A Rhetorical Analysis of Ron Paul’s 2009 “Imagine” speech.
In 2008, with our nation weary of war and just grasping the beginnings of a deep economic recession, we as a people elected a president that ran on a platform of change. While never truly spelling out exact policies of how or what would be changed, this presidential candidate tapped into the popular idea that the United States was headed in the wrong direction and that change needed to happen. A year later it was quite evident that if there was going to be any change, it was not going to be any time soon. The Anti-War movement, so popular during the Bush presidencies had quite literally disappeared. The enraged masses were so pleased with their elected “chosen one” that they were pacified into total silence. Anti War turned out to be a trendy euphemism for Anti Bush. There were only a small few of our elected leaders who were outside the main political process that could see the truth. The wars were not ending. Our troops were not coming home and Obama’s administration was maneuvering for our military to stay in the middle east indefinitely. On March 11th 2009, one of those few gave a speech to his core constituents that has since been used to changed many minds about our foreign policy. Through this speech, Ron Paul re-introduced the idea that it is healthy to openly question how, where and why the United States uses its military power to whole new generation of Conservatives. The speech was simply titled “Imagine” and as will be shown, the then Congressman Paul successfully guided us as a nation to think about the unintended consequences of our actions militarily through the masterful use of repetition and allusion.
As a flight surgeon in the United State’s Air Force during the Vietnam War, Ron Paul understood the sacrifice required to serve this country in uniform. As a medical doctor who personally delivered over four thousand babies, he understood how to guide countless people through incredibly stressful experiences. As a Congressman for twenty years representing the state of Texas he was well aware of the inner workings of the political machine and chose not to take part. In his time as a Congressman, he was known for his consistent voting record against bills that he believed violated the Constitution and his own conservative principles. On numerous occasions, Congressman Paul was counted as the sole “no” vote earning him the moniker of “Dr. No”. All of this knowledge and experience gave the message contained in this speech the legitimacy that required for it to have such a meaningful lasting impact.
Almost the whole of Senator Paul’s speech is set up as a thought exercise. Through the use of the continually repeated phase of “Imagine if. . “ the audience is guided through a thought exercise where they are asked to imagine what it would be like to be on the receiving end of standard United States military practice at the time. He does this by having us pretend that there is a large foreign military base somewhere in the middle of Texas that we are told by our leaders that it is there to “keep us safe” and is only there to “protect their strategic interests.” By using terminology most people who support military action will already be quite familiar with and commonly used terms often used as justification for our own military action, the speech begins to allude to it’s intended message. Mimicking this terminology in this context allows the audience to hear the message with fresh ears. Through allusion, Ron Paul effectively guides them to a place where they can more easily empathize with those who are hearing this from their own political leaders in countries where we have large military installations.
The speech continues to repeat “Imagine if . . “ at the beginning of each point. We are asked to imagine situations where the soldiers in this fictitious military base act outside of our own laws and that the Constitution of the United States does not apply to them. By using terminology that we are all familiar with from our history books about our own nation’s military victories against the British in the Revolutionary War, strong allusions are made that this is not so far from reality. That these soldiers could unintentionally make tactical mistakes with the intelligence they were given causing accidental deaths would almost certainly enrage Americans and unite them in wanting to forcefully rid this base from their soil.
“Imagine that those Americans were labeled terrorists or insurgents for their defensive actions, and routinely killed, or captured and tortured by the foreign troops on our land. Imagine that the occupiers’ attitude was that if they just killed enough Americans, the resistance would stop, but instead, for every American killed, ten more would take up arms against them, resulting in perpetual bloodshed.”
The audience would already be familiar with how our military behaves internationally and would have understood that if this same justification for military force were directed at Americans it would most certainly be distressful. But by repeating the melodic phrase of “imagine if,” Ron Paul was able to continue to keep his audience’s minds open. That this was all just a thought experiment. It’s all ok. We are just imagining this. Repeating this phrase kept his audience listening. Conservatives at this time would not have responded well to direct and contentious criticism. They had gotten so used to the way were that any questioning was automatically met with terms like “Un-American” or “Un-Patriotic. Ron Paul knew his audience, and by repeating the phrase “Imagine if” he was able to effectively introduce these new ideas where other rhetorical tools may not have worked.
After all of this imagining, we are asked to imagine one more thing. What if the citizens in the foreign nation that is occupying us were unhappy and rose up together to elect someone who would remove those troops from this occupying base in our land and to “put an end to this horror”. But then in what I consider this speech’s most powerful stroke: “Imagine if that leader changed his mind once he took office.” It is clear now that “this leader” is an allusion to president Obama and that back in 2009, Ron Paul was correctly seeing that there was no actionable change taking place with our foreign policies. That those people who had fought so hard to have Obama elected would have had little recourse but to consider the idea that they had been deceived.
By having us imagine what it would be like to have a foreign military base here within our nation’s borders using the same military doctrine we use for our troops internationally, Ron Paul’s speech powerfully used repetition and allusion to guide his audience into deep and meaningful self reflection. To begin to bring into question the effectiveness of the current foreign policy at the time. The speech poignantly illustrates why military action overseas may not work in the way it is pitched to us by our leaders. Through this speech and others like it, Ron Paul was able to position these concepts as part of what it means to be a true Conservative. With the rise in popularity of the Tea Party that directly stemmed from Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential run and currently is being lead in part by his son Rand Paul, it is no longer considered unpatriotic for conservatives to question our foreign policy. Conservatives now see it as their duty to heatedly debate the merits of any military action and for empathy and context to be commonly used in these discussions. We have Ron Paul’s message and legacy to thank for that. He introduced a morality that was previously missing. A soul. Imagine if we could look back at this time of prolonged war from a period of prolonged peace and unquestionably see this period of time as an unfortunate mistake.
Context? I am taking a continuing education class at BYU and we were asked to do a Rhetorical analysis of a “famous” speech. I decided to pick one of my favorite Ron Paul speeches. The instructor gave me a grade of 92%. I’m pretty happy with that. My next paper is on the ill effects of the Farm Bill. Stay tuned.