Historic Gigster – Three Things That Make Speeches Historic
I was recently at a graduation party talking about history when someone across the table suggested that Donald Trump would be remembered as one of the great speakers of American history. I was surprised to hear this, but it seemed that they had attended a political rally and had come away quite impressed. It does pose the question: would Trump be remembered as one of the great orators of our time?
Aside from the politics of the question, how would one determine what makes a historic speaker? To answer that question, I considered three elements that I believe make for great, history-making speeches. So I set about to find examples in some of the great speeches of history. Below are the three important attributes I believe historic speeches should have.
A Shared Experience
Much has been said about Trump’s lack of military experience, so I thought I would start there. Is this a deficit when it comes to public speaking? Trump attended a somewhat military prep school, but when it came to actually serve his country, he received multiple deferrals. We can argue about whether these were legitimate, but the end-result was that he never saw combat.
This is a problem for someone who in his position may need to send soldiers into battle, to fight, and quite possibly to die. No matter how eloquently his speeches are written, he cannot convey a sense of compassion, brotherhood and duty to his audience. While he has spoken to military audiences on several occasions, I do not believe he was able to evoke in those men and women a willingness to follow him into battle. There is no precedent, so he is not seen as someone who will be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with soldiers on the front lines.
In sharp contrast to this was Alexander the Great, who is well known to have fought alongside his men. Perhaps the most famous speech ever written invoking that kinship is the Speech of the Hydaspes River, in 326 B.C. Having marched his army to the ends of the known world, his troops were weary and mutinous in this strange land. They faced an army that outnumbered them, included hundreds of chariots they did not have, as well as war elephants, and it was led by King Porus, known for his legendary skill on the battlefield.
Alexander made a speech to rally his men that is still remembered more than two thousand years later. Here is an excerpt:
I could not have blamed you for being the first to lose heart if I, your commander, had not shared in your exhausting marches and your perilous campaigns; it would have been natural enough if you had done all the work merely for others to reap the reward. But it is not so. You and I, gentlemen, have shared the labour and shared the danger, and the rewards are for us all.
The conquered territory belongs to you; from your ranks the governors of it are chosen; already the greater part of its treasure passes into your hands, and when all Asia is overrun, then in deed I will go further than the mere satisfaction of our ambitions: the utmost hopes of riches or power which each one of you cherishes will be far surpassed, and whoever wishes to return home will be allowed to go, either with me or without me. I will make those who stay the envy of those who return.
Not only were Alexander’s men aroused to fight one more time for him, but they also won a decisive victory on that day, despite overwhelming odds. Historically, this was one of the great motivational speeches of the classical period. It succeeded because of the shared experience of Alexander with his men. Without that shared experience, one is unlikely to be able to deliver a speech that will move whole armies to fight and die for a leader.
Not Just Speaking about Oneself
There are many speakers who will invoke their own accomplishments to convince the audience of the righteousness of their cause. This can become a two-edged sword, however. It can work if the speech carefully evolves away from the accomplishments of the speaker and transcends that into greater things. Unfortunately, more often than not these types of speeches stagnate. They remain focused on self-glorifying the speaker and consequently become monotonous and repetitive.
In listening to Trump’s speeches, it doesn’t seem like they go beyond self-aggrandizement. They seem to stagnate into the narrowness of the speaker himself in his own small world. This is especially true when Trump veers off-script, which is an egregious problem for him because unlike the well-scripted speech, it betrays that his reality is even smaller when left to his own devices.
Looking at history, there are a few examples of speeches that start with the actions of the speaker, but that then build up to greater deeds and ideas in the minds of the audience. Such a speech requires humility. The goal is to build a bridge between those individual acts that then become incremental steps, forming a path to that greater vision.
To find examples of this, I was searching for historical speakers who had struggled, and who had used those experiences to become better leaders. I thought that the most obvious place was in the narratives of slavery, but then I came across this speech by William Wilberforce, a member of Parliament in England who was a steadfast abolitionist at a time when abolishing slavery wasn’t a popular sentiment. His speech on the topic speaks of his own small actions, but with enough humility to evoke in others a shared humanity to fight the injustice before them:
When I consider the magnitude of the subject which I am to bring before the House - a subject, in which the interests, not of this country, nor of Europe alone, but of the whole world, and of posterity, are involved: and when I think, at the same time, on the weakness of the advocate who has undertaken this great cause-when these reflections press upon my mind, it is impossible for me not to feel both terrified and concerned at my own inadequacy to such a task.
