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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

Obama’s ‘More Perfect Union’ and Trump’s Dystopian Nightmare: on Political Consciousness, Rhetoric a

Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller’. — George Orwell, 1984

Listening to Trump’s inaugural address in the wake of Obama’s farewell speech was a revealing study of political consciousness, rhetoric and character. Many have fact-checked Trump’s speech and found it full of half-truths or outright fabrications. I would like to emphasize a different point. Trump’s speeches, news conferences and tweets reveal the frightening normalization of a mode of communicating that is precisely intended to narrow the range of thought. As Orwell noted in the above quote, truncated language and diminished consciousness are mutually reinforcing tendencies. In an important sense Trump’s inarticulacy is a distillation of many contributing factors: consumerist advertizing culture; the rise of the public relations industry; the embrace of an ethos of violence and infantilizing reality television shows; the hollowing out of public education; a corporate media that has happily traded the word for the sensationalizing, bloody or banal image; communicative technologies where condensed, superficial and emotive bellowing displaces articulate, critical discussion, and so on. The latter have all helped to diminish political consciousness. They have also created the condition of possibility for the election of an extremely venal and narcissistic character—a character-less, caricature of a President who has shown us time and again that he is incapable of anything approaching reasoned, compassionate or articulate speech.

The contrast with President Obama could not be more obvious. Obama’s intelligence and critical acumen is amply demonstrated through rhetoric that is famously elevating and aspirational, rich with metaphor, thoughtful, humorous, discerning and emotionally engaging. While it is likely that his consoling words often provided only momentary respite from tragic events or harsh economic realities, they were always well timed and much-needed—a welcome reprieve from the banality of daily sensationalized, trivial, shrill and emotive talk that has become commonplace on television.  More often than not Obama managed to say the right thing in the right way at the right time. It was this capacity to know what to say in times of stress, grief and tragedy that made it possible for even his most ardent critics to grudgingly admire him. The poet Matthew Arnold said that ‘reading the best that has been thought and said’ is an antidote to the plague of materialism and individualistic self-interest. Obama would likely have agreed. As flawed as his presidency was, he did in fact act as if he lived in a world where the meaning of words and reading books mattered—where character, rhetoric and persuasion could still be understood as political virtues.

Trump does not read or write much—nor is it likely that many of his most volatile supporters do either. The depressing reality is that in the past fifty years democracy, political consciousness and rhetorical competence have been so diminished in America that the election of a dangerous, illiterate, narcissist demagogue like Donald Trump is not really an aberration but a foreseeable reality. The effect of Trump’s fear-inducing rants and racist declarations is to contract language so that it can no longer be relied upon to communicate anything deeper than unmediated rage. His ‘speeches’ do not ask Americans to look at the deeper meaning of things, or make them ‘stop and think’ about what they are doing. Rather, he uses words to catapult audiences into an angry chaotic flux—a vertigo where nothing is secure or predictable—except perhaps the god-like strength and determination of a ‘great leader’ who promises to deliver them from the evils of the past. Trump does not call upon Americans to continue the task framed in the preamble of the U.S. Constitution to ‘form a more perfect union’. He is not speaking as a President who wants to renew community by reminding listeners of the hopes and visions that were articulated in those moments of solidarity and mutual desire to achieve the common good. Rather, his words evoke anger, divisiveness and isolation. What is required then is not a leader with compassion, vision and intellectual excellence, but an iron-fisted autocrat whose decisions are not subject to criticism or legal oversight. All Americans need do is listen and cheer him on. One can almost hear the ‘slow rhythmic chanting’ of D-T…D-T…D-T during ‘two minutes hate’.

As Orwell saw clearly, in such an unpredictable, fear-oriented world the narcissist authoritarian can rule without hindrance. It is a world where the to and fro of argument and critical questioning is not tolerated. Its ideal subject is not the evangelical fanatic, the racist, the xenophobe or the delusional right-wing ideologue. The latter are certainly helpful, but not essential. The essential Trump abettors and followers are the sycophants, careerists and what Hannah Arendt described as those “for whom the distinction between fact and fictions (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exists.” (The Origins of Totalitarianism” p. 474). Orwell said that language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”. However, even Orwell would be aghast at how much deeper the malaise of politics and the English language has become in the age of Trump.

