of a nationalistic discourse: it focuses on strength and empowerment. In this new narrative, America must be the winner. That is why in his inaugural address, Donald Trump pledged that America would “start winning again, winning like never before” (01-20-2017). In subsequent speeches, he has also contrasted a mythical glorious past of “American wins” (01-21-2017) with a miserable present when America “doesn’t win any more” (02-18-2017). Winning is thus the ultimate and only moral goal for Donald Trump, which he believes he himself embodies. It is at the core of his political and personal identity – hence his obsession with records and numbers: even the margin of his electoral victory or the size of his crowds (02-16-2017, 02-18-2017, 02-24-2017). It gives him the legitimacy for promising more wins in the future. In this narrative, Trump takes on the role of the righter of wrongs as he is himself both the victim and the hero, a hero who has won a fight he deems as unfair, against all odds and against everybody else.

Conclusion

44There is overwhelming evidence that Donald Trump’s moral vision is centered on the notion of power and the rhetorical analysis offered by this paper only covers part of it. There is also the president’s disregard for policy process, his use of Twitter as a political power tool to stir negative emotions among his followers, his admiration for tough powerful autocratic foreign leaders, his masculine entitlement, his recorded bragging about his power over women, the emasculation of his opponents, or his unchecked narcissism are so many other features that could illustrate the same idea of power domination. And of course, there is that ultimate symbol: the presidency itself, the most powerful and exclusively male seat of power in the nation.

  • 49 Gwenda Blair “How Norman Vincent Peale Taught Donald Trump to Worship Himself,” Politico Magazine, (...)
  • 50 Simon Coleman The Globalisation of Charismatic Christianity: Spreading the Gospel of Prosperity, Ca (...)
  • 51 Paula White provided the invocation prayer at Donald Trump’s inauguration. Jack Jenkins, “Trump is (...)
  • 52 Simon Coleman, op. cit., 98.
  • 53 Horton, Michael, “Evangelicals should be deeply troubled by Donald Trump’s attempt to mainstream he (...)
  • 54 Michael Gerson, “The Last Temptation,” The Atlantic, April 2018. <https://www.theatlantic.com/magaz (...)

45It is worth noting that this fusion of power and virtue is consistent with the belief of theologian Vincent Peale, the author of the best-seller The Power of Positive Thinking, who was also Trump’s family pastor and who, according to Trump himself, influenced him a lot in his formative years.49 Peale’s very successful book centered on personal empowerment by channeling God’s unlimited power through language.50 Peale, like Trump, uses numerous sports metaphors to illustrate his theology. His words echo those of today’s Prosperity theology preachers such as Paula White, Mark Burns and Darrell Scoot, all Donald Trump’s current spiritual advisors. Similarly, their doctrine emphasizes personal power and material wealth.51 Religious scholar Simon Coleman’s definition of prosperity theology is key for understanding where Trump’s moral view of the world comes from: “it is a form of spiritual entrepreneurship, carried out by spiritually empowered people who are not controlled by overbearing and overly centralised administrative structures.”52 This theology, however, is not shared by all American Christians. It is controversial and even considered like heresy by some evangelicals.53 As Michael Gerson concluded, “Trump’s strength-worship and contempt for “losers” smack more of Nietzsche than of Christ.”54

  • 55 Robert P. Jones, “White Evangelical Support for Donald Trump at All-Time High,” Public Religion Res (...)
  • 56 Ibidem.
  • 57 Evangelicals have increasingly embraced a premillennialist belief. It is essentially a form of Chri (...)
  • 58 Tara Isabella Burton, “Pastor at US Embassy opening in Jerusalem says Trump is “on the right side” (...)

46How to explain his support among evangelicals is at an all-time high then?55 Gerson offers two interesting reasons: first, most evangelicals see themselves as “a mistreated minority, in need of a defender who plays by worldly rules.”56 In other words, his morality does not matter as long as he delivers the policy they want. The second reason is that evangelicals have increasingly adopted a view of the world that focuses on the-end-of-times which makes Trump’s message of resentful, declinist populism all the more attractive.57 This has political real consequences: the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem must be understood in the light of these evangelicals who believe that the restoration of Israel as an exclusively Jewish state with Jerusalem as its capital is the fulfillment of a biblical prophecy.58 This shows that President Trump is well aware that the evangelical Christians are now “his” people.