But when I reflect, however, on the encouragement which I have had, through the whole course of a long and laborious examination of this question, and how much candour I have experienced, and how conviction has increased within my own mind, in proportion as I have advanced in my labours. When I reflect, especially, that however averse any gentleman may now be, yet we shall all be of one opinion in the end.
When I turn myself to these thoughts, I take courage. I determine to forget all my other fears, and I march forward with a firmer step in the full assurance that my cause will bear me out, and that I shall be able to justify upon the clearest principles, every resolution in my hand, the avowed end of which is, the total abolition of the slave trade.
I realize that choosing a white person’s comments on the issue of slavery risks whitewashing the argument - and I apologize if it was taken as such. However, when it comes to this topic, we need to remember that in the early 18th century, people of African descent did not have much of a voice. I also chose Wilberforce deliberately because I want to shine a light on the fact that, even today, people of African descent are not given an equal voice on socio-political matters of race and equality.
To that point, we are discussing the speaking ability of Donald Trump, who’s words have been a lightning rod on the issue of race and discrimination in our own time. His speeches, unfortunately, do not hint at humility, shared humanity, or compassion. On the contrary, they speak of division, fear, and violence. Even when Trump does mention more humane sentiments, the audience is unlikely to truly believe them because there is no known precedent for them.
Being Believable in Invoking a Better Future
Up to this point, we have discussed war and slavery, painful topics where great oratory skill was mandated. But what about the arts? I ask this because art is so seldom discussed anymore. Perhaps even more disheartening is the fact that art is no longer associated with the great people, movements, and events of our time. This is especially the case with the art of writing.
One speech that still challenges the derision of art in our world was by the American author William Faulkner. It was given when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, a time when the West was becoming more fearful of the spread of communism around the world. The idea that literature had any place in this worrisome and brooding world was far from everyone’s mind.
Faulkner’s response to this dread was masterful, enlightening, and uplifting. Writing to him, was not just the unending ability to carry on talking, but it could also be artful, nuanced and emotional. It was also an underhanded commentary on the bluster and banality that accompany the political fist-waving of his time. In response, he invoked the idea of a better world to come specifically because of the art of writing:
I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.
I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.
It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
Faulkner doesn’t merely tell us that writing is what sets us apart from other creatures, but he tells us that it is our ability to infuse writing with feeling that makes the writing greater than mere words on a page. With it and because of it, we will not only endure, but prevail, evolve and triumph. Faulkner’s ability to weave these words into a vision of what the future could be, invites us to become part of this greater future.
Faulkner’s words stand in sharp contrast to the speeches of Trump that dwell on a supposed past that was once great. Make America Great Again implies that in some past time there was greatness but fails to tell us what that past was. It also implies that the present is worse, but in comparison to what? In the process, Trump’s speeches offer up conflict and division as the way forward. Simply put, they offer no starting point, no path through the present and only an uncertain future.
Never mind the fact that art is never even mentioned. It simply is not part of his vision of the past, present or future – it is simply not part of Trump’s America. Seen in William Faulkner’s words, then, this America is without “a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.” Despite the MAGA slogan, Trump’s speeches do not evoke that greatness or goodness. Instead they conjure up a bleak reality full of uncertainty and conflict ahead.
So, will Donald Trump be remembered as one of the great orators of our time?
It is unlikely. The speeches do not have those qualities that evoke greatness or historical significance. They do not offer a shared experience, but instead suggest an aloof deference. They stagnate in personal accolades and never build beyond the speaker himself. Finally, they do not offer up a brighter and better future despite the ever-present slogan.
As such, it is unlikely that he will be remembered as one of the great speakers of history. Regardless of what one might think of the man or his politics, his speeches do not contain attributes that suggest historical greatness. Ultimately, the words are not believable or relatable and lay a path to a better future for all. They are merely the bluster and banality that accompany the political fist-waving of his time.
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