On a Saturday night in April, the rhetoric of our historical era reached a culminating, symbolic moment.
In Washington, D.C. — at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner — comedian Michelle Wolf mocked the physical appearance of Trump administration officials, made jokes about feticide and compared the president’s daughter to “an empty box of tampons.”
In Washington, Mich., President Donald Trump gave an 80-minute speech in a stream-of-semi-consciousness style that mixed narcissism, nativism, ignorance, mendacity and malice. He attacked the FBI, intelligence agencies, the Justice Department and his presidential predecessors. “Any Hispanics in the room?” he asked at one point, producing some boos. Of the press: “These people, they hate your guts.” Of his political opponents: “A vote for a Democrat in November, is a vote for open borders and crime. It’s very simple.”
In both Washingtons, political discourse was dominated by the values and practices of reality television and social media: nasty, shallow, personal, vile, vindictive, graceless, classless, bullying, ugly, crass and simplistic. This is not merely change; it is digression. It is the triumph of the boors. It is a discourse unworthy of a great country, and a sign that greatness of purpose and character is slipping way.
Here is an experiment. Take a book of John F. Kennedy’s speeches and put your finger randomly on a page. Mine went to a last-minute appeal Kennedy made to Democratic convention delegates before the 1960 convention. He ends by quoting the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Humanity with all its fears / with all its hopes of future years / is hanging breathless on thy fate.”
This was not a moment when high oratory was expected. It was an appeal at a political dinner during a delegate street fight against Lyndon Johnson. And Kennedy’s natural style of speaking was usually different: direct, cutting and funny. But for Kennedy — and for at least some Americans in the 1960s — rhetorical ambition was seen as appropriate to the generational ambitions of the New Frontier. (Not everyone, by the way, was an unqualified fan. “John Kennedy spoke in public,” said British writer Henry Fairlie, “as Byzantine emperors appeared on state occasions: sheathed in gold, suspended between earth and heaven.”)
American political rhetoric has changed dramatically over time. After being florid and verbose, Lincoln made it spare and poetic. With radio and television, presidential language became more conversational, personal and image-oriented. Kennedy was, in some ways, a glorious exception. Of his inaugural address, John Steinbeck said: “Syntax, my lad. It has been restored to the highest place in the republic.”
The golden age of American rhetoric in the 1960s, of course, stood beside the hate-filled, populist appeal of Alabama Gov. George Wallace and the profanity and vulgarity of comedian Lenny Bruce. But the updated versions of both have come to dominate American politics in an entirely new way. It is as if, in the struggle for America’s rhetorical soul, Wallace has finally won. “Hell,” exclaimed Wallace, “we got too much dignity in government.” Not anymore.
What is the problem with this? What is wrong with the discourse of the internet comments section? The rhetoric of common people?
For starters, I would deny that most people would have anything to do with such revolting garbage in their own lives. A guest at your dinner table like Wolf who profanely attacked other guests would be politely (or not so politely) asked to leave. A neighbor who ranted like Trump about Mexicans and the FBI would be avoided like the plague. And yet people whom we could not trust to behave in civilized company now dominate American public discourse. It is something Wolf would immediately recognize: a sad, sick joke.
But the problem is deeper, for one main reason: because good rhetoric is the carrier of serious thought. “Eloquence,” said theologian Lyman Beecher, “is logic on fire.” A great and memorable phrase encapsulates an argument.
“The world must be made safe for democracy” expressed Woodrow Wilson’s vision of America’s role in the world.
Kennedy’s “Let them come to Berlin” summarized America’s commitment to containing the Soviet Union.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” grew out of a compelling conception of fairness and justice.
Trump’s signature phrase — “fake news” — is an attack on the free press and a comfort to authoritarians everywhere. The memorable rallying cry of Trump’s campaign — “lock her up” — was a call to jail his political opponent. His degraded language results from a degraded politics. And the repair of our public life will eventually require a restoration of rhetoric.