And while the address did include plenty of attacks on the opposition, and harshly divisive language, it also contained an optimistic streak usually absent from Trump’s rhetoric. Trump took on the role of America’s cheerleader in chief, proclaiming that his administration has put America’s “enemies on the run,” its “fortunes on the rise,” and promising, “We are moving forward at a pace that was unimaginable just a short time ago, and we are never ever going back.”
That might be confusing, given the harshness and the list of grievances that usually drive Trump’s speeches and his tweets, as well as his nostalgic message that often frames America’s “greatness” as long past. But Trump’s speech makes more sense in the context of the history of presidential rhetoric. Often presidents tout the decline of America during their campaigns and early days in office before triumphantly proclaiming that the country’s problems are solved as they approach reelection. This pattern exposes how the theme of American decline, which has driven Trump’s movement, has been more of a rhetorical weapon against his political enemies than a real assessment that the country is careening toward destruction.
Politicians, especially relative newcomers or those positioning themselves as outsiders, routinely claim that the policies of the incumbent government have dragged the country down. Importantly these newcomers are not beholden to their own party’s recent past and therefore push back not only against the incumbent, but even against their own party’s decisions to critique the country’s trajectory. They often frame themselves as a breath of fresh air, offering a national chance for renewal.
But by portraying themselves as the sole solution to the nation’s problems, their inaugurations reset a clock after which rhetoric about national decline loses its political value relatively quickly. The new president starts to “own” the economy, as well as the happenings of government. This creates strong incentives to start proclaiming that the United States’ problems have been solved in the span of a few years — regardless of the reality.
This tradition stretches back to the late 1950s. John F. Kennedy, the fresh-faced newcomer to the national scene in 1960, even though he had been in Congress since 1947, campaigned on declining American prestige and the “missile gap” between the United States and the Soviet Union. Kennedy asked the nation in his acceptance speech during the Democratic National Convention to choose between “national greatness and national decline — between the fresh air of progress and the stale, dank atmosphere of ‘normalcy’ — between determined dedication and creeping mediocrity.” Kennedy diagnosed the nation as one that was in decline, which could be arrested only by fresh faces in Washington.
Kennedy’s challenger, then-Vice President Richard Nixon, was having none of Kennedy’s declinism. Nixon forcefully argued at the Republican National Convention that “no criticism … should be allowed to obscure the truth, either at home or abroad, but today America is the strongest nation, militarily, economically and ideologically, in the world; and we have the will and the stamina and the resources to maintain that strength in the years ahead.”
For Nixon, who “owned” the direction of the country as vice president, the campaign theme of American decline was off the table. In reality, Nixon was right about American strength exposing how Kennedy’s assessment was much more of a political attack than a realistic assessment.
Even famously optimistic politicians embrace this sort of rhetoric. In his acceptance speech at the 1980 Republican National Convention, Ronald Reagan claimed that “never before in our history have Americans been called upon to face three grave threats to our very existence, any one of which could destroy us. We face a disintegrating economy, a weakened defense and an energy policy based on the sharing of scarcity.” This sense that the nation was suffering a crisis of confidence against the backdrop of “stagflation” fueled one of Reagan’s slogans, “Let’s Make America Great Again,” which offers a hint as to why Trump’s similar calls have been so potent.
Four years later, however Reagan ran the famous Morning in America campaign, so named for one of his television ads. He sounded triumphant on the campaign trail: “With the support of the American people and the Congress we halted America’s decline. Our economy is now in the midst of the best recovery since the sixties. Our defenses are being rebuilt, our alliances are solid, and our commitment to defend our values has never been more clear.” Reagan had moved, like Trump, to a modified message of keeping America great. His acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention on Aug. 23, 1984, sounded eerily similar to Trump’s State of the Union. “We can all be proud that pessimism is ended,” Reagan told the audience, adding “America is coming back and is more confident than ever about the future.”
Especially for the man who famously asked Americans whether they were better off today than they had been four years earlier in his lone debate against President Jimmy Carter, Reagan understood the need to convince Americans that he had stopped a dangerous decline.
The appeal of outsider politicians starting with Carter has intensified this rhetorical pattern. Nowhere was that more evident than in Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and subsequent presidency. On the campaign trail in Iowa in 2007, Obama, lamented America’s declining standing in the world: “Americans in every corner of the state, patriots all, who wonder why we have allowed our standing in the world to decline so badly, so quickly.” For Obama, it was time for change, an argument that resonated that much more in a time of economic crisis, with two wars continuing endlessly and other failures dotting the American landscape.
By the time Obama ran for reelection in 2012, however, he was frustrated by all of the talk of American decline coming from Republicans, given that his policies had stopped the Great Recession and he had overseen a historic expansion of health-care access for Americans. His opponent Mitt Romney, however, contended that Obama had “put America on the road to decline, militarily, internationally, and domestically …” Declinism had come full circle. Now it was Obama’s turn to fight back.
In his State of the Union address, the president dismissed such narratives. “Anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned,” Obama remarked, “doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
Just a few years later Trump would enter the American political scene hammering home a message of American decay. Importantly, Trump not only critiqued Obama for contributing to America’s decline, but he criticized past Republican administrations as well. Like Reagan, he hadn’t spent time in Washington before, making his attacks resonate that much more.
While Tuesday’s State of the Union address contained many norm-breaking, “made for memes” moments, including Rush Limbaugh receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Trump’s dismissal of American decline, and his triumphant claims that the United States is back on track, were far from norm-breaking. Instead, Trump’s speech fits a familiar American pattern.
Even though he has made his reputation as a brawler, whose rhetoric is harsh and full of ridiculing his opponents, we should expect some sunniness in the year ahead. For Trump must convince Americans that he has, in fact, “made America great again.” While the president will undoubtedly attack his opponents, from “Sleepy Joe” to “Crazy Bernie” and employ violent nativist rhetoric about immigrants, history tells us that he must pivot from deriding the state of America to branding those who claim that the United States is in decline as unpatriotic. To vote Trump out of office, he will claim, will be to return to the America of 2016: an America in decline. Or maybe, as a recent tweet of his suggests, the answer to keeping America great lies in keeping him in office beyond 2024.