Talk Decoded

a blog about the power of language in politics

A Rhetoric of Victimhood

A Rhetoric of Victimhood

Trump’s Inauguration Address

Illustration by Joy Lau

Illustration by Joy Lau

Donald Trump’s address on 20 January 2017 could come as a surprise to many Americans unaccustomed to such a confrontational inauguration speech. Yet, for many others around the world it was a well-known script because of the populist themes it articulated to which they have long become familiar. The rhetoric that the new president adopted is widely used, for instance, by the populist radical right parties in contemporary Europe. In his speech, Trump aimed to lure the American public with the collective experience of victimhood.

Populations of Europe and the US indeed face significant challenges, partly due to the global economic crisis which severely hit even the strongest economies of the world in 2008. In response to the difficulties experienced by their own citizens, the representatives of the populist radical right have provided a homogeneously negative picture of the actual state of their countries, blaming it on different groups. Through portraying their whole national communities as innocent victims of hostile enemies, these politicians present themselves as saviors and popularize their exclusionary rhetoric and policies.

Trump also assigned the role of the villain to various people and entities throughout his campaign, including the Obama administration, Muslim and Mexican Americans, China, and the news media. This time, he set the American public against “Washington”. Considering the geopolitical relevance of his speech strategies, this article offers a discursive anatomy of Trump’s inauguration rhetoric.

America as the Victim

Trump’s talk was predominated by images of victimhood. He described the American society as “forgotten men and women”. Trump also referred to “mothers and children trapped in poverty” and “young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge”. These images radiated a hopelessness and helplessness that was further reinforced by the passive structures. The verb form, the past participle (“forgotten, trapped”, “deprived”), highlighted that men, women, mothers, children, and students in America are subject to a situation without the ability to do anything about it. Trump utilized the same speech strategy when he promised Americans that they “will never be ignored again.” Again, the passive voice (“be ignored”) could strengthen in the public the feeling of victimhood. Additionally, all these images helped Trump to construct himself as a compassionate leader who understands and emphasizes with the suffering of the American people. 

Importantly, Trump presented the challenges that the American population faces in terms of slaughter, massacre, and bloodbath. Talking about the “American carnage”, he used a powerful metaphor that could trigger extreme sympathetic feelings in the public. “Carnage” is a word loaded with meanings and visuals that are unusually strong. 

The sense of victimhood was also reinforced in Trump’s speech by the use of rhetorical tropes — including personifications and similes — that portrayed nonhuman objects (jobs and factories for example) as human beings: “the jobs left”, “rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” In the previous quotes, jobs and factories appear to be human victims which can emigrate and die. Such constructions might evoke a sense of loss and grieving in the audience.   

Verbs in which the prefix “re” points to the need of repeated action, also supported the construction of America as a victim in the speech. Trump pledged to “rebuild” the US, to “restore its promise” for all of its people, to “reinforce” its old alliances”, and to “rediscover” people’s “loyalty to each other.” By urging rebuilding, restoring, reinforcement, and rediscovery, these slogans stressed the lack of particular things. The implication was that the US is in ruins, that the country represents a promise only for a select group, that the state’s old alliances vanished, and that the American people are no longer loyal to each other. The words “back” and “again” were building blocks of the same speech strategy in Trump’s talk: “We Will Make America Strong Again. We Will Make America Wealthy Again. We Will Make America Proud Again. We Will Make America Safe Again.” These statements suggested that America is weak, poor, ashamed, and unsafe. Similarly, by using the verb “bring back”, Trump created the impression that the US lacks jobs, borders, money, and hope: “We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams.”

The president portrayed America as a victim in the global context as well. Trump presented the foreign military and financial activities of the most powerful country of the word as altruism. This highly positive self-representation provided the background for the victimhood theme to re-emerge. Indeed, Trump suggested that America fell victim to its altruism on the international stage: “For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry. Subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military. We’ve defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own. And spent trillions of dollars overseas while America's infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon.” 

The main slogan of Trump’s speech also supported the construction of the US as a victim in the foreign context: “From this day forward, it's going to be only America first — America first.” This statement implied in a powerful way that before Trump’s rise, the American interest was the last concern of the world. 

