Sovereign Language: The Rhetoric of the Terror War Presidents

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Sovereign Language: The Rhetoric of the Terror War Presidents

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In the years following the September 11 attacks Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama expanded the power of the presidency to pursue the terror wars. This project explains how this was accomplished by performing a rhetorical criticism of the signing statements, executive orders, and presidential policy directives issued by both of the terror war Presidents. Drawing on insights from scholarship on the rhetorical presidency this project argues that the expansion of presidential powers is best understood as an attempt to incorporate the practices of public address into the exercise of personal power by the President. The implications of this tactic are manifest in the policies produced to pursue the terror wars, including enhanced interrogation, indefinite detention, continuous undeclared wars, mass surveillance, as well as other abuses of human dignity. The powers afforded to the terror war Presidents to pursue these policies have had a detrimental impact not only on the Constitution, but on the democratic practices of the United States. This project argues that the only hope for substantive change will be a fundamental change between the presidency and the public. The presentation will focus on the use of signing statements by both President George W. Bush and Obama to defend and end the practice of indefinite detention. Against legislative efforts to oppose both Presidents by Congress, both Presidents asserted the primacy of the presidency in determining how detained persons ought to be treated and how the terror wars would be fought. Although there are important policy differences between these two Presidents, they shared a commitment to defending the power of the presidency that caused both to circumvent the dictates of Congress. This example represents a microcosm of the broader trends in the presidency during the terror wars toward affording the presidency a sovereign position to unilaterally dictate policy for the country.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. August 2017. Major: Communication Studies. Advisor: Ronald Greene. 1 computer file (PDF); v, 387 pages.

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Hiland, Alexander. (2017). Sovereign Language: The Rhetoric of the Terror War Presidents. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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