On 20 January 2017, Donald John Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. He takes office at the end of the most acrimonious campaigns in recent history, and with Americans deeply divided, as witnessed by the protests that erupted across the country (and the world) the next day.
An inaugural address is an opportunity to bring the country together, to heal the wounds that were opened during the election campaign. For Donald Trump, it was a missed opportunity.
Trump’s address was dark and aggressive. He talked about healing and coming together, but his tone and the content of his speech were more confrontational than conciliatory. Given the bitterness of the campaign, this did not come as a complete surprise. Yet, Trump’s speech stands in stark contrast to the inaugural addresses delivered by his predecessors.
When Abraham Lincoln gave his second inaugural address in 1865, just months before the end of the American Civil War, he said:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
For too much of his speech it sounded like Trump was speaking with malice toward many and charity toward too few.
During his inaugural address, delivered while World War II raged, Franklin Roosevelt said:
We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations far away. We have learned that we must live as men, not as ostriches, nor as dogs in the manger.
By contrast, Trump spoke of America first, strengthening borders and protectionism.
In 1977, Jimmy Carter said:
Let our recent mistakes bring a resurgent commitment to the basic principles of our Nation, for we know that if we despise our own government we have no future.
Throughout his address, Donald Trump raged against the very politicians who were all around him. He even took another thinly disguised shot at Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis when he mentioned “politicians who are all talk and no action”.
In his first inaugural address, George W. Bush spoke frequently of civility and compassion. He also thanked Al Gore “for a contest conducted with spirit and ended with grace.” Trump had the perfect opportunity to reach out to supporters of Clinton with a simple statement but he ignored it. And there was little evidence of civility or compassion in his words or tone.
Furthermore, and worryingly, some of the things that Trump has said in public in the days following his inauguration stand in stark contrast to his words on Capitol Hill.
The video of Trump’s speech is immediately below. Like I did with Barack Obama’s final speech, I have set out the entire text of Trump’s speech after the video. At various places, I have added my thoughts in [red]. They refer to the text that comes immediately before.
Donald Trump – 20 January 2017
Chief Justice Roberts, President Carter, President Clinton, President Bush, President Obama, fellow Americans, and people of the world: Thank you. [Rather bizarre to thank the “people of the world”. The rest of the worlds did not vote for Trump. He should not pin this on us.]
We, the citizens of America, are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country and to restore its promise for all of our people.
Together, we will determine the course of America, and the world, for many, many years to come. We will face challenges. We will confront hardships. But we will get the job done. [Anaphora.]
Every four years, we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power, and we are grateful to President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition. They have been magnificent. [A magnanimous statement.]
Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning. Because today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another – but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people. [I am always leery of statements about transferring power back to the people. The term “people’s republic” has often been associated with oppressive communist rule. I will be curious to see how, concretely, power that Americans supposedly do not have now will be transferred back to them.]
For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.
Washington flourished – but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered – but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. [A powerful tricolon, but also a divisive one.]
Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. [Another powerful and divisive tricolon.]
That all changes – starting right here, and right now, because this moment is your moment: it belongs to you. It belongs to everyone gathered here today and everyone watching all across America.
This is your day. This is your celebration. And this, the United States of America, is your country. [Tricolon.]
What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. [Chiasmus.]
January 20th, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. [Nice use of “forgotten”.] Everyone is listening to you now.
You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before. [This is true.]
At the centre of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens. Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighbourhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. [Also true. Trump played on the desire of many people to reject globalism and to focus on matters at home. The latter, of course, is important, but an isolationist policy has rarely been good for any country.]
These are the just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public.
But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones [Powerful metaphor but bleak and hyperbolic.] across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge [Again, “deprived of all knowledge” is too extreme. The education system does need improvement, especially in inner cities, but there is still much that is good about it.]; and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealised potential. [According to statistics from the FBI, crime is at a 20-year low. Yes, it is still a problem, but in a speech of this nature, it would have been easy to say that progress has been made in lowering crime in the country but more needs to be done.]
This American carnage stops right here and stops right now. [The use of “carnage” was inappropriate, even metaphorically. Carnage is a bloody slaughter and to describe America in such a state serves only to whip up misguided populism against something that does not exist. Yes, there are problems and issues, but it is not carnage.]
