What Trump's Inaugural Address Didn't Say: Heath Brown

Professor Heath Brown (GC/John Jay, Criminal Justice)Much like the campaign that ushered him into the White House, President Donald J. Trump’s inaugural address was a marked departure from those of his predecessors.

Among those analyzing the 16-minute speech was Professor Heath Brown (GC/John Jay, Criminal Justice), a sought-after expert on electoral politics. His observations follow:

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The start of a presidency is about translating campaign promises to policy. The chaotic transition period, though profoundly important, is filled with the often boring machinations of the federal bureaucracy.

The inaugural address, however, stands before the day-to-day grind of governing, an opportunity to express a bold vision and use the power of rhetoric to shape a narrative about the next four years and beyond.

President Donald J. Trump’s address on Friday kept with some inaugural traditions, seeking to connect the rhetoric of the campaign trail with the rhetoric of his future presidency. He relied on many of the same phrases he’s been using for the last year: “the establishment protected itself”; “America first”; and “make America great again.”

In fact, it was in his closing that he harkened back to an earlier inaugural address. Trump ended on Friday by stating: “Together, we will make America strong again. We will make America wealthy again.” This phrasing shares much with President Jimmy Carter’s address in 1977 where he said: “I believe America can be better again. We can be even stronger than before.” Trump and Carter each used this framing to position the country as in need of repair and improvement, central organizing principles for their respective administrations.

This wasn’t the only time that President Trump relied on familiar phrases from the past. In the middle of his address, he promised, to what he must have thought of as a cynical and untrusting crowd: “I will never, ever let you down.” Years earlier, upon his swearing in to become president after the resignation of President Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford used nearly the identical phrase during that period of great distrust: “God helping me, I will not let you down.” The similarities of this phrasing likely relates to similarly low public views of Washington in 1974 and 2017, respectively, though upon taking office President Ford’s approval rating was in the 70s.

President Trump’s inaugural address was also notable for what it didn’t say and how much it strayed from inaugural convention, Republican or Democratic. Recent Republican presidents have often relied on the language of liberty and freedom, hallmarks of the modern Republican Party. President George W. Bush mentioned freedom six separate times and liberty once: “Through much of the last century, America's faith in freedom and democracy was a rock in a raging sea.” President Ronald Reagan referred to freedom 11 times and liberty three times: “We will again be the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now have freedom.” And, most dramatically, President George H. W. Bush mentioned freedom 15 times and liberty once:  “We know how to secure a more just and prosperous life for man on Earth: through free markets, free speech, free elections, and the exercise of free will unhampered by the state.”

On the contrary, President Trump used the word freedom just twice and liberty not at all: “to free the Earth from the miseries of disease”; “We all enjoy the same freedoms, and we all salute the same, great American flag.” This is a notable departure from Republican orthodoxy, and suggestive of a great departure in the political philosophy of Trump from his conservative predecessors.

In its place, what we heard from President Trump was a familiar refrain about Americans who feel left out. He said at various times: “The forgotten men and women”; “Everyone is listening to you now”; and “You will never be ignored.” This language reflects the same type of populist rhetoric that Trump used on the campaign trail. This philosophy places him apart from many recent Republicans and Democrats, alike.

Finally, given the job of Commander-in-Chief is nearly the only Constitutional role of the president, most recent presidents use the inaugural to talk in some ways about their vision for peace, especially in the context of world affairs and global conflicts. The term itself appears multiple times in most inaugural addresses. George H. W. Bush used the term four times, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama each used it twice. President Richard Nixon used the term 15 times, including one statement that “the greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker.”

President Trump used the term just once, and not directly in reference to world peace:

“We gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power…” Much of the Trump inaugural, instead, focused on an alternative vision for world affairs focused on self-interest and the costs of pursuing global peace: “We defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own.”

These great departures from past inaugural addresses suggests an incoming administration with an alternative philosophy of governance, a new approach to presidential rhetoric, and a new vision for the White House.

In addition to his research, Heath Brown is an expert contributor to The Hill, The Atlantic, and American Prospect, and hosts the New Books in Political Science podcast. He is the author of Pay-to-Play Politics: How Money Defines the American Democracy (2016) and Tea Party Divided: The Hidden Diversity of a Maturing Movement (2015), among other books.

Submitted on: JAN 21, 2017

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