The Man Without a Plan: Trump’s “Softening” Rhetoric

On Sunday, November 15, 2016, six days after winning the presidential election, Donald Trump appeared on 60 Minutes. The entire hour was devoted to interviewing Trump and his family. During the course of the interview, President-elect Trump seemed to soften the incendiary rhetoric that had helped spur him to victory over Secretary Clinton. During the interview, Leslie Stahl asked the President-elect to speak to several of his more strident claims on the campaign trail. Many of those claims he still endorsed – he still plans to build a wall, or maybe more like a fence, on our southern border. Some he seemed to take a step back from – he made no comment on naming a special prosecutor to bring a case against Clinton once he’s in office.  

Many who watched the interview hoped that this marked a “new” phase in Trump’s rhetoric – an era in which he’s more measured and not so unguardedly hateful in his assertions. With regard to post-election hate crimes, Trump even told his violent supporters to “stop it.” Meanwhile, reports began circulating about his appointment of Steve Bannon as Chief Strategist in his cabinet. An anti-Semite with ties to the so-called alt-right, Bannon’s appointment seemed to undercut any balance Trump may have been trying to achieve through his rhetoric. We can see a fairly clear disconnection between Trump’s appointment of Bannon (which has already been lauded by the KKK) and his attempt to appear broadly presidential on 60 Minutes. In light of this, why should the injunction to “stop it” be taken any more seriously than the broad pivot?

Rather than “softening” or moving toward conciliatory rhetoric, Trump’s rhetoric is a way of “selling” himself to particular audiences. During the campaign it was a means to sell a vision of “Making America Great Again.” That vision places minorities in the crosshairs in the name of salvaging the American Dream. During the 60 Minutes interview, Trump’s rhetoric was a means of selling himself to America as presidential, which involved fewer ad hominems and more conciliatory language. In both of these instances, Trump’s rhetoric is not supported by his ideology or policy plans. Instead, like any good salesman, Trump sells a vision of America or a President-elect that will connect to the particular audiences to whom he is speaking at any given moment.

Trump’s rhetoric is not without precedent. The branding of particular minority groups as threats to the nation has been a rhetorical mainstay of the Republican Party for the last several decades. The GOP has typically mobilized these arguments around policy at the state level. For example, in 1994 in California, a group of citizens led by then-State Rep. Darrel Issa (now a U.S. Congressman, R-CA), put forward an initiative to criminalize immigrants and ban them from receiving any kind of state services, including medical treatment. Although the California Supreme Court ultimately deemed this law unconstitutional, it did pass and spawned media coverage that branded immigrants as thieves stealing jobs and encroaching on Californians’ way of life.

Similar claims about immigrants as thieves began the conversations around Arizona SB 1070 in 2010. This time, immigrants were not merely characterized as thieves, but criminals who disrupt the nation with their criminal acts. SB 1070 passed, and later that year Alabama passed a similar bill. Under the terms of these laws, not only was undocumented status a felony, but the police could stop individuals if they simply “looked like immigrants.” The U.S. Supreme Court threw out some stipulations in both the Arizona and Alabama laws, primarily the parts that seemed to coincide with racial profiling, but most of the restrictions of both bills still stand.

In all three instances, the GOP’s rhetoric worked to sell immigrant communities as a direct threat. By naming immigrants as the ones who are responsible for taking our jobs and creating danger in our communities, the GOP stimulated the electorate to vote for these stringent laws. In the 2016 election, Trump used much of the same rhetoric in connection to immigrants, during his rallies and in Cleveland. He named Muslims as terrorists and Latino immigrants as criminals and responsible for job loss across the U.S. What is unique about Trump’s rhetoric is that he has moved the process of branding immigrants as threats to the national stage and used this narrative as a means to stimulate his base, not to forward policy.

Without a clear legislative agenda, Trump’s rhetoric sells the threat of minorities without any concrete plan in response. His rhetoric works to sell his vision of America on the backs of our nation’s most vulnerable groups. Although not all Trump supporters have acted violently against minority groups, we have seen at least 315 reported and confirmed incidents of violence against immigrants, women, people of Jewish faith, and the LGBT community since the election. These minority groups are left vulnerable because Trump has sold them as “road blocks” to the “great America” and some of his supporters feel that they must be dealt with, one way or another.

What is happening to Trump’s rhetoric now that he is facing questions of policy and the realities of governance? As he leaves the rally and enters the Beltway, his ad hominem attacks on minorities are changing, and his rhetoric seems to be softening. Again, this isn’t because his ideological commitments are changing, but because the audiences to which he must speak are. For example, Trump campaigned that he would “overturn gay marriage.” When asked about that on 60 Minutes, he was clear: “That law is settled. It is done.”

Many media outlets report this as Trump’s attempt to unify the country. The appointment of Bannon shows that that is not Trump’s priority. Instead, his change in rhetoric reveals what happens when Trump learns about the processes of governing and Jenn takes on the role of President-elect. His vitriolic claims against marginalized people will seem to evolve. Will these shifts translate into policy? At this point, it is not looking good. With President-elect Trump, you cannot predict his policy from what he says, no matter how often he tells you he’s a straight shooter.


