The presidential speech is a special artform. One of the things that makes it unique is that the speaker has to address several different audiences at the same time, such as a legislature, a domestic public, a political party, and international peers. Africa has a lot of presidents and they make a lot of speeches, and along with most students of African politics, I have listened to quite a few. It’s a skillset that came in useful with last week’s State of the Union address.

The SOTU was a carefully scripted speech. It was written, we can assume, by speechwriters who knew well the mindset of the speaker, and who could anticipate his thought patterns, emotions, and gestures. As such, it was an expert exercise in handling: President Trump stuck to his script.

And I suspect that the audience at which the speech was aimed was the speaker himself. As candidate and as president, Donald Trump is sensitive to the echo chamber of the audience. He responds to affirmation. But that affirmation can also come from his own words: as he speaks, he gives the impression that he absolutely believes what he is saying, perhaps even that he is unsure what he believes until he hears himself saying it.

Some of Africa’s exemplary presidential orators share this intuitive sense of how a crowd works as a resonating device; they sense the feeling of the crowd and play to it; and if the audience responds they believe in what they are saying all the more. If the audience doesn’t respond they say what they want at ever greater length, trying harder than ever to convince themselves. Mostly, they extemporize. The best examples include Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. And the more practised they become at this particular skill, the more convinced they are by the brilliance of their own rhetoric and the thinking it represents.

The longest speeches are by Communists and other leftists—Fidel Castro holds the record for speaking at the United Nations (almost four and a half hours) and Hugo Chavez once spoke on national television for more than eight hours nonstop. Even Africa’s most famous presidential orators, such as Robert Mugabe, have never spoken at such length.

One of the oldest tricks in the presidential speech playbook is to make individual stories and personal anecdotes substitute for a national policy script. It is invariably used for illusion not illumination. When President Museveni starts talking about his own cows, the seasoned Ugandan listener is alert to what is going to come next—a misleading analogy and a policy proposal that has little or nothing to do with farming. Kenyans became used to their former president, Daniel arap Moi stopping apparently randomly in a small village, speaking to local chiefs and making his major executive decisions in that context, using village idioms and earthy metaphors.

Sometimes this is just a rudimentary way of making the president appear as a man of the people. But there’s a more subtle trick at work. By engaging the emotions and synthesizing a personal connection, the leader is putting reasoning and evidence in the back seat for just as long as is necessary to make a proposal that is unreasonable and not based on evidence.

Another trick, so tawdry that it’s astonishing that it is still tried, is to make the shift from human sympathy for servants of the state who do dangerous jobs for little pay, to uncritical loyalty to the leaders of state, who do no such thing. When President Trump averred that the police and military deserve “total and unwavering support” it was such a ploy. One wonders which White House speechwriter came up with that line. Whether the intent is to enlist uncritical popular support for the military, or personal loyalty to the president, it is disturbing.

Applause is a central feature of the presidential speech: the audible and visible affirmation of the speaker, and a measure of the loyalty of the audience members to the leader. The more senior and visible the lieutenant, the longer he must clap. Those who don’t grin and clap are potential traitors. Trump’s applause for himself was nicely mocked by Dana Milbank. But the most infamous example of this happened at the end of a speech by Stalin in 1937, at the height of the terror. As the feared dictator’s speech drew to a close, the audience of Communist Party members stood and applauded—for five, eight, ten minutes? Who would be the first to stop clapping? Finally, exhausted, after more than eleven minutes of applauding, one comrade finally sat down. Others followed. The secret police came for him that night: before being sent to the Gulag for ten years, he was told, “Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding.”

 

 

 

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