Why Trump’s Speech After His Guilty Verdict Was All Business, No Politics

The way to evaluate a political speech — I mean as a literary critic, not as a pundit or a partisan — is to examine how the rhetoric rises to the occasion. Does the moment demand gravity or transcendence? Humility or defiance? Do the speaker’s words answer the call of history?

In the case of Donald J. Trump’s 33-minute address in the lobby of Trump Tower on Friday, the occasion was both bizarre and momentous. A former president on the brink of becoming, for the third time in a row, the nominee of his party, stood convicted of 34 felonies. That nothing remotely similar has ever happened before is sufficient to guarantee the speech a place in the annals of American political discourse.

As text and performance, though, the thing was kind of a slog. Mr. Trump has never been an orderly orator or a methodical builder of arguments; he riffs and extemporizes, free-associates and repeats himself, straying from whatever script may be at hand. He did some of that on Friday, but his manner was subdued. The matter was also curiously flat: a rehash of the trial, with a few gestures toward the larger political stakes.

The persona Mr. Trump presented on Friday was that of an aggrieved New York businessman — a Trump that seemed like a throwback to an earlier, pre-MAGA era. He didn’t sound like a candidate in campaign mode. The showboating populism that he brings to his rallies — the mix of piety and profanity that gets the crowds going — was hardly in evidence.

It’s true that he began and ended with familiar tropes and themes, painting a grim picture of a declining, crime-ridden America overrun by foreigners (some speaking languages “that we haven’t even heard of”). He framed his legal troubles as an assault on the Constitution and used religious imagery to depict what had happened in the courtroom. Some witnesses were “literally crucified” by the judge, Juan Merchan, “who looks like an angel, but he’s really a devil.”

As a longtime journalist (and lifelong pedant), I’m compelled to point out that nobody was literally crucified. And as a student of Renaissance love poetry, I’m tempted to linger over Mr. Trump’s oddly tender description of the “highly conflicted” judge: “He looks so nice and soft.” A citizen looking for campaign issues might find some boilerplate in a peroration that conjured images of Venezuela and Congo emptying their prisons and asylums onto America’s streets, of Little League ball fields swamped by migrant encampments, of “record levels of terrorists” flooding the country.

Invasion and crucifixion were the bookends. Sandwiched between was almost a solid half-hour of quasi-legal quibbling, as Mr. Trump charged into the weeds of the prosecution’s case against him. Most of what he said in the wake of the trial was a version of what he might have said during it had he testified (as he insisted he wanted to).

On camera and not under oath, he tried to adhere to the letter of Judge Merchan’s gag order, naming no names when he spoke about his former lawyer Michael Cohen and his former chief financial officer at the Trump Organization, Allen Weisselberg, and for that matter about the angelic, diabolical judge himself.

Mr. Trump said nothing about sex and very little about money, stripping the case of its tabloid elements. He sounded less like a martyr than like a motorist trying to talk his way out of a traffic ticket by insisting that he had done nothing wrong, that other cars were going just as fast and that the authorities had more serious matters to deal with. “Most of the people in this room have a nondisclosure agreement with their company,” he said — a claim hard to fact check, but in that particular room possibly true. On the day of the verdict, he pointed out, there was a machete attack in a Midtown McDonald’s. “Crime is rampant in New York,” he said, but the district attorney, Alvin Bragg (whom he did name), had singled him out for punishment.

There was a lot of legalistic spinach, and not much in the way of red meat. But Mr. Trump’s supporters brought their own. He didn’t need to rile up the base; the jury had done that for him, just as it would have with an acquittal. While the former president groused about a “rigged” process and parsed the meaning of the phrase “legal expenses,” right-wing social media erupted with upside-down flags, prophecies of civil war and proclamations of the death of the American Republic.

The inflamed and inflammatory rhetoric — the rage, the messianism, the dark warnings — was not in the speech because it’s everywhere else, part of the air we all breathe. In that respect, Friday was a normal day in 2024 America. Mr. Trump didn’t really need to say anything at all.

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