The aim of thisessay is to analyze the construction of the American national identity asreflected in President Donald Trump’s ImmigrationSpeech which he deliveredin Phoenix, Arizona on the 31st ofAugust 2016 while still on election campaign. As a political discourse, thespeech reveals the President’s policy, and, in light of his election, alsoreveals the nation’s state of mind and the societal tensions. Therefore, theAmerican national identity as constructed in this speech speaks volumes.
Forits analysis, I will turn to Hayden White’s theory of tropes as formulated in Metahistory and to Bogdan ?tef?nescu’s Patrii de cuvinte IIfor his approach ofthe link between ideology and tropes in order to prove the existence of anantithetical take on identity construction and its underlying radicalideology. Before starting the analysis, I willtake a look at the concept of national identity. National identity is a mentalconstruction and it involves self-awareness which presupposes consistencyregarding territory, race, language, customs etc. These factors create a familyfeeling and lead to a sensation of union, attachment, solidarity and homogeneity. A certain view about a certainnational identity is propagated through discourse. Political speeches arepowerful and weigh heavy in such a definition because they are the reflectionof the times and the people who choose to adhere to or be persuaded by acertain type of discourse. Discourse, like any text, has an ideology behind itwhich results in a particular and typical approach of style and symbolism.
Hayden White, in his book Metahistory, analyzes the works of therecognized masters of 19th century European historiography and thework of the foremost philosophers of history, which are verbal structures inthe form of narrative prose discourse. His method is short and formalist andseeks to identify the structural components of the events as emploted invarious types of discourse. The most important notion he tackles and the onewhich can be easily extrapolated to texts that are not official historiographiesisthat of tropes. White defines tropesas archetypes of style and sometimes as figures of speech, which were elaboratedas a source of “classifying the deep structural forms of the historicalimagination in a given period of its evolution” and can be applied to defineconceptsin different types of discourse (31).
According to White, there are four centraltropes that are used in the study of figurative speech: metaphor, metonymy,synecdoche and irony. In Patrii de cuvinte II, Bogdan ?tef?nescu picks up White’stheory and buildsupon it. Since ideology lies at the core of any text, he identifies the fourmajor ideologies and their respective tropes and presents them in relation tothe idea of the rhetorical construction of national identity.
As he identifiesthem, the tropes are the following: metaphor, irony, antithesis, andanalogy/comparison and their ideologies are, respectively, anarchy,conservative, radicalism, and liberal. For my analysis I will address the tropeof antithesis in Trump’s ImmigrationDiscourse. According to Bogdan ?tef?nescu’s analysisof antithesis, we reach the conclusion that this trope is mostly used when referringtothenational discourse whendefining the collectiveselfin opposition to the other. Therepresentative structure of the antithesis claims its use in the historicalpast as well as in the future projection of the political plans. FrançoisHartog,as cited by ?tef?nescu, explains how the application of this trope isactually the translation of oneselfas a similar image to, but inversed of the other,just like two sides of the same coin. However, given the radical ideologyyielding such a rhetorical approach, the persuasive aim of the discourse cantake the form of a fight, e.g.
against an enemy. In order to understand theantithetic approach, we must first take a look at how the American nationaldiscourse has built the image of America at a national and international levelthrough a series of ideas which have become staples of American identity: exceptionalism,self-reliance and nation of immigrants. Exceptionalism for example is a beliefsystem illustrating the ideals of democracy and freedom that the Unites Statesmade so clearacross time.Given that exceptionalism goes hand in hand with theimage of Americans as a people chosen by God, one could claim that there hasalways been a seed of the rhetoric based on antithesis in the American nationaldiscourse. Self-reliance or individualism is defined as the necessity for each personto escape from conventionality and regularity in order to rely on themselves andto follow their own intuitions and ideas. Lastly, we look at America as anation of immigrants, a cultural mosaic, because of its blend of ethnic groups,languages, and cultures that coexist within society. On a background of geopoliticaltension, fear of terrorism and economic development that workers cannot keep upwith, Trump sought to regain the consensus of the people by reinforcingpositive images of America and vilifying the other, embodied by the immigrants, as the source of discontent.
Trump played on the electorate’s distrust of the system (i.e. experienced politicians, hence the appeal ofTrump, an outsider) and elaborated a rhetoric of people vs. the system.
