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Mobilizing Rhetoric as Emblem of Enervating Democratic Capacity



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In my last Soundings commentary, I argued the following:

Cognitive empathy requires deep personal consideration and reflection concerning who one is and what one believes, as well as considered regard for how and why others may live and evidence different values than your own. It demands imagination, perception and sensitivity of a sort grounded in continuing reflection on the human experience. That requirement, in turn, necessitates developing the highest order forms of communication and reasoning both to practice it and to bridge differences among those with whom one is relating. …

More, one cannot so serve and unleash the agential possibility latent in all individuals with whom one might relate and with whom one might serve, if one fears difference or lacks the analytical wherewithal and emotional maturity born of continuing reflection on one’s own and humankind’s strengths and frailties. Cognitive empathy demands a deep rootedness in what joins human beings a well as a considered awareness of humankind’s propensity for both good and evil, justice and injustice. It also demands the capacity to analyze knotty social problems that are likely to evidence all of those propensities and others at once, especially as those relate to self-governance challenges.[1]

These contentions and four other themes I have highlighted in recent essays—the role of fear, “othering,” absolutism and anti-communitarianism in today’s mobilization politics—came to mind as I read President Donald Trump’s remarks at the February 23 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) near Washington, D.C. Each of these concerns alone, and certainly all of them taken together, serve only to weaken and undermine democratic proclivities among those who accept them. In so doing and in the longer pull, they also work to diminish our nation’s capacity for self-governance.

Trump employed all of these negative tropes in his CPAC remarks. Consider, for example, his use of the fable of the woman and the ungrateful serpent as a metaphor for how immigrants and refugees who come to the United States treat citizens of this country. Here is Trump’s version of the tale and the conclusions he drew from it in his speech:

On her way to work one morning, down the path along the lake, a tenderhearted woman saw a poor, half-hearted, frozen snake.  His pretty colored skin had been all frosted with the dew. 'Poor thing,' she cried, 'I'll take you in, and I'll take care of you.'

'Take me in, oh, tender woman.  Take me in, for Heaven's sake.  Take me in, oh, tender woman,' sighed the vicious snake.

She wrapped him up all cozy in a comforter of silk, and laid him by her fireside with some honey and some milk.  She hurried home from work that night, and as soon as she arrived, she found that pretty snake she'd taken in had been revived.

'Take me in, oh, tender woman.  Take me in for Heaven's sake.  Take me in, oh, tender woman,' sighed the vicious snake.

She clutched him to her bosom, 'You're so beautiful,' she cried.  But if I hadn't brought you in by now, surely you would have died.'

She stroked his pretty skin again, and kissed and held him tight.  But instead of saying thank you, that snake gave her a vicious bite.

'Take me in, oh, tender woman.  Take me in for Heaven's sake.  Take me in, oh, tender woman,' sighed the vicious snake.

'I saved you,' cried the woman.  'And you've bitten me. Heaven's why?  You know your bite is poisonous, and now I'm going to die.'

'Oh, shut up, silly woman,' said the reptile with a grin.  'You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.'"  (Applause.)

And that's what we're doing with our country, folks.  We're letting people in, and it's going to be a lot of trouble.  It's only getting worse.  But we're giving you protection like never before.  Our law enforcement is doing a better job than we've ever done before.  And we love our country.  And we're going to take care of our country.  Okay?  We're going to take care of our country.  (Applause.)[2]

This rhetoric is sweeping, absolute, factually inaccurate and designed to elicit fear. Trump used the story to ask his audience to hate a group of people on the basis of deceitfully ascribed characteristics, and he went still further to contend that those listening to him should loathe such individuals on the basis of fear.  More subtly, this sort of speech attacks the idea of community by singling out specific groups for opprobrium and arguing that one cannot trust those “others.” I need not belabor here the irony that Trump’s mother, grandfather and two of his three wives were immigrants to this nation.

It also seems clear that Trump’s absolutism and false claims of certainty give members of his audience who wish to believe his assertions a way to make sense of the swiftly changing economic and social realities the United States now confronts, and to become comfortable with blaming specific groups for them. In this sense, Trump’s speech was profoundly anti-democratic. That is, his comments undermined claims of common humanity by degrading and dehumanizing targeted individuals and groups. One cannot “be like us,” Trump told his audience through his use of the fable, and yet “kill” us for our empathy. This sort of rhetoric encourages reckless and wanton cruelty on the basis of imagined and fantastical slights, even as it explicitly characterizes empathy as the province of suckers.

