Not your father’s inaugural address: breaking down President Trump’s speech.

I am, admittedly, a “speech geek.” Whether on my high school’s team (which now likely holds the longest winning streak for high school state championships in the nation (33 in a row) – go Loyola!) or in moot court during law school (both as a participant and later a coach), I have long been interested in spoken communication. That carried over to my time in radio and the practice of law. Thus, a presidential inaugural address is, for me, a thing of curiosity in terms of the style and word choice, as much as the substantive content.

News reports over the past several weeks indicated that President Trump was writing his own inaugural speech, piquing my interest. In the lead up, the President indicated that he was looking to Presidents Kennedy and Reagan for inspiration.

Now that the speech, one of the shorter in American inaugural history, is in the books, how did he do?

Well, I surmise that the President did, in fact, write parts of the speech. Other portions likely were crafted by someone with a very different speaking style. However, the themes were undisputedly Trump.

And I think it a fair observation, and I am certainly not alone in making it, that President Trump’s inaugural address continued with the rather dystopian theme he set during the campaign last year. As we examine his speech, I’ve placed certain words in bold to emphasize the same.

In setting the rhetorical stage for his view of America as it exists today, the President spoke of: “Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” He went on to describe: “An education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.” Deprived of all knowledge seems fairly dire, but we’ll chalk that up to rhetorical excess.

But when you contrast that phrasing with another Republican president, President George W. Bush, and how he addressed challenges in the American education system in his own inaugural address, you will begin to see just how different Trump’s inaugural speech was. Bush said:

While many of our citizens prosper, others doubt the promise, even the justice of our own country. The ambitions of some Americans are limited by failing schools and hidden prejudice and the circumstances of their birth. And sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent but not a country. We do not accept this, and we will not allow it.

President Trump’s more direct style was, well, classic Trump. He utilizes what may be best described as a “reptilian” speaking style. I use that term in the sense that he places things in stark contrast, appealing to the so-called “reptilian brain” by triggering a fear in the listener for themselves, their families and communities. (More on this at another time, but it’s something that gets a fair amount of attention these days in legal circles and others have made similar observations about Trump’s messaging.) The reaction is human. “We have mothers trapped?” Or, “my children are being deprived of all knowledge?” In my view, Trump is not just being “plain-spoken,” as many suggest, but is using a carefully crafted communications strategy to alarm the listener, who will then seek a solution in what the President says next.

Continuing in Trump style (think about the reptilian brain), the President noted, “the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.” He went on: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” Again, the listener is encouraged to be afraid for themselves and their communities. Words like “stolen,” “robbed” and “carnage” are each selected for a reason.

Contrast the phrasing of George W. Bush and Donald Trump in those last two sentences. George W. Bush makes a collective call to action: “We do not accept this, and we will not allow it.” Donald Trump issues a plain-spoken order: “This American carnage stops right here and right now.” One sentence is inclusive, using “we,” and the other is authoritarian in style spoken by someone who will stop this on our behalf.

This early stage of President Trump’s speech is striking when compared with the warmer words of George H. W. Bush in his inaugural address:

We meet on democracy’s front porch. A good place to talk as neighbors and as friends. For this is a day when our nation is made whole, when our differences, for a moment, are suspended.

And later:

We cannot hope only to leave our children a bigger car, a bigger bank account. We must hope to give them a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend; a loving parent; a citizen who leaves his home, his neighborhood, and town better than he found it. And what do we want the men and women who work with us to say when we’re no longer there? That we were more driven to succeed than anyone around us? Or that we stopped to ask if a sick child had gotten better and stayed a moment there to trade a word of friendship?

When it came to global engagement, Trump, not unexpectedly, was fiercely isolationist. And, again, he used stark language:

The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world. But that is the past, and now we are looking only to the future.

From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our product, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.

This section is classic “America First,” Donald Trump from his campaign. And he clearly did not take any substantive cues from President Kennedy who had this to say at his inauguration in 1961:

To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required–not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

Much like Kennedy, George H.W. Bush also struck a far different tone on foreign policy in his address, stating:

Great nations like great men must keep their word. When America says something, America means it, whether a treaty or an agreement or a vow made on marble steps. We will always try to speak clearly, for candor is a compliment; but subtlety, too, is good and has its place. While keeping our alliances and friendships around the world strong, ever strong, we will continue the new closeness with the Soviet Union, consistent both with our security and with progress.

For his part, Reagan (though I would suggest, like Trump, far more domestically focused in his speech), noted:

To those neighbors and allies who share our freedom, we will strengthen our historic ties and assure them of our support and firm commitment. We will match loyalty with loyalty. We will strive for mutually beneficial relations. We will not use our friendship to impose on their sovereignty, for our own sovereignty is not for sale.

President Trump reached a pivotal point on the economy in his speech by outlining his rules: “We will follow two simple rules: Buy American and hire American.” Contrast that with the inclusive language Reagan used to say essentially the same thing: “Well, this administration’s objective will be a healthy, vigorous, growing economy that provides equal opportunities for all Americans, with no barriers born of bigotry or discrimination. Putting America back to work means putting all Americans back to work.”

Trump also used his address to set forth his notion of national politics: “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.” While the notion of doing good for one’s country was also a central theme of Kennedy’s speech, he delivered his message quite differently:

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

At times, Trump’s stark language was offset with more lofty prose, suggesting another hand in the drafting. Contrast his talk of “total allegiance,” with this phrase: 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.” Perhaps his most uplifting paragraph reads:

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 new national pride will stir ourselves, lift our sights and heal our divisions.

Clearly, there was some attempt to soften the tone and create an aspirational feel akin to Reagan and Kennedy, but the die had been cast with far more abundant, stark language and his trademark direct style.

At the end of the day, it is likely that President Trump’s inaugural address will be remembered more for its brevity and its dark feel, than for famously inspirational prose like Reagan and Kennedy. Commentary over the past two days confirms that. In fact, his two other Republican predecessors, Presidents Bush the elder and younger, seem much closer to Kennedy (and even President Obama) in their rhetoric in comparison to what we heard from the podium on Friday.

Whether the type of speech President Trump gave is effective for a sitting president, as opposed to a political candidate, remains an open question. Do Americans want a president in perpetual attack mode, or are they looking for more aspirational and unifying rhetoric from their leader? That leadership question, and others, remain to be answered. But what we heard on January 20, 2017 was not your father’s inaugural address. The President who has been busy rewriting the traditional political norms did so again.

2 thoughts on “Not your father’s inaugural address: breaking down President Trump’s speech.

  1. John,
    I appreciate your thoughtful approach and analysis. Your last paragraph, and especially the last sentence, sums up well what I heard in his speech, and also my primary concern.

    Trump is the first US presidential candidate to make jailing his opponent a campaign promise. His definition of “we” sounds limited in scope to those who agree with him, not all Americans. His inaugural address seems to be doubling down on his declaration of war against any opponent who dares stand up and oppose him.

    This approach, both in rhetoric and in action, concerns me more than any policy position, for I think it threatens the foundation of our democracy – the right to dissent.

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