In the history of presidential speech, there is a term scholars use to refer to occasions when historical events make it incumbent upon the executive to address the nation — not out of cause, but by necessity.
We call these rhetorical situations or exigencies – moments when a public speech is expected to explain events to the nation by virtue of a cataclysmic event, ranging from Pearl Harbor to 9/11, to, most recently, the cruise missiles fired on Syria. The norms of political discourse require some comment from the president and that is what we got from Donald Trump for two minutes a few days ago, after he ordered 60 cruise missiles fired into Syria.
The speech itself was odd. Its focus was not on an America First agenda — the repeated theme of the candidate’s campaign — but, rather, on multilateral agreements that Syria has violated with its use of chemical weapons. To be sure, this was a bone of contention among anti-Obama forces, who blamed the past administration for violated “red lines” that went unheeded in the past. Shortly before the speech, we heard statements from Secretary of State Tillerson and U.N. Ambassador Haley indicating that the United States would stay out of internal Syrian matters – a civil war in which the U.S. would not interfere. But, now, we would, in fact, be doing so.
Hence, the evidence of chemical weapons attack and the images of children being gassed. This, by all accounts — and by Trump’s own words — seemed to tip the balance. “Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror,” he told the nation and the world. Trump made clear his mind was changed and we can accept it as so. From a man who is a father himself, we should not second-guess the emotional impact of seeing such things. The empathy a father feels should not be questioned.
And yet, there are accusations that this abrupt turn to pathos as a motivating force in deciding matters of war and peace strike some of as a case of “wagging the dog.” Where in Trump’s history is there precedent for emotional impact being the motivating force for an abrupt about-face in foreign policy? No longer America First, but global rights and children’s rights as the justification for intervention and military strikes? It is, at the very least, a question worth asking. (But, still, what of the beautiful babies killed by conventional weapons, not chemical ones? Where is the distinction?)
Trump not only invoked the emotional impact of seeing these images as grounds for his decision, but also the contravention of multilateral treaties against chemical weapons as part of his justification for the attacks. Heretofore, we have had no reason to believe Trump put such stock in these types of diplomatic agreements as justifications for military action. The whole thing seemed wildly out of character given his campaign rhetoric, even if his tone in delivering the speech seemed in keeping with the traditional tenor of how other presidents have announced these types of actions, from Clinton in his actions in Somalia to Reagan’s in Libya decades ago. Yet the analogies seem discordant. In contrast to those two presidential announcements of missile strikes, the motives and goals of the strikes were notably omitted. Clinton, in Somalia, and Reagan, in Libya, provided far more detail to the foreign policy establishment, press corps, and international community.
As historical parallels, these anachronisms are just one more puzzle in attempting to decipher Trump’s rhetoric. Maybe they are attempts to echo past chief executives in similar rhetorical situations; maybe they are tails wagging dogs; maybe they are random quotes assembled by an amateur staff of Mar-a-Lago speechwriters.
A final point: the traditional closing for a presidential address in such high stakes situations has, at least since Reagan’s era, been the predictable “God bless America.” In fact, this concluding phrase had its inception with Richard Nixon, who used it inconsistently. Reagan took it up more often, though also inconsistently. Some of his most famous addresses, such as the Space Shuttle Challenger address, did not include it as a conclusion. By G.W. Bush post-9/11, it has become de rigueur. Trump broke completely new ground by adding on a phrase that jumped out at some of us as stunning: He closed his remarks on the Syria attack by saying not only “God Bless America” but also “and the entire world.” For a candidate whose standard has been “America First,” this seemed a huge instance of cognitive dissonance — a weird reference to the popular lefty-liberal bumper sticker stating “God Bless the People of All Nations.” Trump apparently ad libbed his closing line, amending the traditional God bless America to include “the entire world.” This is, perhaps, just one more sign that the Trump administration is not quite sure what it is up to. Is this a globalist administration or America First? Or just someone wagging the dog to get rid of the Russia probe that continues along?
Jonathan Riehl is a communications consultant for campaigns and nonprofit organizations. He is a former political speechwriter and is completing a book on the modern conservative legal movement.