Trump’s CPAC rhetoric concerning the Parkland, Florida school shootings, in which a deranged individual used an assault-style rifle to murder 17 students and staff members, was similar in character. The President called for arming teachers with concealed weapons and “hardening” schools as a potential solution to the periodic mass killings happening in the nation’s educational institutions (a phenomenon unique to the United States):

It's time to make our schools a much harder target for attackers.  We don't want them in our schools.  (Applause.)  We don't want them.

When we declare our schools to be gun-free zones, it just puts our students in far more danger.  (Applause.)  Far more danger.  Well-trained, gun-adept teachers and coaches and people that work in those buildings; people that were in the Marines for 20 years and retired; people in the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Coast Guard; people that are adept—adept with weaponry and with guns—they teach.  I mean, I don't want to have 100 guards standing with rifles all over the school.  You do a concealed carry permit.  (Applause.)

And this would be a major deterrent because these people are inherently cowards.  If they thought—like, if this guy thought that other people would be shooting bullets back at him, he wouldn't have gone to that school.  He wouldn't have gone there.  It's a gun-free zone.  It says, this is a gun-free zone; please check your guns way far away.  And what happens is they feel safe.  There's nobody going to come at them. …

But I also want to protect—we need a hardened site.  It has to be hardened.  It can't be soft.  Because they'll sneak in through a window, they'll sneak in some way.  And, again, you're standing there totally unprotected.[3]

As Trump defined it, the “problem” of frequent mass shootings in the United States is not that individuals, including teenagers, can easily acquire assault-style rifles and other powerful guns, but that teachers are unarmed when individuals attack them with such weapons. Trump did not mention the role of the police, who represent and work to protect communities, nor did he suggest that government more generally had a role to play in preventing the possibility of such violence, except to permit teachers to carry concealed weapons. Trump also did not treat the role of law in creating the nation’s mass murder culture. State and federal lawmakers, after all, have crafted the statutes that have allowed mentally ill individuals and criminals such easy access to guns in this country.

Instead, he framed the issue as one of fearing the murderous among us and individually protecting ourselves from them. The implicit vision of society Trump presented was of a mythical Wild West run amok. This binary simplification undermines awareness of the need for cognitive empathy concerning how to balance the role of citizen rights to own weapons and society’s right to reside in peace. The latter requires a conception of community not present in Trump’s vision, which addresses the concern only from the standpoint of individuals. Trump’s formulation was devoid of any intimation that Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland, the state of Florida or the nation shape and are shaped by their inhabitants. Trump’s remarks lacked any sense those communities have rightful and profoundly significant roles to play in their participants’ lives.

Trump also called for efforts to “target harden” schools in order to prevent preying criminal elements from entering them or killing or maiming others once within. That is, far from calling for schools to be gun-free zones, Trump suggested they become heavily armed, securitized, weapons laden and fear-filled locations. It seems more than counter intuitive to imagine that such action would constitute a “safer” environment for school-age children.

Trump’s speech evoked a well-established pattern of mobilizing voters on the basis of fear, as individuals alone, in the name of phantom absolutist problems and responses and against stereotyped and “othered” persons and groups. As long as Trump, and other GOP leaders particularly, can galvanize voters on the basis of these profoundly anti-democratic means, we may expect citizen capacity for cognitive empathy and community-based action to continue to decline. To the extent such occurs, we may also expect the nation’s capacity for self-governance and its companion capability to maintain its citizens’ human and civil rights to deteriorate.



[1] Stephenson, Max, Jr., “On ‘Changemakers,’ Education and Democratic Self-Governance,” Soundings, February 19, 2018,, Accessed February 25, 2018.

[2] Lord, Debbie. “Full Transcript: Read Donald Trump’s Remarks at CPAC,” The Atlanta Constitution, February 24, 2018, Accessed February 24, 2018.

[3] Lord. “Full Transcript.”

Publication Date

March 5, 2018