The rhetoric of political spectacle

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A year after the election of President Trump, many voters rebuked the administration by electing democratic lawmakers in Tuesday’s special election. The nation’s future, however, remains shaky. The president’s use of language, whether in a speech or a tweet, inundates our politics with polarizing personal drama. When the president acts like a reality TV star by attacking political opponents, he detracts attention from the real problems his opponents raise such as climate change, income inequality and racial inequity.

From the campaign trail, we know Trump uses the tactic of branding his rivals: “Little Marco,” “Crooked Hillary.” The “failing” New York Times has even compiled a long list of targets to the President’s insults. Two recent incidents illustrate how Trump’s rhetoric rallies his supporters against marginalized groups and makes himself out as either the hero or the victim.

Trump targeted San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz over the Hurricane Maria recovery effort. He published a series of tweets Sept. 30, reading: “Such poor leadership ability by the mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job.”

Trump blames Cruz and the hurricane victims for the botched recovery, implying that the media is unfair to blame him. By referring to Puerto Ricans as “they/them,” he places the administration in opposition to a marginalized group of Americans in crisis. Instead of addressing the real issue, i.e. how to save the most lives and restore power to the island, the tweet blames Puerto Ricans and implies that their status as Americans is second-class despite citizenship.  

Trump addressed NFL players who take a knee during the National Anthem in a speech on Sept. 22, calling kneeling a “total disrespect of everything we stand for.” He urged team owners to “get that son of a bitch off the field… He’s fired.” The president reserves his most overtly offensive language to attack athletes who protest police brutality, while making it seem like the issue is respect for the country instead of unprovoked police killings of Black people. To his supporters, Trump looks like the hero defending patriotism.

These attacks are more than the mean-spirited, impulses of an egomaniac. Each time Trump demeans or criticizes someone, a serious issue is swept aside, and the narrative is rewritten. Whether leaning left, right, or in between, Americans must seek common ground to better the country, but when the president lashes out to rouse his fanbase, he reframes the discussion around who works harder, who loves America more, anything but how to overcome our challenges. This type of rhetoric leads to political spectacle rather than meaningful debate, ultimately weakening our confidence in the political system to fix real problems.

Contact Keaton Peters at [email protected]