On July 4, 1776, the 13 colonies proclaimed through the Declaration of Independence their break from England, an event which eventually led to the formation of the United States, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Each year on the Fourth of July, also known as Independence Day, Americans celebrate our nation’s birth and heritage. It has become an occasion calling for political speeches and ceremonies celebrating the history, government and traditions of the United States.
How sad it was, therefore, that President Trump on Independence Day 2020 chose to hijack a sacred national holiday to deliver a divisive and fear-mongering speech catering to his most ardent and zealous supporters. Rather than striking the type of unifying tone normally associated with July 4th oratory, Trump continued his rhetorical campaign to wage and stoke the flames of an alleged culture war — something at odds with the principles established at the founding of our nation.
Ironically, in the shadow of Mount Rushmore, a monument to four of America’s greatest patriots, Trump disgracefully advanced a Joseph McCarthy-like “red herring” argument attacking his political foes (including institutions such as the news media, businesses and schools) for trying to erase history by removing monuments that are emblems of racial oppression. Worse, Trump ignored the indigenous people of that land — something that constitutes yet another egregious insult to those oft-forgotten Americans.
As has become Trump’s rhetorical modus operandi, all of this was done in an obvious effort to deflect attention from the real crises confronting the nation: the horrific economic and health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a host of other problems the president has failed to address and that arguably he caused or at minimum exacerbated.
Trump’s dark message was explicit: “As we meet here tonight there is a growing danger that threatens every blessing our ancestors fought so hard for. Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children.” He asserted that there exists a “far-left fascism” which is the “very definition of totalitarianism.”
In addition, the president falsely claimed: “Those who seek to erase our heritage want Americans to forget our pride and our great dignity, so that we can no longer understand ourselves or America’s destiny. They would tear down the beliefs, culture and identity that have made America the most vibrant and tolerant society in the history of the earth.”
As a scholar of communication who has studied what Aristotle called “epideictic oratory,” one of the three branches of rhetoric, I was appalled by President Trump’s speech. Epideictic designates ritualistic speeches honoring and celebrating important moments in history. However, Trump made a calculated, limited and selfishly motivated political decision to launch his reelection campaign. While previous presidents more appropriately used this holiday as an opportunity to present a narrative bringing the country together, once again Trump sought the less noble path of dividing the nation by rallying and emboldening his most loyal supporters.
Regardless of our differing political views, we all should be saddened and disheartened by the president’s discourse. What especially is needed at this precarious time in America’s history is a president like each of those carved into Mount Rushmore who is rhetorically capable of binding the nation’s wounds by appealing to the better angels of our nature.
Let us hope that by July 4, 2021, we will have begun the journey to reunite the country.
Columnist Richard Cherwitz is Ernest A. Sharpe Centennial Professor Emeritus, Moody College of Communication, University of Texas at Austin. He is founder and former director of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium.
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