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  • Obama, Trump, And Reflections On The Rhetoric Of Political Change
  • Denise M. Bostdorff (bio)

Professor Stuckey's essay thoughtfully considers the "rhetorical valences" that signal a readiness for political change as well as the rhetoric of political change itself with its hyperbole, incivility, vagueness of means and ends, and appeals to hope and nostalgia. When discussing conservative calls for political change, Stuckey draws on the words of George Wallace, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and Sarah Palin and, in examining liberal appeals for political transformation, quotes Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. One very prominent, recent president is conspicuously missing, however. The rhetor of hope and change, "Change we can believe in," and "Yes, we can": Barack Hussein Obama.

The 44th president's absence is puzzling, given that "change" was such a significant trait of his campaign rhetoric and that so many observers initially looked to his 2008 election as another realignment.1 Today, scholars and pundits are already dissecting Obama's policy legacy with some arguing for consequential domestic changes, mostly in his first term (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Affordable Care Act, and Wall Street reform) and significant foreign policy agreements in his second term (rapprochement with Cuba, the Iranian nuclear deal, and the Paris climate accord). Skeptics counter that Obama took a neoliberal stance on economics and did not deviate greatly from prior foreign policy.2 Moreover, as of [End Page 695] this writing, the Trump administration has already pulled out of the Paris agreement, while many of Obama's other policy achievements face grave danger. Clearly, the change currently gripping our country is not emblematic of an Obama realignment.

And still, in responding to Stuckey's essay, I cannot help but ponder how the inclusion of Obama might provide insights into both Trump and the rhetoric of political change. In what follows, I offer some observations of my own on emotion and change, backlash and victimhood, the magnification of heroic expectations, and social media and counterfactual advocacy, with attention paid to both Obama and his successor.


Stuckey rightly notes that anger is a rhetorical valence of an environment ripe for political change, and she points to how the rhetoric of political change often exhibits angry hyperbole and incivility; in addition, Stuckey occasionally mentions fear as a component of this political environment. The etymological roots of danger from the twelfth and mid-thirteenth centuries suggest how these two emotions are related, for danger (daunger or dangier) originally referred to the "power of a lord or master" and to his "power to harm" and his "mastery, authority, control."3 Faced with threats that composed daily life in the Middle Ages, French peasants not only may have feared feudal lords but also felt anger over their treatment at those lords' hands.

Nonetheless, Aristotle reminds us that anger and fear, while related, function quite distinctively. Anger is "an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight directed without justification" against oneself or one's friends or loved ones.4 Rhetors can also fan the flames of anger by emphasizing how political figures and institutions perceive citizens as unimportant and have treated them with contempt, obstructed the fulfillment of their needs out of malevolence, and/or slighted them for sheer amusement.5 At the other end of the continuum from anger is calmness, which occurs with "feeling prosperous or successful or satisfied; when in fine, they [citizens] are enjoying freedom from pain, or inoffensive pleasure, or justifiable hope. Also when time has passed and their anger is no longer fresh."6 Aristotle contrasts this emotional continuum with that of [End Page 696] fear and confidence. As he explains, citizens experience fear when they perceive an impending "destructive or painful evil," whereas confidence is "the expectation associated with a mental picture of the nearness of what keeps us safe"—perhaps, say, the election of a strong leader who will protect us—and/or "the absence or remoteness of what is terrible." Aristotle adds, interestingly, that anger may also lead to confidence because "anger is excited by our knowledge that we are...


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