Consubstantiality in the Controversy around a Native Elder and a #MAGA Hat-Clad Teen in D.C.
Consubstantiality is a rhetorical concept describing how people align their interests and actions with others through symbols. According to rhetorician Kenneth Burke, “in acting together, [people] have common sensations, concepts, images, ideas, and attitudes that make the consubstantial.” Scholar Ira Allen clarifies consubstantiality as “a term for the way ideas and attitudes become substantially intertwined by being placed with each other.” For example, flying hundreds of different flags alongside one another at the UN building in Geneva signifies common international objectives.
In short, consubstantiality explains how relationships get established through the use of shared language, symbols, style, or action.
Consubstantiality thus helps us understand a recent controversy. Earlier this month, a video depicting students from Covington Catholic High School encircling Omaha Native elder Nathan Phillips went viral. The students were clad in “Make America Great Again” hats and appeared to be taunting attendees of the Indigenous Peoples March.
The truth of what actually happened in the video is disputed. But there is a relationship not in dispute. The Covington students aligned their interests and actions—that is, they were indicating consubstantiality with—President Donald Trump.
In embracing Trump’s signature “Make America Great Again” hat, the Covington students identified themselves with Trump’s values and interests. Likewise, their decision to shout phrases identified with Trump, such as “Build the Wall,” further demonstrated consubstantiality with Trump. While Covington students are unique individuals, their ideas, attitudes, and behaviors were substantially intertwined with Trump’s that day because they were consubstantiated through shared language, style, and action.
As we learn more about this incident, consubstantiality helps us understand public debate about these students’ motives. It helps us observe people identifying with and acting together with others. Consubstantiality is a useful tool to think about how we identify opponents or allies within public discourse and how we draw conclusions about a rhetor’s intent.