Comparing Trump’s words to a bygone era’s timeless rhetoric

Donald Trump has exhibited that a speaker can be effective regardless of subject matter. A deeper analysis of his rhetoric shows that his worldview is alien to American presidential tradition.

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

Donald Trump's rhetoric alone has consistently triggered protests at his campaign events.

Updated Oct 17, 2016
Juliet S. Sorensen Juliet S. Sorensen is the Harry R. Horrow Professor of International Law at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. She is the daughter of the late Ted Sorensen, special counsel and speechwriter to John F. Kennedy. @JulietSorensen1

Pick up a newspaper at random from any week during this campaign season for a sampling of Donald Trump's rhetoric of exclusion. The aim of this rhetoric, broadcast by the candidate at campaign appearances and through traditional and social media, is to sow fear and hate in prospective voters who will accordingly cast their votes for Trump. The picture it paints is that of an America of exclusion. The exclusion of immigrants; the exclusion of minorities, notwithstanding Trump’s misguided efforts to win support from black voters by blaming acts of violence in black communities on the current administration; and the exclusion of women. Trump’s rallies have repeatedly incited racial epithets and homophobic invective, as documented in this disturbing montage. 

The Oxford Dictionary defines rhetoric as “the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the use of figures of speech and other compositional techniques.” Trump’s rhetoric effectively won him the nomination of his party for the presidency, but speeches that play to fear and hate are not the only way to whip up a crowd. 56 years ago, John F. Kennedy campaigned, then governed, relying on the rhetoric of inclusion. A comparison of the language used by Kennedy and Trump - on issues that were as relevant in 1960 as they are today - is instructive.

Immigration and Refugees 

In his book A Nation of Immigrants, Kennedy recognized the continuing contribution of immigrants to America’s well-being and prosperity, stating that, “Everywhere immigrants have enriched and strengthened the fabric of American life.”

He wrote that:

Immigration policy should be generous; it should be fair; it should be flexible. With such a policy we can turn to the world, and to our own past, with clean hands and a clear conscience.... Some of yesterday’s immigrants…have supplied a continuous flow of creative abilities and ideas that have enriched our nation. The immigrants we welcome today and tomorrow will carry on this tradition and help us to retain, reinvigorate, and strengthen the American Spirit.

Moreover, Kennedy recognized that the very story of America’s birth was about immigrants fleeing persecution and seeking religious freedom: "The U.S. has always served as a lantern in the dark for those who love freedom but are persecuted, in misery, or in need."

By contrast, in a shocking display of prejudice and oversimplification, Trump declared in what was touted as his major foreign policy address of the summer, that immigration of Muslims into the U.S. was the common link and, by implication, the cause of every terrorist act in the U.S. committed by Muslims. At the Republican National Convention, he stated that: 

Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo … we must immediately suspend immigration from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism until such time as proven vetting mechanisms have been put in place. … We are going to build a great border wall to stop illegal immigration, to stop the gangs and the violence, and to stop the drugs from pouring into our communities.

Human rights

In Kennedy’s inaugural address, he declared that America was “unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.” He acknowledged that America could not go it alone, but rather was part of a vital international community:

To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace, we renew our pledge of support—to prevent it from coming merely a forum for invective—to strengthen its shield of the new and the weak—and to enlarge the area in which its writ may run.  

As for Trump, his criticism of human rights violations abroad is again premised on exclusion, couched in warnings that such practices, such as honor killings, will “reach our own shores” if immigrants are permitted to come to the U.S. Nonetheless, he advocates the use of torture as an interrogation technique, and stated that waterboarding is “not tough enough” when seeking information from terrorism suspects. Notwithstanding his interest in obtaining U.N. business in his days as a real estate developer, Trump last spring dismissed NATO as “obsolete” and that the UN was “just a political game.”

The first Presidential Debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is seen reflected in a portrait of President John F. Kennedy at the Harvard University.


Faced with persistent skepticism about his Catholic faith and whether it would improperly influence his presidency, John F. Kennedy delivered an address in 1960 in which he described his perception of religious freedom in America:

[I believe in an America that] will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood. … And in fact this is the kind of America for which our forefathers did die when they fled here to escape religious test oaths that denied office to members of less favored churches -- when they fought for the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom -- and when they fought at the shrine I visited today, the Alamo. For side by side with Bowie and Crockett died Fuentes, and McCafferty, and Bailey, and Badillo, and Carey -- but no one knows whether they were Catholics or not. For there was no religious test there.

Indeed. Yet Donald Trump has proposed a religious test for admission into the United States in the form of a blanket ban, affirmatively discriminating on the basis of the religion of 1.6 billion people and not on the merits of their legal eligibility for admission to our country.

To be sure, words are not deeds, and often don’t become them. As President, Donald Trump’s promises on the campaign trail could be stymied by Congress, the Supreme Court, or his own cabinet. He could even moderate his positions on his own, as he did last week when he suddenly declared, after months of unrelenting promises to keep out and aggressively deport immigrants, that he would be “really fair” in addressing undocumented immigrants in the United States (he was back to his old self later in the day, when he promised a crowd that the wall he has repeatedly promised to build at the U.S. border with Mexico will “go up so fast your head will spin”).

But words matter. In his memoir, my father wrote: 

I do not dismiss the potential of the right speech on the right topic delivered by the right speaker in the right way at the right moment. It can ignite a fire, change men’s minds, open their eyes, alter their votes, bring hope to their lives, and, in all these ways, change the world.

As special counsel to John F. Kennedy, he saw it happen firsthand.

Kennedy’s rhetoric of inclusion is perhaps most strikingly illustrated in his 1963 commencement speech at American University, where he argued, “In the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.” Trump has never spoken to these fundamentals of the human condition because they are inconsistent with his rhetoric of exclusion.

56 years after the election of 1960, President Kennedy’s rhetoric of inclusion still resonates. A comparison of Trump and Kennedy on issues and the language used to address them shows that while a speaker can be effective regardless of subject matter, speeches that change the world for the better articulate a worldview that is alien to the Republican nominee.