Where Trump’s first State of the Union speech ranks historically, and why, according to a speech professor

No man is an island. (Well, except for this one.)
No man is an island. (Well, except for this one.)
Image: Reuters/Jim Bourg
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Immediately after Donald Trump finished his State of the Union Address last week, the media started talking about the president’s content, style, and delivery. What did he say? How did he say it? The ancient art of rhetoric encourages speakers and listeners to also think about a speech’s arrangement.  The rhetorician Quintilian famously likened speech arrangement to military generalship, knowing when and how to deploy certain forces.

Modern media analysts often overlook these strategic decisions. We see ten second snippets of the speech run on the news, but the text as written disappears from public scrutiny. But it shouldn’t. Arrangement reveals decisions about importance and similarity. When is a topic introduced? How long is it discussed? Which topics are close to each other? Which ones are far apart?

State of the Unions offer unique arrangement challenges. As the communication scholars, Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamison, point out in their study of US presidential speech, some addresses are organized around one or two key themes; others are a laundry list of policy areas. For example, Teddy Roosevelt’s final State of the Union in 1908 covered over thirty separate topics. Despite being one of the longest State of the Unions in recent memory, Trump’s speech lands in the vast middle: a handful of topics covered in some depth. When and how he discussed a topic wasn’t an accident; it was a decision.

When read for arrangement, two things stand out:

1. Immigration is surrounded by crime.

Trump dedicates more words to immigration than any other topic, save foreign policy. That reflects a decision about priorities. How he talks about it reflects an attitude.

Just prior to launching into his immigration section, Trump mentions ideas that can help people access the dignity of hard work: job training, vocational schools, and family leave. Then he diverts to prison reform, “this year we will embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance at life.” Not necessarily a bad choice, but an interesting one since the next sentence picks up immigration. “Struggling communities, especially immigrant communities, will also be helped by immigration policies that focus on the best interests of American workers and American families.” The sentence that transitions to immigration could have been about family leave, but it was about prisons.

After he winds down the 1,200 word section on immigration, Trump transitions to the opioid crisis. Again, he does so an interesting way, “These [immigration] reforms will also support our response to the terrible crisis of opioid and drug addiction.” This transition sentence implies a link between immigration and the domestic opioid epidemic. From an arrangement perspective, prisons and drug addiction bookend Trump’s discussion of immigration.

The immigration section itself is shot through with danger and crime. Trump begins with a story about MS-13. A few paragraphs later, he talks about how MS-13 targeted an ICE agent. A few paragraphs later, he links chain migration and the visa lottery to terrorism. The link between terrorism and chain migration was challenged immediately, as was his framing of MS-13’s threat to the US. I’m not here to challenge those links, simply to point out that the immigration section only uses examples of criminality.

2. The drug epidemic section was…odd.

To begin with, it’s oddly placed. It’s about 70% into the speech. Trump already finished with all other domestic policy areas. He then discusses immigration, the drug crisis, before finishing with foreign policy. Why wedge opioids between immigration and foreign policy? If you remove this section, you have a more organic transition from protecting borders (a topic that puts you in the international realm) to an international policy discussion. Jamming this section in here seems to frame the opioid crisis as a foreign threat.

Additionally, the story used as support here was odd. After a brief discussion of the breadth of the drug crisis (64,000 American overdoses in 2016), Trump tells the story Ryan Holet. Holet saw a pregnant woman about to shoot up and offered to adopt her unborn baby. It’s a beautiful story of Christian faith and kindness, but its inclusion feels like it’s eating space. Even for discussions of value, there needs to be an obvious link between claim and support. What was the claim in this section? Was it, “We must get much tougher on drug dealers and pushers if we are going to succeed in stopping this scourge?” Was it, “My administration is committed to fighting the drug epidemic and helping get treatment for those in need, for those who have been so terribly hurt?” Both are good claims to support with a story. In either case though, this story is a red herring. It illustrates neither point. Think Nixon talking about his dog Checkers when confronting allegations of campaign mismanagement. Trump raises a potential policy point, then jumps over to a feel-good story only loosely related to the opioid crisis.

Ultimately, the key arrangement pieces, the opener and closer, were good and reaffirmed American values. Kohrs Campbell and Hall Jamison call this “the public meditation on value” function of State of the Union addresses. They point out that this function stays with the speech regardless of the success of the president. Andrew Johnson included these moments. Even Gerald Ford, who famously said in 1975 that the State of the Union was “not good,” spoke of enduring American traits. Trump’s best part was the closer. It swung for the fences, and mostly got there. Quintilian suggest that speakers can, in the conclusion, “use language and thoughts of the greatest magnificence and eloquence.” That drive to eloquence was on display in those final minutes.