Jason Gilmore is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Utah State University. He recently traveled to Iowa and attended events presented by various Democratic presidential candidates, in attition to a Trump Rally as part of research for a book he is writing.
Tom Williams visited with him about this on Monday.
Tom Williams: So Jason, you were in Iowa over the last few days. You went to various events and rallies for Democratic candidates. You also attended a Trump rally and you're working on a book.
Jason Gilmore: Yeah, so I'm working on a book. It's called “Exceptional Me: How Donald Trump Remade the Discourse of American Exceptionalism.” So the book focuses entirely on his rhetorical strategy, both in the 2016, and now on the 2020 campaigns. So we're focused on how he employs the language of American exceptionalism to kind of advance his cause.
It's inside of the slogan of Make America Great Again, this notion that the United States was no longer this exceptional nation, but that he and he alone was going to be able to make it exceptional again. And now the notion behind his current slogan, which is Keep America Great, is the notion that at some point in time in his presidency, the United States is now again, exceptional. We’ve become exceptional again, and it's embedded in his language. And now his argument to the American people that only by keeping him in the office of the presidency, does that remain.
TW: Can you give me other examples of, obviously the slogan, that's a good branding move for him to have a central slogan, people rally to that. And now the modified slogan, Keep America Great. Are there other examples of his rhetoric that you could give us?
JG: So the major focus of our book is that what I noted when I was doing some research on the 2016 campaign, was that unlike all of the presidential candidates before him, Donald Trump didn't invoke American exceptionalism.
In fact, he regularly told the American people that it's not exceptional anymore. That it has fallen from grace. One of his things in his book, he says is that the United States’s status as the shining light for the rest of the world has fallen from grace. So we noticed that he wasn't invoking this idea that was so regularly available and other campaigns.
But when he does use that language, it's not that he's unfamiliar with the language of American exceptionalism or of exceptionalism, it's that he uses that language in reference to himself, right?
He talks about himself as the smartest person, the greatest negotiator. I have the best people, I have the best words. So the language of American exceptionalism, where it was absent in reference to the nation, he sure did know how to use it when it was in reference to himself.
And now we see a transition into using that in the presidency. From “I've instated the largest tax cuts ever in the history of this nation,” to “now we are the greatest nation in the world,” to also saying things like “I've done more than any other president.” He likes to say “your favorite president, me, is doing these things.” So we see a kind of a transition in his language when it comes to American exceptionalism and what we call self exceptionalism.
TW: Of course, communication is all about it's too late. Right? So I wonder what your thoughts on are how people are receiving this? You went to this rally in Iowa. What was your impression of how people, at least at the rallies, which will be his supporters, were receiving this language this rhetoric?
JG: The purpose of invoking American exceptionalism for an American crowd is that it makes them feel like they are a part of something unique, special, the greatest in the world, right? And instead of doing that he to his supporters, says you are a part of the greatest movement in the history of the world, the greatest political movement. So all of this language of exceptional me or the exceptional presidency, I think to his supporters says you're part of something special. Stick here, stay here. We're doing something amazing. You're part of something historic. He loves to say that word. So I think it serves a very similar kind of cognitive function for his followers. They feel like they're involved in something amazing, something special, something the world has never seen before. And surely Donald Trump tells them that.
TW: I mean a rally is one thing, the State of the Union is another. Would you expect similar language a State of the Union?
JG: Actually in the book, we parse those out. Because one is a scripted moment that he doesn't necessarily write entirely himself. And then the MAGA rallies, he's got a bit of a script, but most of its kind of him riffing.
So we definitely expect to see him using this rhetoric in the State of the Union. In the 2019 one, he did through and through. We call it exceptional presidency, and its references to his presidency doing more than any other president before him, being greater than any other president achieving, things that no other president has. You'll see that through and through in his speech.
We track the amount of references to exceptional me and he's got upwards of 60 References In a speech, so we should see it through and through on Tuesday.
TW: Well, we'll look for your book to come out in the next little while Jason Gilmore, thank you so much.
JG: Thanks for having me.