According to it, the government is the one entirely responsible for the currentstate of affairs by promoting lax immigration policies meant to serve theinterest of the rich: The fundamental problem with theimmigration system in our country is that it serves the needs of wealthydonors, political activists and powerful, powerful politicians. (…
) Let metell you who it does not serve. It does not serve you the American people.Doesn’t serve you. So let’s now talk about the bigpicture.
These 10 steps the plan on putting a stop to illegal immigration, ifrigorously followed and enforced, will accomplish more in a matter of monthsthan our politicians have accomplished on this issue in the last 50 years. It’sgoing to happen, folks. Because I am proudly not a politician, because I am notbehold to any special interest, I’ve spent a lot of money on my campaign, I’lltell you. I write those checks. Nobody owns Trump. Part ofTrump’s appeal is also his ability to reduce the intricacies of policy makingto simple terms, too simple, some would say, as it borders on dangerousreductionism. For example, his view of the system is framed entirely in thecontext of immigration and fear of terrorism and is defined as being embodiedsolely by former President Barack Obama and former secretary and now fellowcandidate Hilary Clinton:President Obama and Hillary Clintonsupport sanctuary cities.
They support catch and release on the border. Theysupport visa overstays. They support the release of dangerous, dangerous,dangerous, criminals from detention. We will terminate the ObamaAdministration’s deadly, and it is deadly, non-enforcement policies that allowthousands of criminal aliens to freely roam our streets, walk around, dowhatever they want to do, crime all over the place. As thequote above suggests, Trump does not only simplify the structure of thegovernment and the issues of policy making, but also engages in a grossgeneralization of illegal immigrants as criminals and terrorists. This bringsinto discussion the dichotomy American self– immigrant other. This is actuallythe central part of Trump’s antithetic rhetorical approach.
He frames Americansin the tradition of exceptionalism, people chosen by God (as the belief inManifest Destiny proves), and of self-reliance all of which could not haveyielded violent or frowned upon behavior. Hence, any disruptive behavior,anything going against consensus (as formulated by Sacvan Bercovitch) can onlybe attributed to the other. By the other, I mean the symbol of alterity, aperson with whom one doesn’t share the same set of values and priorities, witha different background, experience and culture, namely, here, the immigrant.The dimension of illegality added to the idea of migration enforces thenegative image, and provides a background for projecting such prejudice. Trumpactually begins his speech by foregrounding the antithesis characteristic ofhis discourse when detailing his meet up with the president of Mexico:I’ve just landed having returnedfrom a very important and special meeting with the president of Mexico, a man Ilike and respect very much.
And a man who truly loves his country, Mexico. And,by the way, just like I am a man who loves my country, the United States. He clearlyestablishes the difference between the United States and Mexico, but, mostimportantly, he goes on to directly address the issue of illegal immigrationwithout any context providing free avenue for (judgmental) interpretation: “Weagree on the importance of ending the illegal flow of drugs, cash, guns, andpeople across our border, and to put the cartels out of business”. Heassociates the people crossing the border with various illegalities andviolence, creating a link between them in the hearer’s subconscious which isalready set to view things as dichotomies with no middle ground. The clashof images America vs. the amorphous otheris accentuated in framing the immigrants as disrupting the status quo and being the source of all downsides, as opposed to theAmerican people who are actual victims of the violence perpetrated by theseillegal immigrants. This train of thought also seems to imply that the Americanpeople themselves would not be capable of such behavior:Countless Americans who have died inrecent years would be alive today if not for the open border policies of thisadministration and the administration that causes this horrible, horriblethought process, called Hillary Clinton.
And later on claimed: Hillary Clinton, for instance, talksconstantly about her fears that families will be separated, but she’s nottalking about the American families who have been permanently separated fromtheir loved ones because of a preventable homicide, because of a preventabledeath, because of murder. There is noclear statement as to the fact that illegal immigrants are wholly responsiblefor all criminality in the country. However, one cannot escape this view whenit is framed in the way that Trump does. Moreover, the number of instances inwhich Trump did not clearly separate immigration from illegal immigration, can,at a superficial hearing/reading project the wrong ideas. On top of that,certain important things are left aside both in constructing and adhering tosuch a view. Namely, this build-up of hostility against illegal immigrants cancreate issues as the white majority can take anyone for an illegal immigrant.