Why Rhetoric and Good Character Should Matter

Perhaps for many people the demise of rhetoric, political consciousness and good character no longer really matter that much. But, they do matter. Rhetoric is still the essential means by which ethical standards and political possibilities are persuasively communicated to any public in a democratic society. When language competence no longer matters, when rhetoric becomes merely a means to forward distorted and prejudiced perspectives, we must all be deeply concerned. Moreover, when those with deplorable character are allowed to rule we should be equally appalled.

In fact, rhetoric, political consciousness, good character and democracy are all intimately related. They thrive best where a limitless assortment of opinions are possible, and where different ways of thinking, understanding and expression abound. The framers of the American Constitution understood the importance of good character and political speech when they made room for a free public press whose role would be a democratizing one. A free public press was the place where political opinions could proliferate, but also where those in office with bad character would through a free press be “shamed or intimidated into more honourable and just modes of conducting affairs.”

For the American constitutional framers, unity and difference were inextricably related. In other words, the embrace of limitless differences of opinion, diverse religious, distinct cultures was not considered a barrier but rather an opportunity for debate and discussion guided by the enlightened presupposition that reasonable people could always be persuaded of the need to reach agreement on certain basic constitutional freedoms and democratic rights. The greatest orators throughout American political history tried to make their audiences aware of what they had in common as citizens, neighbors and human beings. Seen in this light the practice of political rhetoric was humanizing in a way that followed the emancipatory trajectory of the 18th Century Enlightenment: it presupposed that speakers and listeners were capable and reasoning beings who could experience emotions and distinguish between right and wrong, good and bad. From the perspective of the politician, to ‘speak well’ is to be familiar with a variety of different perspectives—it is to have internalized the episteme of doxa, or the knowledge of opinions. It is also to have a nuanced understanding of the ethical, geopolitical and practical dimensions of any given situation, and yet be capable of adeptly clarifying and simplifying complex issues without losing either specificity or deeper meaning and significance.

Viewed from this perspective, political rhetoric is not reducible to ‘flowery speech’ or ‘sophistry’. It is, rather, a fundamental human and public gesture—the expression of our basic desire to reach beyond our self-enclosed worlds in order to communicate intelligibly about the common world we share with each other as citizens or as human beings. Put another way, rhetoric is implicitly an acknowledgement that language, communication and speech matter because the latter broaden our political consciousness and testify to the fact that we live in a world with and among others, who are also speakers and listeners. Political rhetoric is the public expression of a city, state or nation’s current state and future aspirations. Its role is to make all citizens aware of their continuity with the past, and understand what is at stake in the present and future.  Moreover, for rhetoric to berhetoric, it must necessarily presuppose the presence of an implied voice: the listener. In fact it presupposes the voices of many different individual listeners: their pleas, their perspectives, their difficulties, their opinions, their hopes and expectations. In sum, to embrace the importance of rhetoric is to accept that we live in a world where words matter, where others matter and where informed citizens are the condition of possibility for good government.

Obama’s Rhetoric of a More Perfect Union

In an important sense Obama internalized not only what is best in rhetoric, but also the accumulated wisdom of the American founders. He came across as a person of solid character, comfortable in himself, humble and at ease with others. He smiled at his audience, and spoke to them as if they were long-time friends and neighbors. He delivered speeches to Americans in times of tragedy when they needed to hear uplifting and consoling words; he reminded them of their racial history, of white privilege and the fulfilled and unfulfilled promises of their founding fathers; he challenged them to build with him ‘a more perfect union’.

From his 2004 ‘Audacity of Hope Speech’ at the 2004 Democratic Convention to his 2008 speech on race, his 2009 inaugural address, his 2011 memorial speech following the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the 2013 Trayvon Martin speech, the 2015 ‘Amazing Grace’ eulogy at the funeral of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the 2015 speech on the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches, and finally to his farewell speech Obama demonstrated not only superior reasoning skills and sincere compassion for others, but a character marked by gentleness, humility, integrity and self-control. He opened his farewell speech with words of thanks to the American people (and to Michelle) for making him a better man, admitting, “The work of democracy has always been hard, contentious and sometimes bloody”. These words were a testament to the fact that for Obama the state of American democracy and the desire to become ‘a more perfect union’ depends upon each persons capacity to reason well, empathize with others and strive always to sustain a world where words, facts and truth matter. For Obama democracy demands both difference and solidarity. It is always a ‘work in progress’.

