US – Donald Trump’s Inaugural Address: Closed Fist or Open Hand?

This is a guest post by Craig Allen Smith, Professor Emeritus, North Carolina State University

Until November I considered the notion of “President Donald J. Trump’s Inaugural Address” a fantasy; perhaps he did, too.  Most polls then predicted his defeat and he won just 45.94% of the vote. But American presidential elections are a tournament of state elections for electoral votes, and Trump won 304 electoral votes and the 2017 inaugural moment.  Presidential inaugurals are planned responses to a recurrent rhetorical situation. Forty-four presidents have addressed that challenge, and their addresses  shape our expectations.

The definitive study of presidential inaugural addresses (Campbell & Jamieson 1985) suggests five guidelines for President Trump’s address. First, the speech should “unify the audiences by reconstituting it as ‘the people’ who witness and ratify the ceremony. Second, the speech should “rehearse shared values drawn from the past” to anchor the new president in the permanent culture of America. Third, the speech should “enunciate the political principles that will guide the new administration” by providing tactical watchwords for the new administration.  Fourth, the speech should “demonstrate that the President appreciates the requirements and limitations of Executive power”. Finally, the speech should pursue its four ends “through means appropriate to epideictic discourse”:  by “Urging contemplation not action”,  by “Focusing on the present while incorporating past and future”,  and by “Praising the institution of the Presidency and the form of government of which it is a part” (Campbell & Jamieson 1985).

Ultimately, every presidents’ rhetorical challenge is to adapt his message to the genre while adjusting that genre to his message.  Let us then consider how President Trump adjusted his message and the inaugural expectations.  All quotations are from the official text (Trump 2017).

Generic inaugurals unify audiences by reconstituting the people as witnesses and ratifiers of the transfer of power (Campbell and Jamieson 1985).  President Trump did so immediately by invoking “We, the citizens of America” — an unusual construction, especially given his focus on legal citizenship in the United States of America.  He then characterized his oath to God to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution as “an oath of allegiance to all Americans.”  Both statements functioned as parts of a strategic reconstituting of the country:  “the people” were mentioned nineteen times compared to three mentions of “government” and no mention of the Constitution, Congress, or the judiciary.

“What truly matters is not which party controls our government,” said the President, “but whether our government is controlled by the people.” His position was clear: “For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.” He pounded the wedge between people and government: “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. 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.”

Thus, said the President, “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 American People.” Indeed, “January 20th 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.” Their embodiment — President Donald J. Trump — delivered that message from the steps of the Capitol while flanked by former Presidents Carter, Clinton, Bush, and Obama as well as members of Congress and the Supreme Court. In short, President Trump defined himself less as President of the United States and its government than as president of the American people.

Like his predecessors since Theodore Roosevelt, President Trump employed a “Plebiscitary Model” for his address to “envision and articulate a strong connection between the presidency and the public” (Korzi 2004). This is fully consistent with Trump’s defeat of the Republican establishment in the primaries, his defeat of the Democratic establishment in the general election, and with the populist rhetoric of his campaign.

But none of his predecessors went this far in disconnecting the people from their government even though they took office with more than Trump’s 46% of the popular vote and pre-inauguration approval ratings greater than his 37%. (Calfas 2017).  Which people, then, did President Trump mean to empower? President Trump’s “people” were “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.”   “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. 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.” Implicitly, this moment did not belong to those avoiding the ceremony or to those not responsible for electing him, nor did it belong to those who have not perceived themselves as forgotten. Implicit omissions are unavoidable, but an inaugural is an appropriate site for an olive branch or two, and these are largely absent.

Trump’s olive branch was a bit curious. “We are one nation,” he said, “and their pain is our pain.  Their dreams are our dreams; and their success will be our success.  We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.” But who are “they”? If the forgotten people are now his empowered “we” then who is left as the “they” outside his people, his America, and his nation that exists to serve them?