(Image Credit: Detroit Free Press / Mike Thompson)

Feminist Networks, Feminist Assemblages, and Feminist Scales: Half the Sky is Only Half the Story

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn has received uncritical reception in the U.S.  Reviewers have praised it for exposing gendered violence—or “gendercide” as Kristof and Wudunn call it —women continue to face in third world countries. The book tells heinous yet compelling stories of violence against women and girls ranging from sexual slavery, trafficking for prostitution, dowry murders, rape, and acid attacks, to name a few. Each ends on a hopeful note: a microloan, education, or Kristof himself helps each woman. These reviews celebrate Half the Sky for exposing gendered violence and women’s struggles in places that are often discounted in everyday reporting. They also celebrate these stories because they are at once ordinary and spectacular.

This celebration raises feminist concerns about how first-world writers represent “3rd-world women.” Specifically, the book’s popularity raises  questions about the sorts of stories that speak to and move U.S. audiences who live in a country that is politically and economically a superpower that positions its citizens to do humanitarian outreach.

What are the political ramifications of Half the Sky’s representation of women needing to be saved by first-world men and women? What are the consequences of its uncritical reception? How can feminism offer a more complex analysis and political response to gendered violence?

Half the Sky’s reception has been so positive in North America because the book’s narrative framework relies on affective commonplace human-interest narratives. These narratives are written, circulated and read as what Rajeswari Sunder Rajan calls an unfolding serial: from mis-en-scene to disclosure of (gendered, racialized), oppression to progress through intervention (through a government grant or by Kristoff himself) to dénouement where individual woman move into a better future as an entrepreneur or as an economically independent woman. Invoking sympathy and compassion, the stories draw attention to gendered violence that individual women face. Once these stories are told, they quickly fade from view.

For us, Kristof and WuDunn’s book feels unsatisfactory and incomplete. After we read Half the Sky, we asked, now what?

This dissatisfaction has to do with its purpose: limited investment in the name of sympathy and compassion. A focus on individual women who manage to pull themselves up by their bootstraps suggests that poverty and lack of economic opportunity are local, domestic issues that can be addressed by changing cultural norms, external aid, and individual agency. But women don’t just live in families or small communities. Women live in nations and regions. Larger national and global decisions and events affect individual women and groups of women. For example, the economic and social restructuring of entire regions by IMF structural adjustment policies and events, such as war, contribute to women’s poverty and constrain their autonomy. Histories of ethnic strife that have roots in colonialism contribute to regional instability and to gendered violence.

Kristof and WuDunn never discuss the structural and historical relationship between women, poverty, national “development,” global economic policies, and regional policies. Nor do they address layers, or scales, of power in their discussion. For them, irresponsible, violent men and entrenched ideas about gender are the only obstacles to women’s economic success and empowerment.

Kristof and WuDunn’s stories resonate with several common “western” stories about how women are saved. Like the feminizing histories of the human interest story, with its roots in the 19th century novel, these stories were developed for a bourgeois class that sent white women out of the factories and into the interiors of the home. They also resonate with embedded colonial narratives where capitalism = the modern, and where westernization always trumps tradition. In this narrative, we (western women) save third world women from terrible fates, as capital saves the traditional backward third world from itself by contributing money, expertise, and commerce. In this narrative, money changes everything, empowering women so they feel better about themselves and are able to rise above the authority of men.

But does capital really save us/them all?

While Half the Sky pays attention to the micro-politics of the everyday, it doesn’t attend to larger systems and structures which shape the lives of women and which women must (and do) negotiate. It misses the larger processes that shape women’s lives and experiences.

Nor is any attention paid to how women actively engage larger processes and structures. Because there is no attention to larger structures and decisions, or to women’s efforts to negotiate those structures and decisions, the stories in Half the Sky only take us to the point where we are affected, or made aware, of the violence women face. We don’t know how to formulate a response that would talk about the situation of women in order to create meaningful action that would address women as a group or a class.

Half the Sky’s stories do not ask readers to understand broader contexts such as history, economy, patriarchy, and nation-state development, which influence women’s lives. This form of story telling ultimately hides the material and structural causes of women’s oppressions that transnational feminists demand we critically examine.

So what should be done? How can feminists reframe Half the Sky? How can feminists create ways to tell individual stories of gendered violence and link these stories to structures of violence? Of the police? The state? Within families?  Through structural adjustment? How can feminists write in support of individual women’s struggles while drawing attention to systemic gendered oppression and to structural gendered exploitation?

Those questions would lead to feminist writing emphasizing women’s activities in systems and structures. Naila Kabeer asks how women “as historically situated actors cope with, and seek to transform the conditions of their lives.” She asks feminists to pay attention to women’s lives and experiences in relation to multiple and interconnected scales of power.

It is important to look at how women live, struggle, negotiate, and work within political and economies structures and to ask how much voice women have in decisions that are made and how they negotiate systems where they have limited voice.

Rebecca Dingo, Rachel Riedner, and Jennifer Wingard


(Photo Credit: NYC Independent Media Center)