“Understand, democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders quarreled and compromised, and expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity – the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one. But we’re not where we need to be. All of us have more work to do. After all, if every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and undeserving minorities, then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves. If we decline to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we diminish the prospects of our own children – because those brown kids will represent a larger share of America’s workforce.”

Of course, it goes without saying that praising Obama’s rhetoric is not explicit or even tacit approval of his record in office. Many astute writers and critics have rightly noted the difference between Obama’s astonishing command of rhetoric, and his disappointing tenure in office. In hindsight some are tempted to conclude Obama was just another ‘say one thing, do another’ politician—indeed the more elevated his rhetoric, the deeper our disappointment was when it fell short in the world of action.

To be fair, the gulf between what Obama said and what he did or was unable to do was undeniably a consequence of unprecedented, unyielding and reckless Republican obstructionism, not to mention resistance from a very powerful elite: bankers, corporations, the war department and intelligence community. Together the latter would ensure that nothing Obama did would be allowed to radically challenge status quo. Taken together these latter factors played a significant part in undoing Obama’s agenda and narrowing his range of progressive options. It is also clear that despite his ‘hip’ persona and progressive rhetoric Obama is, at heart, a conservative—economically, and in many ways socially. Despite his conservatism, however, he was someone who could have been persuaded otherwise. Put another way, it was always up to Americans themselves to make the most persuasive case—to see to it that when Obama’s administration made decisions or engaged in actions that negatively affected the public or the most vulnerable, they would vigorously oppose and resist his policies.

This did happen on occasion, but not nearly enough. In those early years, when agitation was most needed, much of the American public were still basking in the warmth of an implausible expectation: that this unprecedented black president would magically reconstitute America—that he would single-handedly mold it into a morally exceptional, progressive, race-neutral, democratic nation. Of course, he could not, and he obviously did not. He did some good things, many of which are not well publicized.

He also made some awful calls. Could it have turned out different? We’ll never know for sure. However, the truth is that Obama’s promise of ‘hope and change’ his desire to realize a ‘more perfect union’ would always remain empty platitudes if they could not be given meaningful expression by an activist public that saw themselves as ultimately more accountable than their President for the way things were or could be.

All of this aside, and despite all that has been said about the successes and failures of the Obama presidency, it is indisputable that for the latter an expanded political consciousness, rhetoric, and good character are an essential part of leadership, and also for the continuation of a democracy grounded in diversity, common good and compassion for the other.

Trump’s Dystopian Nightmare and The Demise of Rhetoric

We now come to Trump. One of the elements that make rhetoric persuasive to a wide range of different audiences is that speakers possess an imaginative capacity to think or feel from the perspective of others. Classic narcissists like Trump, by definition, have no such capacity. They do not like speeches, press conferences or debates—unless they are peppered with unquestioning supporters. That is why Twitter has become the perfect medium for him. The twitter universe is a place of chattiness, celebrity access and self-promotion. It can sometimes be a platform for breaking news, but it is primarily a medium through which brief impulsive rejoinders, reflexive sneering, emotive gushing or venomous put-downs can be registered and endlessly replayed by devotees and critics alike.

Whatever virtues twitter might have, it is not a place where measured and reasoned speech takes place. It is the modern equivalent of a bullhorn—one through which the megalomaniac and authoritarian can be loudly and repetitiously heard. Trump does not use Twitter to persuade or invite others into a conversation. Instead he uses it to assert, allege, declare or announce his views—all in the firm expectation that his Twitter ‘audience’ will invariably agree with whatever he says. As we have all witnessed on numerous occasions during the election campaign, if individuals do not agree or express a dissenting perspective or opinion, it will not be verbal persuasion that Trump counters them with, but the threat of violence. Hannah Arendt rightly said that to resort to violence was to ‘act without argument, speech or reckoning of consequences.’ Put another way, violence is the eschewal of rhetoric—and in a crucial sense, the explicit disavowal of both the public and the political.