Washington as the Victimizer

If there is a victim, there must be a victimizer as well. In the inauguration address, Trump assigned the latter role to “Washington”. Speakers use a common rhetorical device — called metonymy — when they replace governments with their capital cities. The American government is also frequently identified as “Washington”. However, in Trump’s inauguration speech, the “Washington-metonymy” was far from being a neutral reference to the previous administration. The trope allowed Trump to evoke and strengthen anger in the American population towards the whole political elite: “Washington flourished — but the people did not share in its wealth.” By contrasting the affluence of “Washington” with the struggles of the rest of America, the billionaire Trump could attack the political elite without condemning the business elite to which he belongs to. 

In the rhetoric of victimhood, personal pronouns “they” and “them” and the possessive form “their” are widely used to present particular groups or communities as hostile or alien. In such cases, these typically appear as opposed to pronouns and possessive forms that represent the community (“they” and “them” versus “you”, “we”, “us” and “their” versus “your” and “our”).  This is exactly what one could observe in Trump’s speech. He used “they” and “their” in the context of the political elite, and “you” and “our” for Americans to create a victim-victimizer set-up: “Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.” 

Opposing “Washington” and the people, Trump presented his political predecessors not only as privileged, careless, and selfish people but also as parasites on society: “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.” Yet, as the previous quote illustrates, he did not specify whom is he actually talking about, remaining rather vague both in terms of time (“for too long”) and agents (“a small group”). “Washington” can also be considered a somewhat ambiguous reference. Other times, Trump referred to his predecessors in general terms such as “the establishment” and “politicians”. 

This could be partly due to the speech situation. Trump was delivering his talk in Washington and in front of the whole American political elite. In these circumstances, he might have wanted to avoid directly offending certain politicians. Yet, this was also a way to distinguish himself and his presidency from all of his predecessors and their legacies: “Today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another — but we are transferring power from Washington DC and giving it back to you, the People.”

Trump as the Savior

In the inauguration address, Trump presented himself as the savior of his victimized nation. In his self-representation three elements played a key role in particular: heroism, toughness, and authority.

In his own context, Trump used determiners (“every”) and adverbs (“ever” and “never”) that expressed absoluteness and heroic qualities: “I will fight for you with every breath in my body – and I will never, ever let you down.” He offered the sense of heroism to Americans by using the same linguistic tools: “You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before.” By describing his political movement in superlative terms, as historic, Trump also suggested that he himself is changing history. 

As social beings, we are conditioned to downplay and belittle the significance of speech by contrasting it to action. This dichotomy is routinely imprinted into us through such popular sayings as “actions speak louder than words”. Playing on this deep-seated cultural stereotype, Trump presented himself opposite from his predecessors as an action hero figure who is tough enough to meet actual challenges. “We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action – constantly complaining but never doing anything about it.” On another occasion he declared: “The time for empty talk is over, now arrives the hour of action.

As the previous quote also shows, Trump expressed strong authority, speaking oftentimes like a parent who orders his child to stop doing something by saying “because I said so!” The imperative tone characterized a number of his statements: “That all changes – starting right here, and right now.” “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” “From this day forward it's going to be only America first – America first.” By using the present tense (“is over”, “changes”, “stops”), and phrases that imply synchronicity (“right here, and right now”, “from this day forward”), Trump created the impression that he has the power and the capacity to implement his commands and change the circumstances with immediate effect. 

Trump’s inauguration speech offered an opportunity to look at a rhetoric of victimhood at work. However, neither in terms of time, nor in terms of context are the introduced speech strategies unique. The rhetoric of victimhood is characterized by relative permanence across time and space. Depending on the context, the role of the victim, the victimizer, and the savior can be assigned to different people. At the same time, the underlying linguistic arsenal that supports the construction of these roles remains identical in most of the cases. Indeed, the elements of the rhetoric of victimhood are similar to those sandbox tools which can be filled again and again but will always produce similar shapes. Nevertheless, in terms of consequences, the rhetoric of victimhood is anything but child’s play. 


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