The aim of this
essay is to analyze the construction of the American national identity as
reflected in President Donald Trump’s Immigration
Speech which he deliveredin Phoenix, Arizona on the 31st of
August 2016 while still on election campaign. As a political discourse, the
speech reveals the President’s policy, and, in light of his election, also
reveals the nation’s state of mind and the societal tensions. Therefore, the
American national identity as constructed in this speech speaks volumes. For
its 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 of
the link between ideology and tropes in order to prove the existence of an
antithetical take on identity construction and its underlying radical
Before starting the analysis, I will
take a look at the concept of national identity. National identity is a mental
construction and it involves self-awareness which presupposes consistency
regarding territory, race, language, customs etc. These factors create a family
feeling and lead to a sensation of union, attachment, solidarity and homogeneity.
A certain view about a certain
national identity is propagated through discourse. Political speeches are
powerful and weigh heavy in such a definition because they are the reflection
of the times and the people who choose to adhere to or be persuaded by a
certain type of discourse. Discourse, like any text, has an ideology behind it
which results in a particular and typical approach of style and symbolism.
Hayden White, in his book Metahistory, analyzes the works of the
recognized masters of 19th century European historiography and the
work of the foremost philosophers of history, which are verbal structures in
the form of narrative prose discourse. His method is short and formalist and
seeks to identify the structural components of the events as emploted in
various types of discourse. The most important notion he tackles and the one
which can be easily extrapolated to texts that are not official historiographiesis
that of tropes. White defines tropes
as archetypes of style and sometimes as figures of speech, which were elaborated
as a source of “classifying the deep structural forms of the historical
imagination in a given period of its evolution” and can be applied to defineconcepts
in different types of discourse (31). According to White, there are four central
tropes 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 builds
upon it. Since ideology lies at the core of any text, he identifies the four
major ideologies and their respective tropes and presents them in relation to
the idea of the rhetorical construction of national identity. As he identifies
them, the tropes are the following: metaphor, irony, antithesis, and
analogy/comparison and their ideologies are, respectively, anarchy,
conservative, radicalism, and liberal. For my analysis I will address the trope
of antithesis in Trump’s Immigration
According to Bogdan ?tef?nescu’s analysis
of antithesis, we reach the conclusion that this trope is mostly used when referringtothe
national discourse whendefining the collectiveself
in opposition to the other. The
representative structure of the antithesis claims its use in the historical
past as well as in the future projection of the political plans. François
Hartog,as cited by ?tef?nescu, explains how the application of this trope is
actually the translation of oneself
as a similar image to, but inversed of the other,
just like two sides of the same coin. However, given the radical ideology
yielding such a rhetorical approach, the persuasive aim of the discourse can
take the form of a fight, e.g. against an enemy.
In order to understand the
antithetic approach, we must first take a look at how the American national
discourse has built the image of America at a national and international level
through a series of ideas which have become staples of American identity: exceptionalism,
self-reliance and nation of immigrants. Exceptionalism for example is a belief
system illustrating the ideals of democracy and freedom that the Unites States
made so clearacross time.Given that exceptionalism goes hand in hand with the
image of Americans as a people chosen by God, one could claim that there has
always been a seed of the rhetoric based on antithesis in the American national
discourse. Self-reliance or individualism is defined as the necessity for each person
to escape from conventionality and regularity in order to rely on themselves and
to follow their own intuitions and ideas. Lastly, we look at America as a
nation of immigrants, a cultural mosaic, because of its blend of ethnic groups,
languages, and cultures that coexist within society.
On a background of geopolitical
tension, fear of terrorism and economic development that workers cannot keep up
with, Trump sought to regain the consensus of the people by reinforcing
positive 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 of
Trump, an outsider) and elaborated a rhetoric of people vs. the system.
According to it, the government is the one entirely responsible for the current
state of affairs by promoting lax immigration policies meant to serve the
interest of the rich:
The fundamental problem with the
immigration system in our country is that it serves the needs of wealthy
donors, political activists and powerful, powerful politicians. (…) Let me
tell 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 big
picture. These 10 steps the plan on putting a stop to illegal immigration, if
rigorously followed and enforced, will accomplish more in a matter of months
than our politicians have accomplished on this issue in the last 50 years. It’s
going to happen, folks. Because I am proudly not a politician, because I am not
behold to any special interest, I’ve spent a lot of money on my campaign, I’ll
tell you. I write those checks. Nobody owns Trump.
Trump’s appeal is also his ability to reduce the intricacies of policy making
to simple terms, too simple, some would say, as it borders on dangerous
reductionism. For example, his view of the system is framed entirely in the
context of immigration and fear of terrorism and is defined as being embodied
solely by former President Barack Obama and former secretary and now fellow
candidate Hilary Clinton:
President Obama and Hillary Clinton
support sanctuary cities. They support catch and release on the border. They
support visa overstays. They support the release of dangerous, dangerous,
dangerous, criminals from detention.
We will terminate the Obama
Administration’s deadly, and it is deadly, non-enforcement policies that allow
thousands of criminal aliens to freely roam our streets, walk around, do
whatever they want to do, crime all over the place.
quote above suggests, Trump does not only simplify the structure of the
government and the issues of policy making, but also engages in a gross
generalization of illegal immigrants as criminals and terrorists. This brings
into discussion the dichotomy American self
– immigrant other. This is actually
the central part of Trump’s antithetic rhetorical approach. He frames Americans
in the tradition of exceptionalism, people chosen by God (as the belief in
Manifest Destiny proves), and of self-reliance all of which could not have
yielded violent or frowned upon behavior. Hence, any disruptive behavior,
anything going against consensus (as formulated by Sacvan Bercovitch) can only
be attributed to the other. By the other, I mean the symbol of alterity, a
person with whom one doesn’t share the same set of values and priorities, with
a different background, experience and culture, namely, here, the immigrant.
