The Inaugural Address

This installment of Rhetoric Roundup features brief analyses of President Trump’s inaugural address from seven rhetoric scholars.

Americans as Makers

My initial response to President Trump’s version of America as presented in his inaugural address is that it could only be described as a hellscape in which politicians are corrupt and industry will save all.

While Trump did present this ominous vision of the nation, it isn’t new. It’s the version of America that he’s been selling on the campaign trail for a year-and-a-half. The news in his inaugural address is that his vision of Americans emphasizes a nation of makers — the “make” from his “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan. Americans will “rebuild our country and restore its promise for all of our people” and we will prosper together as makers “rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor.” We will unite to make roads, rebuild schools, communities, and etc. Everyone will have a job, making something, and together we will make America great again.

I find it interesting that he views Americans as makers primarily — homo faber — “man making” is the Latin, as did Karl Marx. Is Trump’s version of human nature, Americans, American exceptionalism, and how we can once again become great an outdated concept? Can late-capitalism sustain Americans as makers as a viable income source? Can we literally make America great again?

I want to agree with him that we are most human when we make things — who doesn’t love the satisfaction of making? — but it seems like his ideal America is based upon a turn-of-the-20th century economy rather that a 21st-century economy. Is that economy possible or desirable now? I just don’t know.

— Jennifer Mercieca  

Unity: Division

In his inaugural address, Donald Trump reconstitutes the American promise through his theme of “America First.” But what does an “America First” policy mean for public deliberation? While much of Trump’s inaugural appealed to individual interest, especially economic interest, his discussion of public deliberation suggests that, in deliberation, individual rights must adhere to the desires of the community.

President Trump declares that the foundational principle to our politics will be a “total allegiance to the United States of America…. through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.” On its face, this statement suggests that individual difference and, at times, prejudice or hate, is what divides citizens. Citizens must learn to deemphasize their differences and refrain from political dissent, especially in civic space, in order to become loyal to each other. A great America requires a unified and an unquestioned loyal America. For those who are able to define loyalty, this would not be problematic.

Trump attempts to provide civic space for disagreement but not in such a way as to reinforce the desire of political dissent as an end in itself. Trump states: “The Bible 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.” While other presidential inaugurals have made the case for freedom of speech as an end itself, Trump diminishes deliberation’s importance compared to solidarity. Open debate and honest disagreement mean little if it does not lead to solidarity, meaning that in public deliberation appeals to individual rights or individual identity detract from group solidarity.

This view of deliberation suggests that dissent it is not valued as an end in itself. A polity in which citizens adhere to the norms and values of the majority would, on its face, generate more solidarity than one that pursues its own interests. Though Trump acknowledges that “we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms,” it is not clear that, in practice, citizens who adhere to minority positions will be able to do so without facing public scorn for undermining solidarity. From this inaugural address, an individual’s right to freedom of speech or conscience in public deliberation must become subservient to the interests of the community in order to make America great again.

— Jeremiah Hickey

A Besieged and Belligerent People?

At the outset of a presidential administration, the inaugural address gives the new commander-in-chief an opportunity to bring the nation together by offering an inclusive and inspiring vision of the future and to pledge him or herself to it. As a result, and often against the president’s wishes, inaugural addresses are often received by the American people as a sort of promise made by the new president. Most presidents are reluctant to speak in certain terms, stressing the challenges that lay ahead. As in so many other ways, our new commander-in-chief is not like most presidents and so many promises were made. Yet, one stands out.

Early in the speech, President Trump declared: “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.” Going on to describe an America beset by the scourges of urban poverty, industrial decline, and well-funded public schools, a nation is spoiling for a fight with foreign terrorists and those who would cross the southern border illegally, Trump’s big promise may not be imperiled as much by his ability to deliver on it as whether enough Americans ultimately see themselves in his vision of a besieged and belligerent people.

