“I am your voice!” booms Donald Trump at the climax of his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.
“Speech is something different from voice,” writes Aristotle in the Politics. “Voice” (phone) is possessed by both humans and animals, enabling us to communicate basic desires, most especially pleasure and pain. “Speech (logos), on the other hand, serves to indicate what is useful and what is harmful, and so also what is just and what is unjust.” Speech is not only the “external” expression of our “inner” individual reason, but the activity that shapes our social identity, an identity that only emerges in and through encounter, dialogue, disagreement, critique, and, perhaps, respect, recognition, and love.
“For the real difference between man and other animals is that humans alone have perception of good and evil, the just and the unjust, etc. It is the sharing of a common view in these matters that makes a household and a state.” Only the human can make a home. Only the human can be political. Only the human can create and participate in justice.
This is what is meant by the word “politics.” Politics is the space of speech. Speech is the ground of politics and the medium of humanity (a humanity that, for Aristotle, unfortunately excluded women and slaves). This is acknowledged and enshrined in our own Bill of Rights.
In his book Disagreement, Jacques Rancière writes, “The supremely political destiny of man is attested by a sign: the possession of the logos, that is, of speech, which expresses, while the voice simply indicates…We could say that the difference … separates the discursive articulation of a grievance from the phonic articulation of a groan.”
The transformation of “voice” into “speech” is the raped not simply shouting “No!” but “Wrong!” the whipped not simply screaming “Stop!” but “Evil!” It is the movement from passivity into activity, objectivity into subjectivity, flesh into spirit. It is the language of justice.
Speech is important, essential. Nay, speech is sacred. “In the beginning, there was the word (logos).”
That speech has become a central issue during the rise of Trump is not new to politics, but the way in which speech is spoken about by Trump and his supporters, the way in which “speeches” become mere repetitions of fiery catch phrases (or the blatant plagiarizing of the speech of others) hardly supports speech in this Aristotelian sense, in this human sense. Rather, Trump’s declaration that he is the “voice” of the people is an offense against speech, an attack on that aspect of the human that makes our expressions different from a cricket’s chirp, a dog’s bark, or even a baby’s babble. Trump is not the protector of speech, but its enemy. He is, as he proudly proclaims, anti-political. But being anti-political means being anti-speech. Being anti-political means being anti-human.
What Trump has done is reduced speech to voice, which is to say, turned political discourse into the grunts and groans of animals. Does it communicate something? Yes, but nothing beyond the mere individualist perception of pleasure or pain, like or dislike. Voice is something that ultimately remains in the domain of self-interest, not community. There is nothing that strives to a concept or an idea, nothing that enters into the realm of morality and human dialogue, much less a discourse of justice.
The screaming voice becomes a cacophony that drowns out all other voices and disallows the possibility of speech and dialogue. A wall of catch phrases, slogans, and chants (“Make America great again”; “Lock her up!”) is erected, creating an opaque and impenetrable wall that destroys debate, critical thinking, humility, and consideration of the other. This wall of voices not only keeps other voices out, but starts to reverberate internally, creating an echo chamber whereby even these voices become indistinguishable. In this way, “discourse” devolves into mere noise.
Trumpism is the negation of speech. The negation of speech is the impossibility of politics. The impossibility of politics is the annihilation of that which makes us human. Trumpism is the annihilation of humanity.