47In his address to the United Nations, he said he was elected “not to take power, but to give power to the American people where it belongs,” but his understanding of “the people” is restricted to his supporters and excludes those who dissent or are critical of him (09-19-2017). This also where President Trump stands out: if rhetoric is the art of persuasion, it is about persuading a majority of Americans – but only those who constitute his electoral base: the evangelical Christians, the white nationalists, and all those who feel out of touch with economic, demographic, technological and cultural changes. His victimhood stance encourages resentment and fuels the fear of an exterior or domestic evil Other – immigrants, politicians, federal employees, the intelligence community, journalists, and the list goes on. This, in turn, justifies repressive actions so as to create an illusionary sense of order and control.

48In his power game, the enemy has to be very powerful so as to make Donald Trump’s own position heroic: “They will do everything in their power to try and stop us from this righteous cause, to try to stop all of you,” he tells his supporters, “they will lie, they will obstruct, they will spread their hatred and their prejudice” (06-08-2017). As a result, the “forgotten Americans” and the “good and decent people of this country will get the change they voted for and that they so richly deserve” (06-08-2017). The morality of this tale is that the “Forgotten Americans” will return to their rightful place of dominance. The losers will be winners again and their loyalty, faith in each other, and faith in God will guarantee the promise of national glory, strength and success.

Haut de page

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Speeches

George H. W. Bush:

  • 01-29-1991, Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union

Bill Clinton:

  • 02-26-1993, Remarks at the American University Centennial Celebration

George W. Bush:

  • 11-11-2003, Remarks at a Veterans Day Ceremony in Arlington, Virginia

Barack Obama:

  • 01-20-2009, Inaugural Address

Donald Trump:

  • 01-20-2017, Inaugural Address

  • 01-27-2017, The President’s News Conference With Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom

  • 01-21-2017, Remarks at the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia

  • 02-02-2017, Remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast

  • 02-03-2017, The President’s Weekly Address

  • 02-16-2017, The President’s News Conference

  • 02-17-2017a, Remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast,

  • 02-17-2017b, Donald J. Trump Tweet, @realDonaldTrump, 1:48 pm EDT

  • 02-17-2017c, The President’s Weekly Address,

  • 02-18-2017, Remarks at a “Make America Great Again” Rally in Melbourne, Florida

  • 02-24-2017, Remarks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland

  • 02-27-2017, Remarks to the National Governors Association

  • 02-28-2017, Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress

  • 03-02-2017, Remarks Aboard the Aircraft Carrier Gerald R. Ford in Newport News, Virginia

  • 03-07-2017, Remarks During a Meeting on Health Care Reform With Members of the House Deputy Whip Team

  • 03-15-2017, Remarks at the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti Township, Michigan

  • 03-16-2017, Letter to Pearl Harbor Veteran Raymond Chavez Commemorating His 105th Birthday

  • 04-07-2017, Proclamation National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day.

  • 04-25-2017, Remarks at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Days of Remembrance Ceremony

  • 04-28-2017, Remarks at the National Rifle Association Leadership Forum in Atlanta, Georgia

  • 04-29-2017, Remarks at Rally in Harrisburg, PA

  • 05-04-2017, Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,

  • 05-13-2017, Commencement Address at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia

  • 05-15-2017, Remarks at the National Peace Officers Memorial Service

  • 05-23-2017, Remarks at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem

  • 05-27-2017, Remarks to United States Troops at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy

  • 05-28-2017, Donald J. Trump Tweet, @realDonaldTrump, 5:45 am EDT

  • 05-29-2017, Donald Trump at the Memorial Day Ceremony at Arlington Cemetery

  • 06-01-2017, Remarks on the Withdrawal From Paris Climate Accord

  • 06-02-2017, The President’s Weekly Address

  • 06-08-2017, Remarks at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority Conference

  • 06-09-2017, Remarks at the Department of Transportation

  • 06-16-2017, Donald J. Trump Tweet, @realDonaldTrump, 8:31 pm EDT

  • 07-06-2017, Remarks in Warsaw, Poland

  • 07-01-2017, Remarks at Celebrate Freedom Rally, Kennedy Center, Washington DC

  • 07-12-2017, CBN: Pat Robertson Interviews Donald Trump - July 12, 2017

  • 07-28-2017, President Donald J. Trump’s Weekly Address,

  • 07-19-2017, Donald Trump with The New York Times

  • 07-27-2017, Remarks on Presenting the Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor to First Responders to the Shootings in Alexandria, Virginia