Many have claimed that Trump intentionally misrepresents things—that he makes knowingly false statements. But does he actually intend to deceive? I do not think deception is even the point. Trump is simply indifferent to truth or ‘on-the-ground reality’. Individuals with narcissistic disorders do not believe they need to distinguish between the truth and a lie. For example, when Trump states that “Politicians prospered—but the jobs left, and the factories closed”, he is not attempting to make Americans believe something he knows to be false. Whether he ‘knows’ that it was not politicians but corporations and people like himself who got rich by off-shoring jobs is ‘true’ or ‘false’ does not really matter. Furthermore, he does not think he needs to persuade anyone that this is the case. To put this in a slightly different way, Trump says things with little regard to whether they represent the truth or the way things are because what matters is not whether they are true, but that he, Donald Trump, has said them. You are either with him or you are not. If you are not with him you can leave the room. If you are with him then you’ll know that what he says is not as important as who he is: a great and powerful leader.

Accordingly, Trump’s style of speaking has been described as paratactic—a fancy term in rhetoric meaning that he uses declarative sentences without transitional words. His speech is built upon a series of discrete, often unrelated, exclamatory expressions that are not intended to fit together in any coherent fashion. You rarely hear him use connecting words like ‘therefore’…’by contrast’…’on the other hand’. Paratactic speech is the preferred style of expression for the autocratic politician, the military leader, the dictator or the despotic CEO. The latter do not need to persuade, but only to exclaim and command. One thinks here of Hillary Clinton’s exemplary paratactic exhortation regarding the assassination of Muammar Gaddafi: “We came; we saw; he died”. Enough said. The point is that Trump does not think it necessary or even useful to put together well-reasoned arguments. He is not really concerned about how others feel or what they are undergoing. Instead, he chatters, gossips, rants and censures. His sentence structure, probably much like his thinking, does not appear to be measured, deliberative or even rational. It is, however, emotionally charged, self-aggrandizing, defensive, and mind-numbingly repetitive:

“I beat China all the time. All the time. And it only makes common sense. It only makes common sense. But you don’t hear that from anybody else. You don’t hear it from anybody else.” “Well if I were president we probably wouldn’t be in the problems we have right now, because it’s incredible, we have an attack, and then all of a sudden we bomb all these sites. Why didn’t we bomb the sites before? We should have bombed the sites a long time ago…”

Trump often appears completely unaware of the disjointedness of his sentences or the banality of his expressions. However, it doesn’t really matter because if this President-elect knows one thing, it is that his close followers don’t actually care about well-formed sentences, rhetoric, character or even politics. Many of them do not want to be persuaded, nor do they care whether anyone else is. What they want is to hear someone give authoritative commands, viciously insult and attack adversaries, and shout down those who disagree. They do not want to look up to, admire or respect him as person of integrity. They do not want him to negotiate, mediate or articulate different possibilities, options or opinions. They want him to supervise, direct and control a world they see as chaotic and threatening. His power is not the power of argument and persuasion, but the power to precisely extinguish the latter.

Trump’s First Press Conference

In principle, press conferences are not supposed to be like political rallies, where only the supportive are invited. In a functioning democracy they are intended to test character, knowledge, policy direction and decisions as well as the rhetorical proficiency of leaders, by way of direct questioning. They give leaders a chance to meet criticism and explain where they are, and where their administration is going in a reasoned and persuasive manner. Press conferences can also expose incompetence. Whether mainstream media will radically challenge Trump is still an open question. They may not cheer him on, but most of the corporate press would prefer to be on the ‘inside’ not the ‘outside’ of political power. If convention holds the self-censoring stenographers will likely outnumber journalists willing to fearlessly challenge and chasten Trump or his spokespersons. That said, Trump was obviously threatened the first press conference.

