It was classic Donald Trump — a hard-hitting campaign-style inauguration speech by the new president of the United States that used “America first” populist rhetoric, attacked Washington insiders and decried the state of the country.
“He is a president like no other, and his inaugural address is without parallel in recent memory,” said Michael Cornfield, associate professor of political management at George Washington University in D.C.
“It was confrontational, angry, populist, plain-spoken, and there were moments of inspiration for those who feel put-upon by Washington.”
‘ I don’t think he did much to reach out to those who opposed him or didn’t vote for him.’ – Eric Foner, historian, Columbia University
The president, who uncharacteristically stuck to the teleprompter during the 16-minute address, aimed his remarks directly at his millions of supporters. He had little to say to his opponents, who continue to question his legitimacy, point to the fact he lost the popular vote and plan to continue to protest his presidency over the coming days.
“Fair enough, [his supporters] got him elected, but I don’t think he did much to reach out to those who opposed him or didn’t vote for him,” said Columbia University history professor Eric Foner.
In 2000, for example, George W. Bush, who like Trump had lost the popular vote but whose victory hinged on the U.S. Supreme Court, had a special obligation to try to unite the country, said Hans Noel, an associate professor of political science at Georgetown University in Washington.
“His address had repeated references to unity and a shared American community. Some critics thought it rang hollow, but it was a deliberate attempt. Trump did not make that attempt.”
Despite a bitter and divisive campaign, Trump made no acknowledgement of his political rival, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who attended, all smiles, with her husband, former president Bill Clinton. And he made only brief mention of Barack Obama, but only to thank the now-former president and first lady for their help through the transition.
Instead, the address was vintage Trump, rehashing some of the same-old fiery campaign slogans and themes he used on the trail: make America great again, put America first, bring back jobs and secure the borders.
Trump was more defiant and divisive, delivering a speech that was less aspirational, less focused on what Americans can do together, said Eric Schnure, a former speechwriter for Al Gore, who served as vice-president under Bill Clinton.
‘You want to hear someone speak about the values that define the American ideal, and you want them to do that in an optimistic fashion. And this was not that.’ – Eric Schnure, former speechwriter for Al Gore
“You tune into an inaugural address, and you want to hear someone speak about the values that define the American ideal, and you want them to do that in an optimistic fashion,” Schnure said. “And this was not that.”
Trump ripped into the D.C. establishment, accusing them of reaping the rewards of government “while the people have borne the cost.” The politicians’ victories have not been their victories, he said, and while the politicians celebrated, the people struggled.
“January 20th, 2017,” he said, “will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”
Cornfield says the speech sounded “very angry” and like “classic populism.”
“Establishment versus the people, and leaving no doubt which side he was on,” the professor said.
Trump portrayed a bleak America of rusted-out factories “scattered like tombstones,” where poverty, crime, drugs and guns are rampant in inner cities.
He spoke about rebuilding infrastructure and, using particularly vivid language, vowed that “this American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
It’s that concrete, dystopian language that characterized Trump’s address, said Schnure, who is also an adjunct professor of public communication at American University in Washington.
“The most famous line of this speech is going to be ‘American carnage,'” he said.
But Foner says using such grim language might have been a shrewd move. By painting such a bleak picture of the nation, Trump can now claim he’s responsible for any improvement.
Trump also hammered home his America-first pledge, promising that, from this day forward, every decision, whether it be on trade, taxes, immigration or foreign affairs, would be guided by the principle that it must benefit American workers and families.
“We will follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American,” he said.
There were also differences with some of his previous speeches. When he did speak about unity, he invoked religion, something very typical of an inaugural address, said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan and editor of I Do Solemnly Swear: Presidential Inaugural Addresses of the Last Forty Years.
He says Trump’s remarks were much more tempered when he made reference to the Bible and how it “tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.”
“We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly but always pursue solidarity,” the president said.
Trump, who has had a rocky time discussing religion in public, handled that well, Kall said.
“He tied that directly to unity, trying to unify the country and to having a good hard-line stance against things like prejudice and racism.”
And he seemed to give a nod to John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address, saying the U.S. stands ready to “unlock the mysteries of space, to free the Earth from the miseries of disease and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow.” (Kennedy, for his part, had called on Americans to “explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce.”)
The speech also had a similar theme to the 1981 inaugural address of Ronald Reagan, which Trump had earlier suggested he would pattern his address after. Both attacked the government, but Trump lashed out at the political powerbrokers themselves while Reagan, more philosophically, argued that government as a whole had become too obtrusive and championed the power of the individual.
“I thought we’d see a more sunny tone today,” Kall said.
Mostly, the speech was one of a president still in campaign mode and similar to addresses Trump gave at political rallies and at the Republican national convention in Cleveland in July.
Putting aside whether one agrees with his positions, his address was no different than a campaign speech, Foner said.
“Normally, [presidents] try to elevate their rhetoric a little bit or speak more broadly to the nation.”
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