  • 07-28-2017, The President’s Weekly Address

  • 08-21-2017, Address to the Nation on United States Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia From Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Virginia

  • 09-09-2017, - Remarks to the United Nations General Assembly in New York City

  • 09-18-2017, Remarks Prior to a Meeting With President Emmanuel Macron of France in New York City

  • 09-19-2017, Remarks to the United Nations General Assembly in New York City

  • 09-24-2017, Donald J. Trump Tweet, @realDonaldTrump, 8:32 pm EDT

  • 10-06-2017, Remarks at a Hispanic Heritage Month Reception

  • 10-13-2017, Remarks by President Trump at the 2017 Values Voter Summit

  • 10-11-2017, Remarks in Middletown, Pennsylvania

  • 10-17-2017, Keynote Address at The Heritage Foundation’s President’s Club Meeting

  • 11-10-2017, Remarks at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO Summit in Danang, Vietnam

  • 11-23-2017, Presidential Weekly Address

  • 11-28-2017, Donald J. Trump Tweet, @realDonaldTrump, 9:45 pm EDT

  • 11-29-2017, Remarks on Tax Reform in St. Charles, Missouri

  • 12-15-2017, Remarks at the Federal Bureau of Investigation National Academy Graduation Ceremony in Quantico, Virginia

  • 12-18-2017, Remarks on the 2017 National Security Strategy

  • 01-02-2018, Donald J. Trump Tweet, @realDonaldTrump, 1:49 pm EDT

  • 01-18-2018, Donald J. Trump Tweet, @realDonaldTrump, 12:25 pm EDT

  • 01-26-2018, Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland

  • 01-30-2018, Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union

  • 02-02-2018, Remarks During a Roundtable Discussion on Immigration and Border Security and an Exchange With Reporters at the United States Customs and Border Protection’s National Targeting Center in Sterling, Virginia

  • 02-23-2018, Remarks at CPACConference

  • 02-24-2018, Interview with Jeanine Pirro on Foxnews,

  • 03-02-2018, Donald J. Trump Tweet, @realDonaldTrump, 2:50 am EDT

  • 05-23-2018: Remarks: Donald Trump Hosts a Roundtable on Immigration in Bethpage.

  • 08-04-2018, Donald J. Trump Tweet, @realDonaldTrump, 9:38 pm EDT

Internet sources

American Presidency Project (the), University of California, Santa Barbara. <http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/>, accessed on August 23, 2018.

Trump Twitter Archive, <http://www.trumptwitterarchive.com/>, accessed on August 23, 2018.

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Notes

1 This community was the “city upon a hill,” a metaphor taken from the Sermon on the Mount by Puritan preacher John Winthrop in his famous sermon “A model of Christianity” in 1630, and later adopted for what would become the United-States, including by modern presidents like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

2 Richard Vetterli, Gary Bryner, “Public Virtue and the Roots of American Government,” Brigham Young University Studies Quarterly, vol. 27, issue 3, 1987, pp. 29-47; Jonathan Barth, “The Republican Paradox: Liberty, Prosperity, Virtue, and Vice in the American Founding,” Journal of Policy History, April 2017, vol. 29, issue 2, 247.

3 Of course, this “liberty for all” was relative. In the early days of the Republic, most states only allowed white male adult property owners to vote. “Expansion of Rights and Liberties - The Right of Suffrage.” Online Exhibit: The Charters of Freedom. National Archives. Archived from the original on July 6, 2016. <https://web.archive.org/web/20160706144856/http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/charters_of_freedom_13.html>, accessed on July 20, 2018.

4 Donald Trump, Trump: The Art of the Deal, New York: Ballantine Books, 1987, 58.

5 This phrase was made (in)famous when top aide to the president Kellyanne Conway contested that White House press secretary’s claims on the crowd size at the inaugural was a lie by calling it “alternative facts” in an interview on Meet the Press. David Graham, “‘Alternative Facts’: The Needless Lies of the Trump Administration,” Jan. 22, 2017, <https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/01/the-pointless-needless-lies-of-the-trump-administration/514061/>, accessed on July 18, 2018.

