Representation 11: Make American Great Again. Political Discourse and the principle of difference

Nimen Hao,

today we going to talk about Donald Trump’s political discourse, the ideologies it is based on and the effects of some of that discourse in society.

First a few loose/broad definitions

  • Discourse: a way of talking about things (political discourse, a way of talking about politics)
  • Counter-discourse: an oppositional way of talking about something.
  • Ideology: a social belief system
  • hegemony: dominance by consent. A discourse is hegemonic when most people believe in it/agree with it. A politics is hegemonic when it rules by majority consent/with majority support. An ideology is hegemonic when most people believe in it.
  • Myth: imagined form of reality.

For example, The American Dream is a myth, containing the idea that anyone can make it in America if they really try (we talked about this last semester).

  • A myth is not necessarily false, in fact it isn’t really accurate to talk about a myth being true or false. The American Dream true or false? is a nonsensical question precisely because myths are imagined;  the myth itself is not trading in empirical facts subject to truth claims and their measurement.
  • The valency of a myth, the degree to which it is live and meaningful for people, however, does bear a relationship to facts.

Q: Is the American Dream really meaningful for American citizens in general?

A1: Well, yes, if you mean its an aspiration that many American believe in. Studies suggest many Americans continue to believe in the idea of the American Dream (I can have my own rags to riches success).

A2: But no, if you measure it in terms of the degree to which people doing realize their American dream. Why? Because since the 1980s American has become increasingly inequitable.

The chances of people progressing from rags to riches have got smaller and smaller.

The chances of a small minority of very wealthy people dominating society by virtue of the power gained through their wealth, of arranging society to maintain their power (keeping thins radically inequitable) has increased and become entrenched.

How do they do that?

Well, they use their money to influence politics. Wealthy individuals like the Koch Brothers make massive donations to political parties or individual politicians and those politicians support their interests. They pay consultants to lobby politicians to vote in accordance with their interests.

So for example, the wealth behind the gas and oil industry has a massive effect on American politics and society.

Q: Should America recognize the dangers of global warming and enact a radical green revolution right now?

A: Yes, if we want a chance of avoiding climate catastrophe.

Q: Do the politicians know this?

A: Yes.

Q: Do they say that they know this?

A: No. Politicians like Donald Trump claim global warming is ‘fake news’.

Q: So will they enact a Green Revolution, changing power and transport to renewables?

A: Well, not Donald Trump and the Republican party, no.

Q: Why not?

A: Not because they don’t believe in the reality of global warming (Trump previously admitted he did, before running for President). But because they owe a lot of their political power to the wealth and influence of the gas and oil lobby.

How do citizens read/understand political discourse.

Citizens access the discourse of politicians through the media (including, for example, tv news, newspapers in print and online, social media like Twitter).

The mainstream media is dominant in America, and is owned by just a few very wealthy individuals (like Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner). They way the media asks its questions/tells its stories of or about politicians is dominated by their views. Often, in recent times, that has meant that the questions are asked or the stories told in a way that supports Donald Trump and his discourse claim the he is “Making America Great Again”.

There are also many media outlets not owned by these wealthy Trump supporting individuals. We could say they are representing a counter discourse: something like, “Trump is Making America Worse Again”. Donald Trump counters this counter-discourse in a variety of ways. One of those is the claim that the counter-discourse is ‘fake news’.

Q: How does this work in practice?

A:Let’s take the example of the Paris Climate Agreement. Barack Obama signed it in 2016, thus requiring America to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, along with many other countries. Donald Trump withdrew Americas signature, thus allowing America to continue with high greenhouse gas emissions. When he was criticized for damaging the environment by un-signing, he argued that global warming is ‘fake news’.

Making American Great Again: some strands of Trump’s political discourse


  • “When Mexico sends it people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people” (Trump, 2016).
  • Trump blames undocumented (Mexican) immigrants for “the American family that loses their jobs, their income, or their loved one”.
  • At rallies and in TV interviews, Trump charged that Gonzalo Curiel, the Indiana-born federal judge presiding over the Trump University fraud case, was incorrigibly biased against him because “we’re building a wall. He’s a Mexican.”

Trump, Muslims


Black people

I think it’s a terrible thing, and you know, maybe he should find a country that works better for him, let him try, it’s not gonna happen.”

  • Barack Obama

Trump repeatedly suggested that Obama was not American (not one of us), but African.

He has held Barack Obama responsible for black crime, explicitly because Obama is black. “President Obama has absolutely no control (or respect) over the African American community” Trump wrote in 2014 during the riots in Ferguson, Missouri. A year later, Trump jeered, “Our great African American President hasn’t exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are so happily and openly destroying Baltimore!”

  • Black people from other countries

Trump complained that Haitians coming to the United States “all have AIDS.”

He also warned that people from Nigeria, if they were allowed into our country, would never “go back to their huts.”

Trevor Noah responds to the President

During a discussion about migrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa, Trump fumed: “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” He specifically asked, “Why do we need more Haitians?” He demanded that Congress “take them out” of a list of immigrant populations temporarily allowed to stay in the United States. Instead, he said the United States should accept more people from countries such as Norway.

USA would be forced to take large numbers of people from high crime countries which are doing badly,” he wrote. “I want a merit based system of immigration”. What Trump is proposing, as sketched in his own tweets, is not a merit-based system. Trump is saying that applicants should be accepted or rejected based on country of origin. He’s saying that the individual should be judged by the group.

  • Trump on White Supremacists
  • David Duke (former leader of the Ku Kux Klan)

When asked to criticize the KKK leader for his racism Trump refused to comment

  • People joining with the Charlottesville white supremacist rioters

‘Some very fine people”

Discussion 1. Characterize Trump’s political discourse

  1. Using these examples, how would you characterize these examples of Trump’s political discourse.

2. If these statements indicate ways of making America Great again, what kind of America is trump trying to make?

Discussion 2. Discussing American terrorism

1. What kind of terrorist threats do you think America suffers from? Which kind of terrorist threats are most dangerous? How dangerous are they compared to other forms of violent death and injury in America?

2. What do you think of Trump’s discourse in relation to the threat of terrorism?

3. Now read the articles I will send you on Wechat. Consider your answers to q1. and q2. Is your opinion the same, or has it changed?

Discussion 3: find a topic for your podcasts discussions on the theme of representation.

Time permitting today you should work in your small groups and begin to choose a topic for your end of year assessment piece.

You are going to provide an informative and critically reflective (not just descriptive) discussion of the way something is represented. Your range of choices for a topic are unlimited, but I will give you guidance on whether an idea seems workable or not once you’ve developed your idea (or ideas).

Three themes that we’ve talked about so far in the semester are race, gender and class. You might want to use them for discussing your specific text/object/event of discussion. For example, you could discuss how women are represented in games, or how class is represented in Chinese romance movies, or how race/class is represented in American movies about Chinese/Asian people. You don’t have to use these categories of analysis, but they might be good to work with as tey provide a lot to talk about.

Each speaker should contribute between 3-6 minutes (no longer than 6 minutes please) to your discussion.

You can send me the recordings and the transcript on wechat, by or before June 14.

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