In Washington, the National Mall has gone quiet. The Blue Angels have flown back to base, the Abrams tanks have been returned to Ft. Stewart, in Georgia, and President Trump’s July 4 speech has been debunked by fact-checkers and panned by Russian state-run TV. The memes it inspired might prove more enduring than the speech itself.
Even in conservative circles, I suspect, the speech will not be long remembered. It is too muddled, nondescript and full of errors to be recited on future Independence Day speeches. Not to worry: Trump has promised to stage the whole spectacle again next year. Before then, a little more forensic work is in order. Who is at fault for the awfulness this time?
Trump blamed the teleprompter for his claim that Washington’s army “took over the airports.” As a speechwriter, I have spent time in the company of teleprompters, and I know them to be temperamental machines. Still, I have never seen one make things up. No computer glitch could be responsible for lines like “love and unity held together the first pilgrims.” That is human error.
The speech was a roadmap of the pitfalls of the trade: the abuse of alliteration (“willed our warriors up mountains and across minefields”); hyperbole (combat veterans “loved every minute” of their military service; Coast Guard sharpshooters “never miss”); bumper-sticker exceptionalism (“for Americans, nothing is impossible”). Plus an overreliance on the thesaurus: Early in the speech, Trump promised to tell “one of the greatest stories ever told: the story of America.” It is, he said, an “epic tale.” Also, a “chronicle.” Furthermore, a “saga.” All this in one paragraph.
Trump’s speechwriters, in fairness, have a difficult job. They write for a man who resists structure, research, reason, precision — the foundations of speechwriting. What Trump prefers is stream-of-consciousness talking, the kind he does at his rallies, like a spigot left running. And the truth is he could ruin even a well-written speech. Trump would louse up the Gettysburg Address: He would mug his way through it; he would add snarky asides; he would somehow make it sound as if “the last full measure of devotion” were all about him.
Yet his speechwriters gave him exactly what he wanted on the Fourth. His scripted statements typically have the feel of being forced on him, but his heart was clearly in this one — especially its fist-pumping tales of military triumph. America, in Trump’s telling, is a force of “vengeance” and “righteous retribution.” During World War II, “we crushed them all from the air,” he said, and since then, “no enemy has attacked our people without being met by a roar of thunder.” Here as elsewhere, Trump’s swagger is less a projection of strength than a form of wish fulfillment. It also reflects a deep misunderstanding of American greatness.
In 2016, Trump staked his run for the White House on a return to greatness. He and his speechwriters have urged the nation “to choose greatness.” But in what sense and to what end? The speech offered no clues. In three years as president, Trump has never articulated a vision of national greatness apart from military might, or a notion of economic greatness apart from some lost and rusted industrial ideal.
Bad speechwriting is typically the product of bad or vague or incoherent thinking. Even a great speechwriter can’t fill in a vision that is hollow at its core. Trump’s “Salute to America” featured fireworks and firepower. But the man himself was blowing smoke.
Jeff Shesol was a speechwriter for President Clinton and is a founding partner of West Wing Writers, a writing and strategic consulting firm.