6 Raymond Joseph Hoffmann, “Donald Trump and the End of Virtue,” The New Oxonian, February 25, 2017. <https://rjosephhoffmann.wordpress.com/2017/02/25/donald-trump-and-the-end-of-virtue/>, accessed on July 10, 2018.

7 Colleen J. Shogan, The Moral Rhetoric of American Presidents, Texas: A&M University Press, 2006, 54.

8 Benjamin P. Marcus, “How Trump is reshaping American civil religion,” Crux, July 11, 2017. <https://cruxnow.com/church-in-the-usa/2017/07/11/trump-reshaping-american-civil-religion/> accessed on July 10, 2018.

9 Jesse Byrnes, “Trump in 2015 on American exceptionalism: ‘I never liked the term,’” The Hill, June 7, 2016. <http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/282449-trump-on-american-exceptionalism-i-never-liked-the-term>, accessed on July 10, 2018.

10 [The American Puritan Jeremiad’s] function was to create a climate of anxiety that helped release the restless “progressive” energies required for the success of the venture. It made anxiety its end as well as its means. Crisis was the social norm it sought to inculcate. The very concept of errand, after all, implied a state of unfulfillment. Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad, Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1978, 2012, 23.

11 Greg Grandin, “There’s Nothing Un-American About Donald Trump,” The Nation, July 22, 2016. <https://www.thenation.com/article/theres-nothing-un-american-about-donald-trump/>, accessed on July 10, 2018.

12 Kevin Mattson, “President Trump’s “American carnage” speech fit into a long American tradition,” Vox, Jan 28, 2017. <https://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/1/26/14393288/trump-inaugural-american-carnage-speech>, accessed on June 15, 2018.

13 While scholars may offer various definitions of “populism,” it is a minimum a discourse with at its core the opposition between the people and the elite. For more details and extensive discussion on the term, see Rogers Brubaker, “Why Populism?” Theory and Society, November 2017, vol. 46, issue 5, 357-385.

14 It must be added that the idea of American exceptionalism has been used to justify both multilateralism and unilateralism. See David M. Malone, Yuen Foong Khong, “Unilateralism & U.S. Foreign Policy. International Perspectives,” in David M. Malone, Yuen Foong Khong (eds), Unilateralism & U.S. Foreign Policy. International Perspectives, Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003, 1-18.

15 Elvin T. Lim, “Five Trends in Presidential Rhetoric: An Analysis of Rhetoric from George Washington to Bill Clinton,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, 2002, vol. 32, n° 2, 335.

16 Emma Green, “Donald Trump Declares a Vision of Religious Nationalism,” The Atlantic, Feb. 2, 2017. <https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/02/donald-trump-national-prayer-breakfast/515445/>, accessed on July 10, 2018.

17 Walter A. McDougall, “Does Donald Trump Believe in American Civil Religion? If So, Which One?,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, February 23, 2017.

18 The expression “God’s people” was actually used twice by Gerald Ford, but only in religious venues (in his “Remarks at the Annual Meeting of the National Baptist Convention in St. Louis, September 12, 1975,” and his “Remarks at the Conclusion of the International Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, August 8, 1976”), and once by Bill Clinton who quoted FDR’s D-Day prayer at a Memorial Day Breakfast, May 30, 1994) although president Roosevelt had actually used the expression “Thy People.” (Source: American Presidency Project (the), University of California, Santa Barbara. <http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/>, accessed on July 10, 2018.

19 For a detailed explanation of the reason why evangelicals see themselves as a community under threat and under siege, this article by former George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter Michael Gerson, himself an evangelical Republican, offers a unique perspective. Michael Gerson, “The Last Temptation,” The Atlantic, April 2018. <https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/04/the-last-temptation/554066/>, accessed on July 11, 2018.

