It’s amazing that people put so much stock into political speeches. Most high-profile speeches given by the President of the United States are empty salvos of political theater. They solve no problems, convince no one of consequence to do anything, and mainly serve to massage the ego of the person giving the speech. This is especially true of convention speeches, inaugural addresses, and the State of the Union addresses. In fact, the higher the profile of the speech, the less important it is.
We’ve stumbled into servility by our own volition.
And yet, American audiences are enamored by displays of pomp and circumstance. No one is immune to this, of course. After all, who doesn’t like a good piece of rhetoric? But we’ve taken it too far. We hang on our President’s every word or expression. We choose to take the words at face value. We convince ourselves that the President’s addresses to Congress and the nation have a certain “magic” to them, or are imbued with the “aura of history.”
What kind of servile, feet-kissing, leader-worshipping garbage is this? Royal subjects are raised to think this way about absolute monarchs. People living in dictatorships are starved, tortured and exiled into thinking this way. But citizens of a republic are under no obligation to hold special reverence for the president other than recognizing him or her as the legitimate head of state with limited powers outlined by a constitution or legal precedent. If that all sounds rather boring and uninspiring, good! That’s the whole point. The sad part is that we’ve stumbled into servility by our own volition.
Sound, Fury, and Nonsense
While it’s become a little too fashionable to bash the media lately, they certainly haven’t helped matters. Just look at the reaction of dozens of pundits, TV anchors and radio hosts after Donald Trump gave his first address to Congress. Out came the robotic utterances that Trump seemed more “presidential” and that he had “shifted his tone.”
Even in the hands of someone less obnoxious, power is still power. The identity of the speaker is almost incidental.
This shift in tone had seemingly washed away the fact that, only weeks earlier, the man signed an executive order barring travel from 7 countries, including legal permanent residents and visa holders (at first), and suffered a well-deserved defeat in court as a result. “Never mind his support for civil-asset forfeiture without a criminal conviction. All that stuff that actually matters is boring. Listen to his strong tone. Gee, he sure sounds like a leader to me.”
But of course, matters took a turn rather quickly once Trump’s attorney general had to embarrassingly recuse himself from a Justice Department investigation. After all the wasted ink and oxygen the press expended on his speech, Trump took to Twitter to bring us right back to where we were: accusing his predecessor of wiretapping his office during the campaign, complaining about his treatment by the media, and indulging our ridiculous celebrity culture. You would give children some leeway to act this way, but children have no business conducting statecraft.
For progressives who happen to be reading this, I’m not just talking about Donald Trump. Even in the hands of someone less obnoxious, power is still power. The identity of the speaker is almost incidental.
I remember people chastising me for not watching President Obama’s acceptance speech at the DNC in 2008, as if I’d committed some crime against my generation for not joining the sobbing multitudes enamoured by the charismatic future President. And to those of you who felt so “moved” by his words:
Did any of those words matter when he continued the erosion of our civil liberties or the expansion of state involvement in the economy? Do they erase his decisions to sponsor militants in Syria and Saudi Arabia’s terrible war in Yemen? What about his use of the Espionage Act of 1917? Or his opening the door for detention without trial? Where were your lawn signs and bumper stickers then?
An Old Friend’s Warning
There’s a famous scene in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that we should all keep in mind. In act three, scene two, the conspirators have just murdered Caesar. They are now in front of a large crowd of Romans, along with Marc Antony, a politician and general who privately holds his allegiance to Caesar while deceiving the conspirators that he approves of their actions.
Brutus gives a plain, straightforward account of the plot and its justification, keeping the crowd firmly on his side (one citizen even remarks “Give him a statue with his ancestors”). After he departs, Antony speaks to the crowd, in a performance since immortalized by the likes of Marlon Brando and Charlton Heston:
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it.”
At the beginning, he seems resigned to the plot and to Caesar’s guilt (or, rather, potential guilt). But note that, as he continues, he consistently reaffirms Brutus’ honor even as he slowly turns the crowd against him:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious; And, sure, he is an honourable man. I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
The speech is filled with much of the same stirring language that should be familiar to modern political observers:
>He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept
With two sets of carefully delivered remarks, the crowd turns from denouncing Caesar (“This Caesar was a tyrant.” and “We are blest that Rome is rid of him.”) to raging at Brutus and Cassius (“They were villains, murderers”). In a clever act of emotional manipulation, Antony reveals Caesar's corpse and reads out his will, which gifts every Roman man 75 drachmas and turns his arbors and orchards over to the public. And though he encouraged the crowd to refrain from violence, violence was clearly his intention, as he’s well-positioned to benefit from the ensuing chaos (and in a note of knowing candor in act 5, calls Brutus “the noblest Roman of them all”).
Inspired By Speech
It’s a fascinating and terrifying scene. But what makes it so effective?
High-profile political speeches are not national group therapy sessions.
Leaving the discussion of Caesar's actual assassination aside for a moment, we can see that both Brutus and Antony have arguments to make. But the crowd’s reaction after being so easily toyed with is telling. They didn’t have to suddenly go on a rampage, but they did anyway. Their belief in the outsized nobility of the powerful meant that an apparently extraordinary crime merited an even more ferocious, violent response—especially after some tears and promised personal benefits. But how could they know that the will wasn’t forged? Antony said Caesar cried when they cried, but what if he was lying? And what does it matter anyway?
Crying doesn’t end wars, reduce poverty or cure illness. And neither do “inspiring” speeches. But if people value these speeches too much, they may choose to do terrible things—or allow the state to do terrible things to them.
Sure, the words of the chief executive do matter and are worth listening to in less formal/prepared situations. The President’s responses to forceful questions in press conferences can humanize the office in useful ways. This is why I’ve always thought we should adopt some form of Prime Minister’s Questions—the weekly sessions conducted in the United Kingdom.
Even brief remarks given in the Rose Garden are more illuminating and contain more relevant news items than the unnecessary flourishes of the State of the Union Address. And, as with anything, the most important words are those spoken behind closed doors. So when listening to the President give a long session of oratory to the cameras, go ahead and listen. But listen carefully and don’t be naive. High-profile political speeches are not national group therapy sessions. They are a display of the will to power in its purest form.