Fear and hate speech do not take a look at one’s papers or their legal status,thus, aside from conflict that can arise between legal and undocumentedresidents, which is dangerous in itself, conflict can arise between Americansof different origins based on such a superficial approach. In such a context,radical thought, in its hurry to bring about change, can impact negatively onthe society which it aims to change for the better. However,Trump does mention legal immigrants who have integrated successfully and havebenefited the country. This could also be attributed to the fact that the imageof America as a nation of immigrants is an inescapable discourse as it has beenbuilt over time and has become synonymous with the country, hence fighting itis impossible and paying tribute to it is imperative. We’ve admitted 59 million immigrantsto the United States between 1965 and 2015. Many of these arrivals have greatlyenriched our country.
So true. But we now have an obligation to them and totheir children to control future immigration as we are following, if you think,previous immigration waves. Moreover,he does give a nod to the diversity of the American identity, by acknowledgingthe African American and Latino American minorities: .
.. to establish new immigrationcontrols to boost wages and to ensure that open jobs are offered to Americanworkers first. And that in particular African-American and Latino workers whoare being shut out in this process so unfairly. Going backto the tradition of accepting immigrants, Trump underlines the utilitariannature of it, namely accepting those who can benefit the country: “To selectimmigrants based on their likelihood of success in U.S.
society and theirability to be financially self- sufficient.”… not everyone who seeks to joinour country will be able to successfully assimilate. Sometimes it’s just notgoing to work out.
It’s our right, as a sovereign nation, to choose immigrantsthat we think are the likeliest to thrive and flourish and love us. This provesthat in his attempt to show the positive impact of immigration and America’swelcoming with open arms the tired, thepoor and the huddled masses he is inevitably judgmental. From a purelypragmatic point of view, what he claims is true, however, the ideal of America,the American Dream is something which is offered to anyone without discriminationand this is precisely the thing the American discourse took pride in. Hefurther accentuates this when bringing into discussion the ideologicalscreening which gives no room for differences of opinion and accentuates thegap between what is American and can become American and what is not and cannever be:Another reform involves newscreening tests for all applicants that include, and this is so important,especially if you get the right people. And we will get the right people.
Anideological certification to make sure that those we are admitting to ourcountry share our values and love our people. Thisdiscussion also bring us back to the dangers of oversimplifying. Trump claims:”this is the one, I think it’s so great. It’s hard to believe, people don’teven talk about it. Zero tolerance for criminal aliens. Zero.
Zero. Zero. Theydon’t come in here.
They don’t come in here.” This worries because one cannottell whether an immigrant is a criminal or not. Actual criminals are notadmitted, what he refers to is the possibility of one committing a crime onceon American soil, which is impossible to predict. Moreover, what is actuallyworrying and allow for my latter interpretation is the fact that he no longermakes the mention of illegal immigrants. Illegal immigrants could be viewed ashaving a vile reason for fleeing their own country, although more often thannot they seek sanctuary (e.
g. the refugee crisis which marks the immediatecontext). His view, however, breeds animosity between residents and immigrants.What is left is to assume that every immigrant is a criminal. The contextof fear of terrorism, however, allowed for this type of discourse. All the moreso as he shifted the discussion into outwardly and completely banningimmigration from regions of conflict as to avoid perpetrating terrorism inAmerica in accordance with Bush’s successful doctrine of war on terror: Countries in which immigration willbe suspended would include places like Syria and Libya. And we are going tostop the tens of thousands of people coming in from Syria.
We have no idea whothey are, where they come from. There’s no documentation. There’s no paperwork.It’s going to end badly folks. It’s going to end very, very badly.This accounts for the success of his policy and alsoaccentuates the antithetic rhetoric, in short: they are different andunassimilable and there is no use in trying, as a matter of fact it isdangerous.
To sum up Trump’s antitheticrhetoric and its underlying radical ideology one merely needs to look at his discoursebased on dichotomies: America vs. illegal immigrants, people vs. the system, adiscourse consisting mostly in generalizations and vilification of the other, a discourse bordering on hatespeech.