Presidential Naturalization Speeches and the Politics of Belonging
I have never once heard my mother refer to herself as an “American.” Instead, it’s: “The Americans across the street are hosting a party tonight.”
Or: “Why do Americans like turkey so much?”
My mother’s been a U.S. citizen since 1996. And yet, she almost always uses the word “American” to refer to people who are native-born and fluent English speakers — without the flattened vowels or clipped syllables of a foreign accent like hers.
This was the first thing that sprung to my mind when, in September 2017, I watched President Donald Trump’s recorded welcome message to new citizens — the video that is now played at every naturalization ceremony across the country.
My dear fellow American. It is with great pride that I welcome you into the American family. No matter where you come from, or what faith you practice, this country is now your country. Our history is now your history. And our traditions are now your traditions.
“America is our home; we have no other,” he intones. And then, like something blared tinnily over a dystopian encampment: “You have pledged allegiance to America. And when you give your love and loyalty to America, she returns her love and loyalty to you.”
When it comes to presidential remarks, few are as politically charged as the humble naturalization speech. The citizen welcome message, along with the speeches that presidents deliver at naturalization ceremonies throughout their term, have to be both solemn and celebratory, both personal and philosophical. Their job is to lay out (sometimes in two minutes or less) what it means to be a citizen, to be an American, and to belong.
To nobody’s surprise, Presidents Trump and Barack Obama answered these questions with very different words.
Both speakers, however, teach us something important: In speechwriting, political meaning is often embedded in the language itself. It’s backlit by carefully chosen metaphors, and built into phrases and images. Words are freighted with meaning, and positioned to cast their own ideological shadows.