Khizr Khan and American Authenticity
Khizr Khan’s speech should not have worked.
When Khan took the stage at the 2016 Democratic National Convention with his wife Ghazala, he broke some of the cardinal rules of rhetoric.
His delivery was slow and plodding, and his body language stiff.
He asked rhetorical questions, and concluded with the phrase, “in conclusion” — two things that would make any high school English teacher wince.
And toward the end, he went completely off-prompter — a speechwriter’s worst nightmare — and ad-libbed the final minute of his remarks.
So why did it work?
Four years later, Khan’s speech is still one of the most powerful pieces of oratory within living memory. It moved the audience to tears, captured the attention of pundits for weeks, and caused a massive spike in pocket Constitution sales.
In just six minutes, Khan seared himself into American political memory. Not because of his soaring rhetoric, or talent for public speaking, but because he was authentic.
In an era when most of the politicians we hear from have spent decades cultivating their public personas, authenticity is the most valuable currency in American politics.
For proof, just look at the man in the Oval Office. Sure, he’s a cartoonishly bigoted monstrosity of a person — but no one can deny that his perceived authenticity resonates with millions of people. Even when he lies (about 71% of the time, according to Politifact), he does it with such ease and confidence that a part of you can’t help but feel he must think he’s telling the truth.
Similarly, Khan’s speech before the DNC resonated because it was sincere. He wasn’t a career politician with a carefully crafted persona; he was just a father who’d lost his child.
When he spoke slowly, or moved stiffly, we never thought of him as a poor public speaker; we only thought of how painful it must have been to speak about his son in front of tens of millions of people.
When we learned he’d improvised the end of his speech, we never thought of it as disrespectful; we knew he simply had more to say.
And when he pulled a copy of the Constitution out of his pocket, it didn’t feel like a prop or a gimmick. Somehow, we knew, in our bones, that it was sincere.
Khizr Khan has been enamored with the U.S. Constitution since he was an undergraduate law student at the University of Punjab. He has a degree from Harvard Law School. And he’s carried pocket Constitutions with him since 2005, which he gives as gifts to ROTC cadets at the University of Virginia — his late son Humayun’s alma mater.
Most of us, of course, couldn’t have known all that when we first saw him offer to lend Donald Trump his copy of our founding document. But we somehow still knew — still sensed — that it was authentic.
Because Khizr Khan’s authenticity is different from Donald Trump’s.
Trump’s is a product of unfathomable privilege: the privilege of a rich, white man who has never suffered consequences from saying and doing whatever he wanted.
Khan’s authenticity comes from loss: the deepest loss any parent could ever experience. He infused his remarks with a piece of his soul. And when he spoke, we felt it in ours.
In their own ways, both men are quintessentially American. One, the product of a capitalist system who wields his inherited wealth and power for personal gain. The other, an immigrant who came to America believing “that with hard work and the goodness of this country, we could share in and contribute to its blessings.”
Both brands of authenticity resonate because they speak to two of the oldest, most entrenched impulses of American individualism: the instinct to enrich oneself at the expense of others, and the instinct to sacrifice for the good of all.
For as long as there’s been an America, these two threads — greed and sacrifice — have been woven into the tapestry of our history. On one hand, the immigrants, native peoples, and slaves who built this country; on the other, the robber barons, tycoons, and slaveowners who built fortunes on their backs. Both are authentically, inescapably American.
But only one is patriotic.
When Khizr Khan began his remarks by declaring that he and Ghazala were “honored to stand here as the parents of Captain Humayun Khan, and as patriotic American Muslims,” he reminded us that pluralism is not the opposite of patriotism, but its most essential quality.
When he told Trump to “go look at the graves of the brave patriots who died defending America” he reminded us that patriotism means sacrifice.
And when he delivered the Convention’s most damning condemnation of the Republican nominee — “you have sacrificed nothing, and no one” — it cut to the very core of Trump’s character, and revealed how hollow his brand of authenticity truly is.
For four years, Donald Trump has leveraged that brand to appeal to the oldest demons of our nature. He’s tried to convince us that greed is good. That difference deserves punishment. That the blessings of this country are to be hoarded, not shared.
For six minutes in the summer of 2016, Khizr and Ghazala Khan appealed to our better angels. They begged us to remember that people of “all faiths, genders, and ethnicities” lie interred in our most hallowed ground. That America is not something to be coveted, but an aspiration that belongs to all those who sacrifice to realize it.
In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.
Read Khizr Khan’s 2016 Democratic National Convention speech here.