20 The term “deep state” was originally used for the state apparatus in autocratic countries, it has been increasingly used by Trump supporters and conspiracy theorists to refer to “an organized resistance within the government, working to subvert his presidency.” See Alana Abramason, “President Trump’s Allies Keep Talking About the ‘Deep State.’ What’s That?” Time Magazine, March 8, 2017. <http://time.com/4692178/donald-trump-deep-state-breitbart-barack-obama/>, accessed on July 10, 2018. It may also be noted that Donald Trump’s words may not seem so different from those of John F. Kennedy who said in his Inaugural Address “the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God,” on January 20, 1961, except for the fact President Trump constantly uses derogatory terms when he talks about the Federal government, its employees particularly as he pits them against conservative religious groups. Source: American Presidency Project (the), University of California, Santa Barbara. <http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/>, accessed on July 10, 2018.

21 This redefinition is meant to serve Donald Trump’s own agenda: except for a mild reference to Russian “destabilizing activities,” followed by a call to Russia to “join the community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies and in defense of civilization itself,” the U.S. president chose to focus exclusively on the threat of “radical Islamic terrorism.” The irony of course is that Russia poses a greater threat to Poland the radical Islam. See the entire speech. <http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=126555&st=&st1>, accessed on August 18, 2018.

22 Rebecca M. Townsend, “Trump’s Warsaw Address, or How the “West” Was Widened,” Journal of Contemporary Rhetoric, vol. 8, n° 1/2, 2018, 86.

23 Jérôme Viala-Gaudefroy, “In Trump’s America, immigrants are modern-day ‘savage Indians,’” The Conversation, July 16, 2018. <https://theconversation.com/in-trumps-america-immigrants-are-modern-day-savage-indians-99809>, accessed on August 20, 2018.

24 The equivalence between the Christian God and the free market in the United States was developed by Mark Bennett McNaught, La Religion civile américaine: de Reagan à Obama, Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2009, 126-9. American political economist Lester Thurow also claimed that “the market theory is also a political philosophy, often becoming something approaching religion.” Lester Thurow, Dangerous Currents, The State of Economics, New York: Random House, 1983, xviii.

25 Sébastien Fath, Dieu bénisse l’Amérique ! La religion de la Maison-Blanche, Paris: Seuil, 2004, 185.

26 Scholars such as Emile Durkheim, René Girard, or more recently, Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet, Michael Vlahos, or Stanley Hauerwas.

27 Memorialization is part of a process of sacralizing the sacrifice through official rituals. These rituals are set apart at specific times of the year during which presidents lead ceremonies such as Memorial Day, Veterans Day, National POW/MIA Recognition Day, or even when they award decorations posthumously (Medal of Honor) and they take place on sacred grounds, like the national cemetery in Arlington (11-09-2017). It is interesting to note that most of the memorials along the Potomac river in Washington D.C. have been built in the last 30 years.

28 The meaning of the death of Christ is, after all, the redemption of sin through his blood and sacrifice.

29 Carolyn Marvin, David W. Ingle, “The totem myth: Sacrifice and transformation,” in Carolyn Marvin & David W. Ingle (eds), Blood sacrifice and the nation: Totem rituals and the American flag, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 25.

30 Meg Wagner, “’Blood and soil’: Protesters chant Nazi slogan in Charlottesville,” CNN, August 12, 2017. <https://edition.cnn.com/2017/08/12/us/charlottesville-unite-the-right-rally/index.html>, accessed on July 10, 2018.

31 The nation-as-a-family is a common trope for states. It can be interpreted from a liberal or a conservative perspective. The most conservative view tends to see family bonds as biological rather than social and its structure as more hierarchical and organized according to traditional gender roles with a father at the head whose judgment is not supposed to be questioned. George Lakoff, The Political Mind: a Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics, New York: Penguin, 2008.

32 It must be noted that this “American family” does not include those who have sacrificed blood but are his ardent critics, and also happen to be non-whites, as the Khan family cruelly experienced during the campaign. Linda Chavez, “What Trump Can Learn From a Gold Star Family,” The New York Times, Oct. 20, 2017. <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/20/books/review/an-american-family-khzir-khan-memoir.html>, accessed on July 18, 2018.

33 George Lakoff, op. cit., 65.

34 Even if Donald Trump is supported by some self-professed libertarians, such as Senator Rand Paul or the conservative and libertarian advocacy group Freedomworks, a lot of policies of the Trump administration, particularly his trade policies and protectionism have been harshly crititized by libertarians such as the Koch brothers. See Jeremy W. Peters, “Charles Koch Takes On Trump. Trump Takes On Charles Koch,” The New York Times, July 31, 2018. <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/31/us/politics/trump-koch-brothers.html>, accessed on August 10, 2018.

