Trump wasn't addressing the kind of person who picks holes in rhetoric. Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

November 4, 2020   5 mins

We’d almost never heard him so quiet. The pumped-up demagogue of “American carnage”, the all-caps rage-tweeter we meet during the White House’s “executive time”, seemed to be nowhere in evidence when Donald Trump took to the podium in the White House in the small hours of this morning. He was lucid, wan, a little hoarse in the voice.

That was the really weird thing: almost everybody had predicted that this speech, or a version of it, would come. Pretty much everyone, too, would have predicted an incidental violation of the Hatch act, a non-existent attitude to masks and social distancing in the audience, and the presumptuous use of “Hail to the Chief” as walking-on music. All that stuff is what betting pundits would call “priced in”.

But the Trump who took the podium was not what we’d expected. He seemed relaxed. He even opened with a joke: “This is without question the latest news conference I’ve ever had,” he said. He sounded wry — a tone not hitherto identifiable in his register. “We love you!” someone shouted out, and he looked a little bashful. He had said many times the day before that he hadn’t prepared a speech. That is itself is a rhetorical strategy; to seem spontaneous is to seem authentic.

He modestly thanked “the American people” for “their tremendous support” and said in a downbeat way that “millions and millions of people voted for us tonight — and a very sad group of people is trying to disenfranchise that group of people, and we won’t stand for it. We will not stand for it.” That was the payload — or, at least, the foreshadowing of it. Good rhetorical tactic: say what you’re going to say, then say it, then say that you’ve said it.

He was, in effect, teasing the theme of his speech. So far, though, the velvet glove. He sounded a little sad, a little thoughtful. As he repeated the phrase “we won’t stand for it” he unpacked the contraction in his auxiliary verb: “We will not stand for it.” That “not”, standing alone, gets a bit more emphasis; puts a bit more steel and determination into the phrase. But still, it was downbeat: regret rather than anger. Here is the tone of the teacher in the old joke about the inflatable school, telling off the little boy with the pin: “You’ve let me down, you’ve let your classmates down… You’ve let the whole school down.”

All this was an effective approach at the level of tone. The basic argument of his speech — the logos of it — was to make a baseless claim that the election was being stolen, and to protest before the results were even in that it was unfair and that he wouldn’t accept its legitimacy. But had he come out thundering – had he looked personally aggrieved, flushed of face and bombastic – he’d have looked weaker than he did. He’d have made it nakedly about his own ego and his own interests.

He framed his remarks, instead, in such a way as to cast himself as the father-protector, speaking up for the little people. The wannabe autocrat is never a wannabe autocrat: always a humble servant of the “will of the people”. Instead of petulance, he made an affectation of regret and bewilderment: “We were getting ready for a big celebration. We were winning everything… and all of a sudden it was just… all gone. We were literally just getting ready to get outside and celebrate something that was so beautiful, so good.”

On came the slathering of superlatives: “such a vote… such a success… record numbers… this is a record… there’s never been anything like it… incredible movement”. Even as he started to ramble through the progress of the election, he still maintained that tone of humble surprise. You seldom hear Trump admitting weakness or doubt at all, but here he said: “We won states that we weren’t expected to win – Florida.” Given that no Republican in living memory has won the Presidency without winning Florida, that’s on the face of it quite the admission. But it’s a tactic, the better to offset the claim that “We didn’t win it — we won it by a lot.”

But ramble he then did – offering a bewildering stew of facts and conjectures and partial figures as he hopped from state to state. The middle of this speech was simply a mess – not coherent enough even to convey, as I guess it was supposed to, a big-picture grasp of figures.

Not that the figures really mattered in the end. Because the burden of the speech, the key passage, came after all that and it essentially negated all that came before. One moment he was talking about the prospects of a famous victory in the great state of North Carolina, the next, mimetically enough, he declared: “And all of a sudden everything just stopped.”

And then, there it was: the F-word. “This is a fraud on the American public,” he said. “This is an embarrassment to our country.” Here was isocolon, two balanced phrases of about the same length in parallel, reinforced by the repeated opener “this is”. He followed it up with the figure of metanoia, correcting himself and making a statement stronger, to build a head of rhetorical steam: “We were getting ready to win this election… Frankly, we did win this election.”

And then the meat of it: “So our goal now is to ensure the integrity, for the good of this nation. This is a very big moment. This is a major fraud on our nation. We want the law to be used in a proper manner, so we’ll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court. We want all voting to stop. We don’t want them to find any ballots at 4 o’clock in the morning and add them to the list, okay? It’s a very sad moment. To me, this is a very sad moment. And we will win this. As far as I’m concerned, we already have won it.”

It doesn’t need me to parse the illogicality of all this — that he moved from complaining that “everything just stopped”, to demanding that everything stop; that he made a dishonest elision between “voting” and the counting of votes that had already been cast; that he boasted about votes still being counted in states he expected to win, while railing against votes still being counted in states he didn’t; that he has moved from complaining that treacherous Democrats would use the Supreme Court to decide the election to demanding the Supreme Court decide the election…

The people who see that clearly aren’t the people he’s really talking to. And for the people he’s really talking to, he will have done a scarily effective job. They will have heard “integrity… good of the nation… law used in a proper manner” associated with one side of the argument, and insinuations about shady ballots turning up at 4am on the other. They’ll have heard a leader expressing regret and sadness at having to take a step he never wanted to take to defend them.

And they’ll have heard in the confidence of his unusually quiet voice the indicative incarnation of their hopes: “We will win this. As far as I’m concerned, we already have won it.” The irony is that had he actually believed that, he’d never have stood up to make this speech.

Sam Leith is literary editor of The Spectator. His forthcoming book, The Haunted Wood: A History of Childhood Reading, is out in September.