Commencement speeches were weird long before Donald Trump made them weirder. Once a year, America’s famous and successful fan out across the nation’s campuses to deliver life lessons to hungover 22 year-olds who may or may not have anything in common with the person giving the speech. No wonder that for every David Foster Wallace at Kenyon there’s a dozen variations on the theme of “Follow Your Heart.”
Since our current president took office, commencement speakers have seen their difficult task become near-impossible. Donald Trump is the kind of adult that parents fear their children will grow into. And yet, somehow, he is also the president.
What do we tell the graduates now?
To their credit, many of this year’s commencement speakers have taken on this challenge when they could have spoken about something else. It’s no coincidence that these speeches have garnered the most national attention: Mike Bloomberg speaking about the importance of an honor code at Rice University; Oprah urging USC Trojans to “strike down deceit” and “be the truth”; Rex Tillerson warning that a “crisis of ethics and integrity” puts American democracy at risk.
They’re all good speeches. They’re all about Trump, not explicitly but nevertheless undeniably, like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” only with a president instead of drugs. As a speechwriter, that’s probably as far as I’d advise a client to go.
As a speech reader, however, I find myself wanting someone to go further. Faced with a crisis of dishonesty, naming bad actors isn’t about endorsing call-out culture or joining vulgarians in the gutter. It’s about asserting the truth.
I understand why commencement speakers would rather decry behaviors than people. For influential public figures, condemning the president of the United States by name before an audience of newly minted college grads is wildly, almost unthinkably, impolite. And speakers are rightly cautious when it comes to violating long-established codes of conduct. After all, if Marco Rubio were president, the courtesy of keeping his name out of non-political speeches would make sense.
But Marco Rubio is not president. The guy Marco Rubio said was a con artist trying to take over the conservative movement is president, and yesterday’s courtesies need not apply. Yes, naming bad actors would cross a line. But if we’re truly facing a national emergency, as some of our most thoughtful and eloquent speakers are warning, then surely it’s a line worth crossing. Referring to President Trump by name would send a clear signal that this is not a moment of concern, it’s a moment of crisis. It’s the rhetorical equivalent of breaking glass in case of emergency.
Talking about President Trump, rather than a hypothetical person who we all know to be President Trump, would also speak directly to young people increasingly confused by society’s style guide. Many of today’s college graduates struggle to understand why media outlets tie themselves in knots to avoid saying liars are lying. They question the kind of deference to the powerful that allows the architects of the Iraq War or the 2008 financial crisis an unlimited number of second chances. Whether it’s Colin Kaepernick taking a knee or Michelle Wolf torching the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, they respect the people who stand up to institutions far more than they respect the institutions themselves. To the newest generation of Americans, oblique criticism is often not a sign of courtesy but of insincerity.
Finally, saying “Trump” in a commencement speech about the threat he poses would make it clear that there some choices are so deplorable that they define the person who makes them. Trumpism depends on American elites — ie. commencement speakers and their audiences — treating the rule of law as just one of many issues. True, he threatens democracy, but on the other hand he cut my taxes and unemployment is at 3.9 percent. Criticizing the president by name would make it clear that the rule of law transcends all other issues. Undermining democracy isn’t a feature of the Trump presidency, it’s the feature of the Trump presidency. And all of us have a responsibility to oppose that presidency regardless of what else we believe.
Speaking this kind of truth is a tall order for a commencement speaker. Whoever does it is likely to face the wrath of Fox News and a host of right-wing imitators, not to mention the president’s twitter account. A good chunk of the audience may strongly support the president. Even some who don’t will feel that directly condemning Trump goes too far.
Still, as we enter the final few weekends of graduation season, I hope someone tries it. Because while citizenship demands civility, there are times when patriotism requires us to be impolite. This is one of those times. And that’s something I think the Class of 2018 would be well-served to hear.