The dimension of illegality added to the idea of migration enforces the
negative image, and provides a background for projecting such prejudice. Trump
actually begins his speech by foregrounding the antithesis characteristic of
his discourse when detailing his meet up with the president of Mexico:
I’ve just landed having returned
from a very important and special meeting with the president of Mexico, a man I
like 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.
establishes the difference between the United States and Mexico, but, most
importantly, he goes on to directly address the issue of illegal immigration
without any context providing free avenue for (judgmental) interpretation: “We
agree on the importance of ending the illegal flow of drugs, cash, guns, and
people across our border, and to put the cartels out of business”. He
associates the people crossing the border with various illegalities and
violence, creating a link between them in the hearer’s subconscious which is
already set to view things as dichotomies with no middle ground.
of images America vs. the amorphous other
is accentuated in framing the immigrants as disrupting the status quo and being the source of all downsides, as opposed to the
American people who are actual victims of the violence perpetrated by these
illegal immigrants. This train of thought also seems to imply that the American
people themselves would not be capable of such behavior:
Countless Americans who have died in
recent years would be alive today if not for the open border policies of this
administration and the administration that causes this horrible, horrible
thought process, called Hillary Clinton.
And later on claimed:
Hillary Clinton, for instance, talks
constantly about her fears that families will be separated, but she’s not
talking about the American families who have been permanently separated from
their loved ones because of a preventable homicide, because of a preventable
death, because of murder.
There is no
clear statement as to the fact that illegal immigrants are wholly responsible
for all criminality in the country. However, one cannot escape this view when
it is framed in the way that Trump does. Moreover, the number of instances in
which 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 to
such a view. Namely, this build-up of hostility against illegal immigrants can
create 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 undocumented
residents, which is dangerous in itself, conflict can arise between Americans
of different origins based on such a superficial approach. In such a context,
radical thought, in its hurry to bring about change, can impact negatively on
the society which it aims to change for the better.
Trump does mention legal immigrants who have integrated successfully and have
benefited the country. This could also be attributed to the fact that the image
of America as a nation of immigrants is an inescapable discourse as it has been
built over time and has become synonymous with the country, hence fighting it
is impossible and paying tribute to it is imperative.
We’ve admitted 59 million immigrants
to the United States between 1965 and 2015. Many of these arrivals have greatly
enriched our country. So true. But we now have an obligation to them and to
their children to control future immigration as we are following, if you think,
previous immigration waves.
he does give a nod to the diversity of the American identity, by acknowledging
the African American and Latino American minorities:
… to establish new immigration
controls to boost wages and to ensure that open jobs are offered to American
workers first. And that in particular African-American and Latino workers who
are being shut out in this process so unfairly.
to the tradition of accepting immigrants, Trump underlines the utilitarian
nature of it, namely accepting those who can benefit the country: “To select
immigrants based on their likelihood of success in U.S. society and their
ability to be financially self- sufficient.”
… not everyone who seeks to join
our country will be able to successfully assimilate. Sometimes it’s just not
going to work out. It’s our right, as a sovereign nation, to choose immigrants
that we think are the likeliest to thrive and flourish and love us.
that in his attempt to show the positive impact of immigration and America’s
welcoming with open arms the tired, the
poor and the huddled masses he is inevitably judgmental. From a purely
pragmatic point of view, what he claims is true, however, the ideal of America,
the American Dream is something which is offered to anyone without discrimination
and this is precisely the thing the American discourse took pride in. He
further accentuates this when bringing into discussion the ideological
screening which gives no room for differences of opinion and accentuates the
gap between what is American and can become American and what is not and can
Another reform involves new
screening 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. An
ideological certification to make sure that those we are admitting to our
country share our values and love our people.
discussion 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’t
even talk about it. Zero tolerance for criminal aliens. Zero. Zero. Zero. They
don’t come in here. They don’t come in here.” This worries because one cannot
tell whether an immigrant is a criminal or not. Actual criminals are not
admitted, what he refers to is the possibility of one committing a crime once
on American soil, which is impossible to predict. Moreover, what is actually
worrying and allow for my latter interpretation is the fact that he no longer
makes the mention of illegal immigrants. Illegal immigrants could be viewed as
having a vile reason for fleeing their own country, although more often than
not they seek sanctuary (e.g. the refugee crisis which marks the immediate
context). His view, however, breeds animosity between residents and immigrants.
What is left is to assume that every immigrant is a criminal.
of fear of terrorism, however, allowed for this type of discourse. All the more
so as he shifted the discussion into outwardly and completely banning
immigration from regions of conflict as to avoid perpetrating terrorism in
America in accordance with Bush’s successful doctrine of war on terror:
Countries in which immigration will
be suspended would include places like Syria and Libya. And we are going to
stop the tens of thousands of people coming in from Syria. We have no idea who
they 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 also
accentuates the antithetic rhetoric, in short: they are different and
unassimilable and there is no use in trying, as a matter of fact it is
To sum up Trump’s antithetic
rhetoric and its underlying radical ideology one merely needs to look at his discourse
based on dichotomies: America vs. illegal immigrants, people vs. the system, a
discourse consisting mostly in generalizations and vilification of the other, a discourse bordering on hate