We are one nation – and their pain is our pain. Their dreams are our dreams; and their success will be our success. [I found it interesting that he says “we are one nation” but then talks about “their” and “our”.] We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny. [Tricolon and anaphora.]
The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans.
For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military. We’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own and spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. [Rhetorically, this staccato set of comparisons is effective. But it signals an isolationist approach to dealing with issues.]
We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon. One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions and millions of American workers that were left behind. The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world. [Shuttered factories and wealth being “ripped” from people are powerful images.]
But that is the past. And now we are looking only to the future.
We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land.
From this day forward, it’s going to be only America First, America First. [Arguably one of the most important statements in the speech. It will play well with Trump’s supporters but it is self-centred and will bump up against reality when dealing with other countries.]
Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. [That is fine, but issues like trade and foreign affairs involve dealing with other countries. Those countries have interests as well and they have their own citizens to take care of. International relations require give and take.]
We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength. [History suggests otherwise. The United States tried the same thing with the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act in 1930. It resulted in other countries throwing up barriers against US goods and made the Great Depression that much more severe for American workers and farmers.]
I will fight for you with every breath in my body – and I will never, ever let you down. [I hope so.]
America will start winning again, winning like never before. [Consistent with his campaign rhetoric.]
We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams. [Anaphora and consonance: bring back.]
We will build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation. [Polysyndeton.]
We will get our people off of welfare and back to work – rebuilding our country with American hands and American labour.
We will follow two simple rules: Buy American and hire American. [The repetition of “American” is epistrophe. I have no problem in principle, but if the United States expects other countries to buy its exports, it is going to have to buy goods from other countries.]
We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world – but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. [After the polemical statements above, one wonders how sincere this statement is. And, if it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first, where does that leave international dialogue?]
We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example – we will shine – for everyone to follow. [Of course the next day, Trump suggested during a CIA speech that the United States might get another chance to steal Iraq’s oil. One has to wonder about the sincerity of this statement in his inaugural address.]
We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones – and unite the civilised world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth. [Fighting radical Islamic terrorism is one thing, but to say it like this without extending an olive branch to the vast majority of Muslims who just want to live in peace makes this an extremely bellicose statement.]
At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. [I am all for national pride, but “total allegiance” sounds Orwellian.]
When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. The Bible tells us: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” [The only quote in the speech.]
We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity. When America is united, America is totally unstoppable. [A united America is indeed powerful, but the rhetoric from Trump has been divisive and the rocky relationship with the press makes open debate difficult. Again, it sounds Orwellian.]
There should be no fear – we are protected, and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement and, most importantly, we will be protected by God. [And yet, his campaign was based on fear and anger. A classic example of saying one thing to get elected and another once elected.]
Finally, we must think big and dream even bigger. In America, we understand that a nation is only living as long as it is striving. [The words “living” and “striving” work well together.]
We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action – constantly complaining but never doing anything about it. [Hardly conciliatory given the number of politicians gathered. There are better ways of encouraging action from politicians.]
The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action.
Do not allow anyone to tell you that it cannot be done. No challenge can match the heart and fight and spirit of America. We will not fail. Our country will thrive and prosper again.
We stand at the birth of a new millennium, 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. [A positive statement about seizing the new opportunities that are opening up.]
A new national pride will stir our souls, lift our sights, and heal our divisions. [Good words but it is the healing of divisions that concerns me. In the days since the inauguration, they seem to have worsened instead of improved.]
It is time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American Flag. [A unifying statement.]
And whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the windswept plains of Nebraska, they look up at the same night sky, they fill their heart with the same dreams, and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty Creator. [This was a poetic line. But he could have used more positive words than “sprawl” and “windswept”.]
So to all Americans, in every city near and far, small and large, from mountain to mountain, and from ocean to ocean, hear these words: You will never be ignored again. [A nice idea. But when Trump’s administration announces that he will not release his tax returns when a majority of Americans want him to, it is difficult to believe that the wishes of the people will never be ignored again.]
Your voice, your hopes, and your dreams, will define our American destiny. And your courage and goodness and love will forever guide us along the way.
Together, we will make America strong again. We will make America wealthy again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. [Anaphora and epistrophe.]
And, yes, together, we will make America great again. [It makes sense to end on this note as it was the theme of his campaign.]
Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America. Thank you. God bless America.