During this first ‘press conference’ Trump looked strained, restless and apprehensive before reporters. He singled out and dismissed some of them; he appeared defensive and belligerent when challenged; he repeated phrases and words, and constantly used sentences beginning with “I”. None of this should be startling or unfamiliar to anyone who has watched Trump being challenged by the public or his opponents over the course of the election campaign. However, we are now talking about a news conference—a place where angry rants, bullying and ridicule are rather frowned upon, even in today’s sensationalist tabloid media world. The first press conference was in many ways an ominous foreshadowing of the probable ‘character’ of the next government: secretive, mendacious, autocratic, vindictive and capricious.

Here’s how Trump handled a question about whether he was vulnerable to blackmail by Russia or its intelligence agencies. Take note here of two things: 1. The egocentric tone and the number of times he uses the pronoun “I”. 2. That he says nothing about how he would deal with blackmail, but instead relates in a paternalistic way that he would warn others, not so worldly or astute as himself, to be careful about what they say and do!

“When I leave our country, I’m a very high-profile person, would you say? I am extremely careful. I’m surrounded by bodyguards. I’m surrounded by people. And I always tell them — anywhere, but I always tell them if I’m leaving this country, “Be very careful, because in your hotel rooms and no matter where you go, you’re gonna probably have cameras. I’m not referring just to Russia, but I would certainly put them in that category. And number one, I hope you’re gonna be good anyway. But in those rooms, you have cameras in the strangest places. Cameras that are so small with modern technology, you can’t see them and you won’t know. You better be careful, or you’ll be watching yourself on nightly television. I tell this to people all the time. I was in Russia years ago, with the Miss Universe contest, which did very well — Moscow, the Moscow area did very, very well.”

Next we have Trump’s evasive response to a question about potential conflicts of interest regarding his cabinet choices. Once again, note the repetitions, and self-aggrandizing praise for his particular choices.

I—I really think that when you watch what’s going on with what’s happening in — I was just watching, as an example, Rex Tillerson. I think it’s brilliant what he’s doing and what he’s saying. I watched yesterday, as you know, our great senator, who is going to be a great attorney general. And he was brilliant. And what people don’t know is that he was a great prosecutor and attorney general in Alabama. And he was brilliant yesterday. So, I really think that they are — I think we have one of the great Cabinets ever put together. And we’ve been hearing that from so many people. People are so happy.

Finally, we must not forget the most memorable example of how a defensive and bullying Trump will respond to members of the press when he feels they have ‘singled him out’ or unfairly exposed his twitter rants:

QUESTION: The tweet that you had this morning about are we living in Nazi Germany, what were you driving at there? What are you trying to tell the American public? TRUMP: I think it was disgraceful — disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed any information that turned out to be so false and fake out. I think it’s a disgrace, and I say that — and I say that, and that’s something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do. I think it’s a disgrace that information that was false and fake and never happened got released to the public. As far as Buzzfeed, which is a failing pile of garbage, writing it, I think they’re going to suffer the consequences. They already are. And as far as CNN going out of their way to build it up… QUESTION: Since you’re attacking us, can you give us a question? Mr. President-elect — TRUMP: Go ahead. QUESTION: Mr. President-elect, since you are attacking our news organization… TRUMP: Not you. QUESTION: Can you give us a chance? TRUMP: Your organization is terrible. QUESTION: You are attacking our news organization, can you give us a chance to ask a question, sir? Sir, can you… TRUMP: Quiet.

This is not the full exchange, but it is all that is required to get a sense of Trump’s intemperate and bullying approach to reporters who cross him. It is the language of someone who cannot bear criticism, will not let go of perceived slights, must always be right and has a profound inability to hear what others say, except through his own peculiar and distorted perspective. Indeed, Donald Trump’s first ‘press conference’ was an ominous sign of what his tenure in office will be like. The singular quality that every good statesman must cultivate, in some measure, is one that he will never possess: the ability to occasionally step back from his ego, personal grievances or narrow perspectives in order to make decisions that are in the best interests of the public as a whole. Americans expect the POTUS to intervene when things get out of hand—to deflate and de-escalate, rather than conflate and exacerbate; to negotiate in good faith and mediate conflicting perspectives, not dismiss or silence those who do not agree. These are not qualities Donald Trump possesses either in words or character.

