Dozens of journalists and pundits have compared President Trump to the hero of All the King’s Men (a novel written by Vanderbilt alum Robert Penn Warren), the fictional governor Willie Stark, who was based on populist politician Huey Long, because Stark and Long were also political outsiders, known for free-range public speaking, accused of having authoritarian tendencies. At the end of the novel, Sugar Boy Sheehan, lamenting Willie Stark’s death, stutters, “He could t-t-talk so good.” The narrator, who worked with Sugar Boy in the governor’s office, wonders: Was the Boss the Boss because he could talk good, or did Sugar Boy listen to him and like his speeches because he was the Boss?
President Trump’s State of the Union address might provide insight to the question plaguing Warren’s narrator, for the speech was dominated not as much by discussion of his achievements or policy proposals for the next year as it was by stories. He brought in twenty guests, whose stories together accounted for over a quarter of the eighty-minute speech (the third longest in history). On tax reform, immigration, relations with North Korea, Middle Eastern policy, and nearly every other issue on the table, he had someone in the audience with whom we could sympathize as the camera zoomed in and they cried, saluted, or smiled. Vanderbilt history professor and expert on U.S. foreign relations Dr. Thomas Schwartz commented, “Trump’s State of the Union followed in a tradition begun by Ronald Reagan in bringing ‘featured guests’ along to make certain political points. To some extent this probably helped the speech, as it allowed Trump to shift attention away from himself and toward some of the causes and issues he supports.”
Writers at the Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic have also described these vignettes as distractions. With the recent government shutdown (and another looming just around the corner) and the ongoing investigations into his associates’ involvement with Russia, distraction may well be what President Trump needs. After all, only 40.4% of voters approve of his first year in office, and 54.6% say the country is “on the wrong track.” For many, the vignettes allowed him to make the same political points that have upset so many of his opponents, while at the same time sounding optimistic and compromising.
But maybe these vignettes, stories, and pieces of the larger narratives are more than just tactics. Maybe last Tuesday’s speech showed the wisdom of what Plato wrote in The Republic two thousand years ago: “The ones who tell the stories rule society.” Maybe last Tuesday’s State of the Union address is evidence for the power that stories have over us, and the power that storytellers have over us.
Bringing in the twenty outside guests allowed President Trump to add new stories to broader narratives that have propelled him into the Oval Office. That Mexicans are sneaking into the country, taking government benefits, and stealing “our” jobs. That the U.S. is losing on trade deals and defense. That the economy is sinking and that the working class can make a comeback. That politicians are rotten and the country needed an outsider to “drain the swamp.” That voters must elect him to retake the country and make America great again. In the Republican primary, he told these stories with more clarity, color, and storytelling skill than any of his opponents. His campaign and his first year in office have been defined by the larger narratives which he has told—and the language has caught on. Make America great again. Fake news. His opponents might counter that his rhetoric has little relation to reality. And yet the language he has popularized has created a reality of its own.
Not all of the stories told in his speech fit squarely with narratives that are uniquely Trump’s own. Professor Schwartz added, “It was striking how much a defense of human rights in North Korea, and a general defense of human freedom the President made, considering how critical he has been in the past about American interventions to spread democracy. This may well signify the degree to which almost any American President, whatever their views on foreign relations, feels compelled to embrace American exceptionalism and an ideological approach to some foreign policy questions.” These meta-stories of American exceptionalism and the need to spread American ideals have given the United States extraordinary power on the world stage.
There is another side to the narrator’s question: As much as power comes out of stories, stories—the ones that are heard, the ones that penetrate our thinking—come out of power. Perhaps these stories have caught on not because of their own merit, but because Trump has been able to tell them from a position of power. After all, the reason that 46 million watched Trump’s speech is because he’s the President. He has the audience he does because he is speaking from such a position of power. With his base, even the false stories he tells catch on, because they believe what he says.
On the other hand, Democrats have responded to the President’s rise with a narrative that refers to the very nature of the connection between stories and power. Members of marginalized groups—women, African-Americans, LGBT individuals, immigrants—have not had their stories told, and Trump’s narratives either take power from these groups or silence their voices. These were the main themes of Rep. Joe Kennedy III’s response to the State of the Union, and they have been the main narrative of Trump’s opposition. In recent years, language used to describe mistreatment of individuals in these groups (mansplaining, micro-aggressions, tokenization, etc.) has empowered the marginalized.
On Tuesday, President Trump tried to steal his opponents’ language and turn this narrative on its head. Trump spoke of the “American dream” and spun the word Democrats have used to describe children brought into the U.S. illegally, “dreamers,” on its head. When he said, “Americans are dreamers too,” both sides of the immigration debate heard him loud and clear. He brought in the parents of two Hispanic teens killed by MS-13 gang members, and brought in a Hispanic Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent, Celestino Martinez, who tracked down MS-13 gang members in Long Island. Kashana Cauley of the New York Times has called out these examples for what they are: “egregious cases of tokenism.” Before boarding her plane to Washington D.C., Evelyn Rodriguez, one of the two mothers at the State of the Union whose daughter was killed, said, “I’m not here for anyone’s political gain.” But the President’s confident facial expression, as the cameras zoomed in on the two mourning couples, made it clear: he was manipulating their story to lend power to his cause.
So, does power come from the telling of stories and the use of language? Or do stories and the truths they express come from power itself? The President’s speech tonight reminds us of one thing we can know for sure: the relationship between stories and power is an important one indeed. The Trump Administration and the Republican majorities have made a great many promises for the 2018 year. Whether or not they will deliver on these promises depends not as much on the smaller political battles or dollars and cents as they will on the opposing factions’ abilities to use stories and language to achieve their goals.