It was an odd phrase to hear in a nomination acceptance speech, so odd that it immediately made me wonder why it was there — and with a speech as fine-tuned and brushed down as Hillary Clinton’s last night, one can be assured there are no accidents.
It was near the beginning of the speech, in a section nominally connecting the present to the Philadelphia of the American Revolution, which in most such addresses would be a pleasant historical callback, but here becomes freighted, almost overdetermined:
“When representatives from 13 unruly colonies met just down the road from here, some wanted to stick with the king. And some wanted to stick it to the king. The revolution hung in the balance. Then somehow, they began listening to each other, compromising, finding common purpose.”
The “stick with/stick to” phrase jumped out at me. It’s so pungent, so colloquial. And, I began to sense as her speech progressed, so central to her dual rhetorical mission: to disarm the attacks focusing on the “cartoon” Clinton as dynastic one-per-center and at the same time redirecting that populist ire at the true shill for the oligarchy (whether American or Russian remains to be seen) Donald Trump.
There were a number in the Wells Fargo Center last night who still wanted to stick it to Hillary. About 200 die-hard Bernie fans (coming from science fiction fandom, it’s easy for me to understand the depth of their loss; I still mourn the cancellation of Firefly) wearing their high-visibility yellow “Enough is Enough” t-shirts and occasionally trying to interrupt speeches. Nor were they alone. I spoke this week with less visible but equally disappointed folks who deeply disagree with Clinton as a matter of principle on a range of issues: foreign policy, trade, education, militarism.
For this audience, Clinton’s challenge was to position incrementalism as progressive, as she did when she explicitly reached out to Sanders, his delegates, and his fans:
“To all of your supporters here and around the country: I want you to know, I’ve heard you. Your cause is our cause. Our country needs your ideas, energy, and passion. That is the only way we can turn our progressive platform into real change for America.”
That’s the first half of the speech’s mission: to inoculate against the meme of a Clinton “coronation” by leveraging the most powerful positional advantage against Trump: I versus we. Kings, by definition, rule alone, by unassailable right. By divine right in some cases, or in our version of divinity, by virtue of their visible status as one of the Elect in surreptitiously Calvinist America. When Clinton (mildly mis-)quoted Hamilton en passant late in the third act of her speech, “We may not live to see the glory/let us gladly join the fight” she knew that HamFans would automatically supply the next line: “And when our children tell our story/they’ll tell the story of tonight.”
And that story is about a scrappy group working together to turn the world upside down. In Lin Manuel-Miranda’s incisive retelling, we see Alexander Hamilton — who in the rear-view mirror of history is an engraved profile on a bank note, the picture of a Founding Father one-per-center — as an outsider determined to rise above his station, deeply committed to serving the cause of his young country. It is no accident that the video history of Clinton’s life lingered so long on her family’s early challenges. Kings do not come from families where a parent is all but abandoned; witness the prominence of the story of her mother having to walk alone to the cafe on the corner for food. That’s not the parent of a king. That’s a “founding father without a father” riff, an origin story for a hero.
So who, then, is King George? Ah, yes, of course. Clinton supplies the answer with a “stick it to” clause, explicitly connecting the actions of the colonists at Independende Hall to the actions of the delegates at the 2016 Democratic National Convention:
“Then somehow, they began listening to each other, compromising, finding common purpose. And by the time they left Philadelphia, they had begun to see themselves as one nation. That’s what made it possible to stand up to a king.”
Listening (a major theme in all the “why I support” speeches and videos: Clinton listened and took action), compromising (as the Clinton camp did on platform and superdelegates and Sanders himself did on the nomination), and common purpose. Articulating that common purpose (turning our platform into change) will occupy the rest of speech, but first, Clinton drives the point home, cinching the present moment tightly to the Continental Congress and the true meaning of the Gadsden Flag, that coiled snake of unity ready to strike at all enemies foreign and domestic:
“Our Founders embraced the enduring truth that we are stronger together. Now, America is once again at a moment of reckoning. Powerful forces are threatening to pull us apart. Bonds of trust and respect are fraying. And just as with our founders, there are no guarantees. It truly is up to us. We have to decide whether we all will work together so we can all rise together. Our country’s motto is “e pluribus unum:” out of many, we are one.”
And then she focuses all the weight of all the history she has brought to bear on the core question the country faces:
“Will we stay true to that motto?”
If we have taken on board the framing Clinton proposed, we of course can have only one answer to that question. Like the colonists sweating out an awful Philadelphia summer (an unplanned historical parallel) we know we must hang together to fight the king, the real king in this drama: Donald Trump.
After laying out a broad policy agenda in the first half of the speech, she turns to an exploration of King Donald and his failings (echoing the Declaration of Independence’s list of indictments — “He has refused, he has forbidden, he has constrained,” etc.): “He offered zero solutions,” “He doesn’t like talking about his plans,” “He just stiffed them,” “He also talks a big game about putting America First,” “He loses his cool at the slightest provocation.” And then the one that ties it all together: “He’s offering empty promises.”
Clinton returns to her central metaphor, pointedly, as she begins her close:
“Let our legacy be about ‘planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.’ That’s why we’re here…not just in this hall, but on this Earth. The Founders showed us that. And so have many others since. They were drawn together by love of country, and the selfless passion to build something better for all who follow. That is the story of America. And we begin a new chapter tonight.”
Yep. Rhetoric for the win. For those in the hall last night, the experience was electric, and the applause and whooping and banner waving was entirely spontaneous. It was a meticulously constructed speech, delivered with wit, grit, and passion, and my sense in the room was that many will have found it persuasive. When our children tell the story of how that garden came to be, my guess is that they’ll be telling the story of tonight.