Trump’s Inaugural Address

What about his first ‘speech’ to the American people as president? It has already been noted that this speech was not written by Trump, despite the photo he tweeted of himself assiduously working on it. In fact, Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon wrote the Inaugural Address, not Trump. It therefore had a semblance of coherence. However, it was less a speech than a pastiche of distorted Trumpian themes and empty exclamatory expressions heard throughout the election campaign. Americans were told of the ‘carnage’ inflicted upon them by criminal gangs and drug users; the ravages perpetrated on their country by “all those other countries making our products, ‘stealing’ our companies and ‘destroying’ our jobs”; the “very sad depletion of our military”; about the infrastructure that has “fallen into disrepair and decay”; the ‘rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones’; an education system that ‘deprives students of knowledge’. This was not an uplifting or compelling speech because it was not a speech at all. The intention was not to persuade but to declare, castigate and pronounce. It did not paint a positive vision of America that recalled the promise of possibility built into the Constitution or Bill of Rights; it did not ask Americans to discover their better angels or come together as a nation; the only emotions it gave weight to were fear, resentment and anger.

In fact, it described a nightmarish, dystopian world where neighbors are enemies, where former politicians and governments destroyed America and where xenophobic nationalism and jingoism are the keys to ‘making America great again.’ Many critics have described Trump’s inaugural address as ‘one lie or misrepresentation after another.’ However, if as argued above, in Trump’s world rhetoric and persuasion do not matter, words do not matter, character does not matter, then calling him out or pointing to his distortions or mendacity will have little or no impact upon his future behavior. In fact, the purpose of continuously lying and misrepresenting is to keep reporters and pundits so busy ‘fact-checking’ that they actually miss a far more profound reality: that Trump is a dangerous, vindictive demagogue who will do everything he can to make America a global pariah and turn it into a failed state—a state that is no longer able to carry out the basic functions of government.[i]

A Broadened Consciousness: Recovering the Rhetoric of Dissent and Resistance

In light of the potentially devastating social, economic and political consequences of a Trump administration it may seem rather pointless to talk about notions like character, rhetoric and the narrowing of political consciousness. However, if there is to be anything like informed dissent and non-violent resistance against a Donald Trump government then Americans will need both defiant action and elevating aspirational language. They will need the kind of expanded consciousness that reaches beyond Trump’s narrow self-enclosed xenophobic and racist universe. This means discovering again those many speakers, writers and activists who remind us all of the unrealized possibilities of a historical past; who have uncovered the many distortions and falsifications of prejudiced thinking; who have shown us a future that strives towards the realization of just aims—including Barack Obama.

Trump will use the power of the presidency to prey upon the most vulnerable and destitute in America in order to perpetuate his own vainglorious and avaricious ends. But Americans should not, by any means, conclude that he is in control. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Trump has ignited the fire of protest like no other politician in recent history. The ‘Anti-Inauguration’ protests and the massive woman’s march on Washington and around the world showed that the majority of the world is not ready to simply give up on justice or democracy. Moreover speeches made by Anand Gopal, Jeremy Scahill, Naomi Klein, Owen Jones and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor make it clear that as long as we can articulate shared goods and participate in the effort to extend existing communities through speech, dialogue and action; as long as we can advance and encourage the formation of new critical communities by engaging with the great emancipatory traditions that preceded us; as long as we can renew, extend and continue multiple forms of resistance, of acting and thinking ‘otherwise’ in rhetorical and dialogical practices, something of human freedom and democracy will remain vital in these dark times.


[i] In only three weeks Trump’s executive orders amply demonstrate this: rolling back key financial regulations including restrictions on Wall Street banks and on financial advisers; instructing federal agencies to weaken Obamacare; advancing the construction of two controversial pipelines – the Keystone XL and Dakota Access; ordering the construction of a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico; banning travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. His appointments of millionaires and billionaires will do everything possible to finally destroy what remains of America’s social safety net, dismantle its environmental and health protections, undermine its financial regulations, resist any call to raise the minimum wage, eradicate women’s reproductive rights and tear down LGBT and immigrant protections and rights.

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