— Mark Hlavacik

Just Between Us: ‘American Carnage’

Donald Trump gave his greatest campaign speech today at the Capitol. His “Make America Great Again” mantra is now official government policy. “America will start winning again — winning like never before,” he said. Winning what? For whom? Trump’s inaugural address advocates a strong stance of “America First,” and his language is laced with references to his supporters as his ideal of the American people. They were his audience, and he anointed them as America’s “rulers” for the era ahead. In his attempt to be inclusive, Trump was divisive. “You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement,” Trump said. The result? “Everyone is listening to you now.” By “everyone,” he means everyone else, his detractors — they are now his wards, or “our people,” a phrase he used in two passages. Together, Trump and his supporters are now in charge, placed at the top of a new caste of patriotism, mutually and indelibly loyal, like parents huddled to discuss wayward children.

Through this rhetoric, Trump constitutes his voters as the chosen American people, whom he sets apart from the rest of the world and entrusts with the nation’s future. Amid this grand myth of American exceptionalism, Trump exaggerates an exigency of deteriorating American vigor as his presidential raison d’être — and he calls for “total allegiance” to stop this “American carnage.” Conveniently, that’s the perfect phrase to describe his uninspired inaugural address. In terms of words and delivery, it was an affront to the rhetorical genre it occupies.

— Brady Creel

Three Takeaways for Middle East Policy

From the perspective of the Terrorism and Middle East Policy desk, there are three takeaways from President Trump’s inaugural address. First, as other scholars have pointed out long before today, Trump’s rhetorical brand of “America First,” used twice in this inaugural, is grounded in a discourse of U.S. isolationism. Second, this presidential inaugural is the first in history to use words like “bleed,” “carnage,” and “tombstones;” in general, it relied upon an ominous note that is rare for presidential inaugurals (and defiant of the inaugural genre, which typically works to uplift and unify). This tone is likely to set a precedent for thinking about the U.S. relationship to the fight against terrorism moving forward. Third, this is the first inaugural speech in U.S. history to use the word “Islamic,” a clear gesture to Trump’s continued rhetorical conflation of terrorism with the Middle East and Arab world (and, specifically, Muslims). Trump’s vision of America here is a more isolated place that requires single-handed vigilance against threats from both outside and inside its borders. These tropes will likely have significant impact on American perception of terror threats and will unsettle American allies in the fight against terrorism around the world.

— Heather Ashley Hayes

Criminal Justice

I was surprised his speech only contained two short sentences about crime. As a candidate who ran on a traditional “tough on crime” platform, the brief mention seems out of character, but is perhaps appropriate for an inaugural address. His use of “American carnage,” however, is in line with his argument that crime is destroying the United States. The President likes to claim that crime is incredibly high and going up. This is a lie. Crime is at a 30-year low. While the White House page on law enforcement correctly notes homicide increased in many large cities in 2015, that increase is not indicative of overall crime rates. Even with the increase, the homicide rate is lower than it has been in decades. Yes, overall crime increased by 1.3 percent from 2015-2016, and yes we should continue reducing crime rates as much as possible. But painting a false picture of crime rates in America makes it difficult to have intelligent, data-driven conversations about what policies and programs should be implemented. Then again, when it comes to crime, the new president seems unwilling to have such conversations.

— Rita Shah

Trump to Educators: Fix Everything, Ask for Nothing

President Trump’s speech concisely captured the burden American policymakers place on educators. This burden enlists educators to solve the nation’s problems, yet it also rationalizes efforts to deny further resources to schools. Typically, this maneuver has two steps. Step one: Ascribe education the ability to fix problems like poverty and crime. In Trump’s speech, the American school system was named in the middle of a list with poverty, rusted-out factories, and “crime and gangs and drugs.” In this bleak sentence, the possibilities of education offered the only source of solace that our country might reach its “unrealized potential.” Step two: Stress that education can accomplish these ends without any concrete commitment of resources or moral support from the government. Since 2008, 35 states have slashed education funding, and the federal government has done little to make up the difference. Despite the dearth of public spending on schooling, Trump claimed the United States has an “education system flush with cash.” In short, President Trump asked the schools to address problems of poverty, crime, gangs, and industrial decline. In the same breath, he told teachers to pursue these goals without additional resources. Adding insult to injury, he claimed that teachers have left “our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge.” For a nation of underpaid and overworked educators, Trump’s inaugural refused to provide even emotional compensation for their years of labor. It asked them to fix everything, but offered them nothing in return.

— Michael J. Steudeman