Trump & America’s Instinct Towards Death Rhetoric
How America’s drive toward war elevated the Trump 2016 campaign, as seen through his announcement speech.
In 2016, and now in 2017, the United States has witnessed an increased of internal political tension, most evident in the rising issues of immigration from Mexico, terrorism and oil from the Middle East, trade with Asia, and various Obama administration policy. These issues played a key role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, as seen in the political rhetoric of the campaigning candidates. These key issues can also be considered the bedrock of the Trump campaign, for these issues were the focus of his announcement speech. In this speech, Trump strategically utilized America’s death instinct, or tendencies/instinct toward war and aggression, in relation to these issues to advance the efficacy of his speech, and to gain voter support.
This essay applies Freud’s concept of the death drive and political campaign rhetorical theory to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign announcement speech in order to evaluate the efficacy of his rhetoric and to propose a death drive rhetorical theory.
THE DEATH DRIVE
In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Sigmund Freud, a well-known nineteenth-century Austrian neurologist, explains that “the goal of all life is death”, meaning that humans have a natural instinct towards death, just as they do an instinct towards life (Freud, 1920). This instinct towards death is named the ‘death drive’. Its opposite natural force, the ‘life instinct’, or more commonly, ‘eros’. For Freud, there exists a constant struggle between that of the death drive and eros, and this struggle is what moves and shapes civilizations.
Freud suggests that war is the most apparent manifestation of the death drive, and notes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that people who have gone through traumatic experiences, such as war, have an inclination to reenact the experience, for humans have an “unconscious desire” towards death and aggression. In another of his works, Civilizations and Its Discontents, he elaborates on human inclinations toward aggression, stating that humans are “creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness” (Civil., pp.94) He later states that humans find comfort and “satisfaction” in aggressive acts, and tells that war (death drive) will always trump inclinations toward love and cooperation (eros): “instinctual passions are stronger than reasonable desires” (Civil., pp.95).
TRUMP ANNOUNCEMENT SPEECH
In his 2016 presidential campaign announcement speech, Trump indicates his intention to run, discourages opposition candidates, reveals the reason why he is running and puts forth basic themes of his campaign (as is common in campaign rhetorical tradition). He also utilizes the rhetorical situation (the motive for speech) of these issues to express robust, accusatory, and aggressive views in order to impassion American voters and gain voter support.
Using presidential campaign rhetorical theory as a backbone for this analysis, one can determine the efficacy of Trump’s speech, and come to understand the possible reasoning behind his utility of robust and accusatory rhetoric from day one. By employing Friedman and Gutgold’s Announcement Speeches of Dole and Clinton theory, a common basis for announcement speech analysis, one can discover the base-level efficacy of Trump’s speech. By applying the tragic frame (a theory that exposes rhetoric of an accusatory tone), one can better understand the influence and utility of the robust and accusatory language in his announcement speech.
Friedman and Gutgold’s theory states that campaign announcement speeches are the first major stage in a political campaign, this stage is called the “surfacing stage”. This stage is named such because it is when a candidate either breaks the surface and gains support or gains too little of a following to go beyond primary voting rounds. Considering this stage, according to the theory, an announcement speech’s content is most effective when its content does all four of the following: indicates candidate’s intention to run, discourages opposition candidates, reveals the reason why the candidate is running and puts forth basic themes of their campaign. The content of Trump’s announcement strategically employs these four functions to advance the efficacy of his speech.
First, Trump indicates the birth of a campaign by stating, “I am officially running… for president of the United States, and we are going to make our country great again.” This statement, though rather late in his speech, was clear of intent, and even contained what would become his campaign slogan (“Make America Great Again.”). Second, Trump discourages his opposition candidates by stating that his opposition candidates want to cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, and reassuring everyone that he wants to keep them, but cut down on fraud. This statement was used to make voters that rely on these three federally sponsored programs nervous and reliant on him. Third, Trump’s purpose in running is pivoted on the above issues of the terrorism and oil from the Middle East, immigration from Mexico, trade with Asia, and Obama administration policy. Fourth, he tactfully uses his reasoning for running linked to themes of his candidacy: conservatism, cutting out fraud, tightening the federal budget, isolationism, defense against outward threats. Trump utilizes traditional rhetorical style in this speech, as it clearly indicates his running, discourages opposition and reveals his platform and campaign themes.
Rhetoric is a form of drama in many ways. Tragic frame discourse looks at messages with attention paid to how a speaker goes about describing, narrating, predicting, or recommending an action. Tragic discourse often has the following elements: intensity and engrossment, speaker’s autonomy from the issue, a call to action, and enemies viewed as responsible for the world’s ills. Trump’s speech is full of tragic discourse, which advances the efficacy of his speech.
In his speech, Trump describes Japan and China as “beating us” in industrial and economic development, and intensely stating, “they’re killing us economically.” Trump distances himself from the problems and issues, showing autonomy, freedom, and control, by stating that he will be the president that “brings back” America, that “makes America great again.” He creates a call to action by strategically using inclusive language (“we”, “us”) every time he mentions policy that needs changed, thrown out, restructured. In talking about Mexico Trump throws the blame onto Mexico for problems happening within the U.S.: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re sending people that have lots of problems…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Towards the end of his speech, Trump even exaggerates, “Sadly, the American dream is dead”, which heightens the intensity of his speech. Through the tragic frame, we see Trump create enemies for voters to blame, intensifies a variety of issues, and calls voters to act (to vote for him) in order to solve these issues. Trump’s masterful utility of tragic discourse sets him apart from other candidates and advances the efficacy of his speech.
DEATH DRIVE & RHETORICAL THEORY
In his works, Freud explains that the death drive is a force that explains human aggression. In Civilizations and Its Discontents, he states that aggression “manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien” (Civil., pp.95), meaning that humans have an instinct to be savage toward one another. Freud then expounds that this death drive aggression towards other humans is the cause for recent wars, crusades, and genocide. Through this lens, one can draw connections between the death drive and Trump’s announcement rhetoric. In doing so, one can understand the efficacy of what might be called ‘death drive discourse’, or discourse that feeds on audience fear of and aggression towards particular topical issues in order to create movement, or in Trump’s case gain voter support.
Analyzing the topical issues covered in Trump’s announcement speech, the particular issues stand out most frequently: terrorism and oil from the Middle East, immigration from Mexico, trade with Asia, and Obama administration policy (see Table №1).
These issues are all particularly sensitive and divisive. Trump’s pivot on this issues as key points in his speech, a justification for his campaign, and a basis for his platform exhibits his use manipulation of America’s fears, aggression, and sensitivity in order to create a dialogue that he can control. The death drive is defined by the understanding that human aggressive is a powerful force, one often overpowers reason or common sense. In addition, the death drive is seen is considered comfortable and satisfying to humans. Applying this thinking to analyzing discourse, one can hypothesize that if the death drive is a powerful, natural human force that influences how people act, then the death drive must also play a part in political rhetoric. Thus, one may suggest that Trump’s aggressive discourse, specifically referring to sensitive and divisive topics that are linked to war and conflict, is effective because it utilizes America voter’s death drive in order to gain voter support.
Freud’s concept of the death drive has an impact on how humans act, how humans treat others, and possibly how they view political issues and rhetoric, and even how people vote. In his 2016 presidential election campaign announcement speech, Trump strategically utilized America’s death instinct, or tendencies/instinct toward war and aggression, in relation to these issues to advance the efficacy of his speech, and to gain voter support.