Notes on the Trump inauguration speech

Greetings from Malta, where Europeans have plenty of thoughts on the new American president.

I watched the inauguration on the web from a hotel room in San Anton, and also followed via social media until it was time to walk with colleagues in the ancient city of Birgu.  Here are some thoughts on the event.

First, a word cloud, based on a transcription of the speech:

Trump inauguration speech word cloud

Second, I’d like to read it closely for themes that point to possible governing goals for the next four years.  As one columnist noted, there were plenty of echoes to themes sounded on the campaign trail.

I was struck by the emphasis on the Rust Belt, noted in passages like “rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation”.

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For too long… Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed…

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.

Trump made deindustrialization a major theme of his campaign, and seems to be sticking to it, at least rhetorically.  And yes, that is a pretty dark image for an inauguration, especially when followed by a sentence including the phrase “This American carnage”.  Perhaps we should look for a Gothic trope in this administration.

Nationalism played, unsurprisingly, a key role in the speech.  It’s a fiercely anti-international nationalism:

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. We’ve made other countries rich, while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon.

…From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.

One foreign enemy alone appeared: “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth.”  That final clause: just how large an expansion of the war on terror does it signal?

That nationalism keyed off of economic protectionism: “We will follow two simple rules; buy American and hire American.”  And:

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 products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.

This, too, is consistent with campaign statements.

Populism ran throughout the speech*.  “we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.”

What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20th, 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.

That seemed Jacksonian to some.  It also, obviously, connected with the campaign’s anti-elitism theme.  It also returns to Trump’s self-portrayal as an outside.  As Ed Kilgore noted, the speaker seems to be slamming a lot of politicians on both sides of the aisle.

There was also a curiously phrased bit about other nations:

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.

Is this a pointer towards friendship with Russia, or a hint of some other changed policy to another nation?

Back home, authoritarianism made its appearance: “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.”  “We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity.”

American schools received a swift but massive thwack: “an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.”  This hints at possibly big plans for the Department of Education.

Echoing another campaign trail theme, when not calling for policies based on racial, ethnic, or religious othering, Trump urged anti-discrimination: “It’s 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.”  “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.”  Obviously this is aimed at fending off charges of racism.

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There was the usual grim muttering about violence, the “crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.

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”  I find this to be (among other things) a link to Trump’s roots in tv, as tv “news” has been doing its best to pump up crime fears, precisely when crime has actually fallen, historically.

Obviously this connects to the speech’s praise of police: “There should be no fear.

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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.”  Since many Americans experience this fear, we need to power up the police; that’s a likely next step.

The promised infrastructure construction plan received its due: “We will build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation.”  I’d consider that a sign that a construction bill will appear in Congress shortly.

Some themes surprised me.  For instance, Trump sounded a strong religious note: “The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity”;  “most importantly, we will be protected by God”; “[a]nd whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the wind-swept plains of Nebraska… they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty creator.”  I don’t know if this has been present in his campaign speeches.  Is it an indication of the religious right playing a key role in his administration?

Elsewhere he sounded a nearly utopian, science fictional note:

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.

I’m reminded of Johnson’s soaring 1965 inaugural address.  Was this something Trump spoke of during the campaign?  Does it actually signify anything, like a space program budget boost?

There has been a curious appeal to a movement in Trump’s recent speeches, and he echoes that here: “You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before.”  Those looking for fascistic lineaments in the new administration should take note of this rhetoric. I haven’t seen evidence of such a movement actually happening yet, however.

Overall, the speech tended to be consistent with Trump’s campaign statements.  Its bullet points suggest administrative actions in the coming year, unless they’re mere sops to voters and the media.

*For dark fun, enjoy this echo of a Trump line in a Batman movie.

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4 Responses to Notes on the Trump inauguration speech

  1. VanessaVaile says:

    I’d be interested in what other, local and European, conference goers thought of the speech. I’ve read (and collected) a number of reviews — a reaction to my Trump voting next door neighbor cheerfully reporting “great speech” reactions from his smart phone — mostly bad (no cherry picking either). George Will wrote that it was the worst ever:

    “Twenty minutes into his presidency, Donald Trump, who is always claiming to have made, or to be about to make, astonishing history, had done so. Living down to expectations, he had delivered the most dreadful inaugural address in history.”

    Jonathon Pie said pretty much the same but ruder and funnier,

    There are more and my inauguration collection, now including this, overflows. I may put together a separate collection just for the speech.

    My mind keeps circling back to the first inaugural address I ever heard. Mr Savoy brought a TV to the Youngsville (LA) HS American History class so the entire 1961 senior class of 25 watched JFK’s inauguration speech. That’s my inaugural speech benchmark.

  2. R. Beutner says:

    Thanks for the summary here. I am struck by how much this sounds like it was written as part of the plot to a science fiction novel, authored by either Heinlein, Haldeman, Neal Stephenson (I am thinking ‘Snow Crash’ in particular) or Philip K. Dick. Thank you Bryan for as always, being insightful.

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