35 This speech reflects a shift from multilateral to unilateral action, from international cooperation to self-interest, from the values of human rights and freedom to power politics. Even George W. Bush’s unilateral action against Iraq in 2003, first justified by the bogus threat of the weapons of mass destruction, was eventually rhetorically justified by the spread of freedom.

36 See Tarun Chhabra, “Why Trump’s “strong sovereignty” is more familiar than you think, Wednesday,” Brookings, September 20, 2017. <https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2017/09/20/why-trumps-strong-sovereignty-is-more-familiar-than-you-think/>, accessed on June 18, 2018.

37 Even though historically mercantilism includes other economic elements (such as the accumulation of gold and silver), Trump’s economic policy resembles mercantilism in the sense of that he believes in trying to “influence trade and business, by encouraging exports and putting limits on imports” (Cambridge Dictionary). This neo-mercantilism was clearly articulated by then-chief economic advisor Gary Cohn and then-National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster who saw the world no longer as a “global community” but as “an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” Gary D. Cohn, H.R. McMaster, “America First Doesn’t Mean America Alone,” Wall Street Journal, May 30, 2017.

38 As linguist Paul Chilton observes, “The word wall is linked to cognitions of spatial separation, at a minimum, […] which includes enclosure surrounding self or other. The embodied cognitions involved in stimulating mental representations of the Other are complementary: prisons keep us safe by containing the Other and holding them in; blocking them coming out by directed force; border walls keep us safe from the Other’s ingress into our inside space, by force exerted in the opposite direction.” Paul Chilton, “Toward a neuro-cognitive model of socio-political discourse, and an application to the populist discourse of Donald Trump,” Langage et société, vol. 160, n° 16, 2017/2, 384.

39 Louis Edgar Esparza, Judith Blau, “Wired Nation: How The Tea Party Drove an AntiImmigrant Campaign,” Societies Without Borders, Vol. 7, N°4, 2012, Article 6.

40 Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: the Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America, New York: Harper Perennia, 1993, 13.

41 Stephen Wertheim, “Quit calling Donald Trump an isolationist. He’s worse than that,” Washington Post, February 17, 2017. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/02/17/quit-calling-donald-trump-an-isolationist-its-an-insult-to-isolationism/?utm_term=.9ab5b9982976>, accessed on July 10, 2018.

42 Jena McGregor, “Donald Trump’s revealing answer to a simple question about heroes,” The Washington Post, January 17, 2017. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/on-leadership/wp/2017/01/17/trump-said-he-doesnt-like-the-concept-of-heroes-then-he-talked-about-his-father-and-himself/?utm_term=.230e24b500f8>, accessed on July 10, 2018.

43 This fascination for the military may come from his teenage years in the military academy but it is also quite telling that he later avoided conscription through student deferments, as well as a medical deferment for a bone spur in his foot. His view of the military is divorced from the reality of war.

44 The “War on Christmas” catchphrase was coined by former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, who claimed in 2004 that Christmas was “under siege” by “secular progressives.” This tradition dates back to the 1950s and the far-right John Birch Society, which claimed a communist conspiracy was hell-bent on taking “the Christ out of Christmas,” also blaming “fanatics” at the UN for trying to “poison the 1959 Christmas season with their high-pressure propaganda.” Allison Kaplan Sommer, “How Donald Trump Lost the ‘War on Christmas’,” Haaretz, December 26, 2017. <https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/how-donald-trump-lost-the-war-on-christmas-1.5629520>, accessed on July 10, 2018.

45 Nancy Letourneau, “We Are in the Midst of a Cold Civil War in This Country,” The Atlantic Monthly, July 17, 2017. <https://washingtonmonthly.com/2017/07/17/we-are-in-the-midst-of-a-cold-civil-war-in-this-country/>, accessed on July 10, 2018.

46 Philip Eubanks, A War of Words in the Discourse of Trade, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000, 52, 53.

47 The deep narrative of this metaphor is linked to the notion of American exceptionalism.

48 Christian Fuchs, “Donald Trump: A Critical Theory-Perspective on Authoritarian Capitalism,” tripleC, vol. 15, n° 1, 2017, 1-72.

49 Gwenda Blair “How Norman Vincent Peale Taught Donald Trump to Worship Himself,” Politico Magazine, October 06, 2015. See also Tom Gjelten, “How Positive Thinking, Prosperity Gospel Define Donald Trump’s Faith Outlook,” National Public Radio, August 3, 2016. <https://www.npr.org/2016/08/03/488513585/how-positive-thinking-prosperity-gospel-define-donald-trumps-faith-outlook>, accessed July 10, 2018.

50 Simon Coleman The Globalisation of Charismatic Christianity: Spreading the Gospel of Prosperity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press City, 2000, 28, 47.

51 Paula White provided the invocation prayer at Donald Trump’s inauguration. Jack Jenkins, “Trump is creating a new form of Christian nationalism centered on himself,” ThinkProgress, January 25, 2017. <https://thinkprogress.org/trump-is-creating-a-new-form-of-christian-nationalism-centered-around-himself-d8687f41cc49/>, accessed on July 10, 2018. See also: Juliana Pigantaro, “Who Is Pastor Paula White? Donald Trump’s Spiritual Adviser Responds To Criticism Of Appearance At Inauguration, “ International Business Times, May 01, 2017. <http://www.ibtimes.com/who-pastor-paula-white-donald-trumps-spiritual-adviser-responds-criticism-appearance-2470491>, accessed on July 10, 2018.

52 Simon Coleman, op. cit., 98.

53 Horton, Michael, “Evangelicals should be deeply troubled by Donald Trump’s attempt to mainstream heresy,” Washington Post, January 3, 2017. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/01/03/evangelicals-should-be-deeply-troubled-by-donald-trumps-attempt-to-mainstream-heresy/?utm_term=.265e5bb64d46>, accessed on July 10, 2018.

54 Michael Gerson, “The Last Temptation,” The Atlantic, April 2018. <https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/04/the-last-temptation/554066/>, accessed on July 11, 2018.

55 Robert P. Jones, “White Evangelical Support for Donald Trump at All-Time High,” Public Religion Research Institute, April 18, 2018.<https://www.prri.org/spotlight/white-evangelical-support-for-donald-trump-at-all-time-high/>, accessed on July 18, 2018.

56 Ibidem.

57 Evangelicals have increasingly embraced a premillennialist belief. It is essentially a form of Christian eschatology that focuses on the Second Coming of Christ who will establish a literal thousand-year golden age of peace preceded by the Great Tribulation, a period of worldwide hardships, disasters, famine, war, pain, and suffering except for those who have faith and will be raptured and thus escape it.

58 Tara Isabella Burton, “Pastor at US Embassy opening in Jerusalem says Trump is “on the right side” of God. The Christian apocalyptic theology behind Trump’s controversial US Embassy move to Jerusalem,” Vox, May 14, 2018. <https://www.vox.com/2018/5/14/17352676/robert-jeffress-jerusalem-embassy-israel-prayer>, accessed on August 20, 2018.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Frequency of the words “protect” and “defend” in presidential speeches of U.S. presidents from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump during 6 months of their first term
Légende Comparative computer-generated analysis with the R program for Statistical Computing of the presidential papers archived online on The American Presidency Project, University of California < http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/​>.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/docannexe/image/9861/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 46k
Titre Figure 2: Frequency of the word “blood” in presidential speeches of U.S. presidents from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump during 6 months of their first term.
Légende Comparative computer-generated analysis with the R program for Statistical Computing of the presidential papers archived online on The American Presidency Project, University of California. <http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/​>.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/docannexe/image/9861/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 40k
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Jérôme Viala-Gaudefroy, « President Trump and the Virtue of Power », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. XVI-n°2 | 2018, mis en ligne le 24 septembre 2018, consulté le 16 novembre 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/9861 ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.9861

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Auteur

Jérôme Viala-Gaudefroy

Jérôme Viala-Gaudefroy a soutenu sa thèse sur Mythes nationaux dans les discours présidentiels post-Guerre froide en 2016. Il est chargé de cours de civilisation américaine à Paris Nanterre. Ses recherches portent sur la communication politique, et plus précisément la construction de l’identité nationale dans les discours présidentiels contemporains. Il est membre du bureau de l’AFEA et webmestre de l’association.

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Les contenus de la Revue LISA / LISA e-journal sont 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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