The second generic characteristic of presidential inaugurals is the invocation of “shared values drawn from the past” (Campbell & Jamieson 1985). Trump’s inaugural is light on the American core values of morality, patriotism, effort and optimism, and progress and change (Smith and Smith 1985).  He invokes the Bible (“The Bible tells us, ‘how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity’”), God (“we are protected by God”), and the Creator (“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.”) but that seems a bit thin in comparison to the genre. We heard two references to patriotism (“When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” and “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”).

The values heard in this inaugural are of the terminal variety — outcomes to be valued. These include strength, wealth, pride, safety, and greatness — “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. And, Yes, Together, We Will Make America Great Again.” These are not altruistic goals, but imply a morality of self-interest.

Indeed, the President explicitly indicts America’s history of altruism:  “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 nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own; And spent 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 disappeared over the horizon.”

The third generic characteristic of presidential inaugurals is that they “enunciate the political principles that will guide the new administration” (Campbell and Jamieson 1985). It is here that President Trump was most explicit, replacing altruism with self-interest:

“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 moment on, it’s going to be 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 products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.  Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength. I will fight for you with every breath in my body – and I will never, ever let you down. America will start winning again, winning like never before.”

Here again his explicit statement invites an examination of his implicit message. Does “America first” mean the United States or his reconstituted “America” of his people? Does he mean our country first as opposed to other countries, or our people as opposed to their Constitutional government? Surely his ardent supporters will dismiss those questions, but the other 60% of Americans and others around the world will surely wonder.

Fourth, the speech should “demonstrate that the President appreciates the requirements and limitations of Executive power” (Campbell and Jamieson 1985).  Trump’s inaugural is squarely within Korzi’s (2004) “Plebiscitary Model” in which the president “is central and dominant in the political system, with other political actors, such as Congress and political parties, largely absent. Moreover, the Constitution and limits on presidential power are eschewed. Most importantly, these addresses envision and articulate a strong connection between the presidency and the public” (Korzi 2004). Yet Trump never refers to the presidency and mentions no other political actors. Instead “Together, we will determine the course of America and the world for years to come.”  Not he but “we” will rebuild America:

“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. We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation. We will get our people off of welfare and back to work – rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor. We will follow two simple rules: Buy American and Hire American. 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. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow. We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones – and unite the civilized world against Radical Islamic Terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.”

Which we? You, sir, and who else? The government that has failed in the past? The 46% who voted for you and the 37% who approve of you? The forgotten people now empowered? This remains unexplained. Except that, “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.” But is that allegiance to the American people, to the disdained government, or to the unmentioned Constitution?

Fifth and finally, an inaugural should pursue its four ends “through means appropriate to epideictic discourse” (Campbell & Jamieson 1985). Whereas we expect epideictic to urge contemplation over action this speech does the opposite: “The time for empty talk is over.  Now arrives the hour of action.” Whereas we expect epideictic to focus on the present while incorporating past and future this speech focuses on the future: “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 moment on, it’s going to be America First.” And where we expect an inaugural as epideictic to praise the institution of the Presidency and the form of government of which it is a part, this speech does not mention the presidency and renders government as the villain. The President’s message could have been cast so as to fulfill these generic expectations but it seems more likely that the President wanted to defy those rhetorical expectations just as well as he had defied the political expectations.

Conclusion

President Donald J. Trump delivered an inaugural address that was sufficiently generic to be a recognizable inaugural. Like his predecessors he reconstituted the people, he invoked values, and he articulated principles guiding his administration. But unlike his predecessors he divided his people from his government, he rejected the traditional value of altruism in favor of self-interest, he offered no praise for the presidency or the Constitutional system, and he flaunted the requirements of good epideictic address.

An inaugural address is a point of interface between the politics, rhetoric, and the individual. This address was mostly Trump. A political inaugural would have sought to build bridges, but he worked to burn them. A rhetorical inaugural would have urged contemplation about the present and paid homage to the presidency and the constitutional system, but he spurned contemplation, focused on the future, and said nothing good about the office or the system. Instead a self-confident businessman attacked government. He disdained a tradition of altruism and pledged his administration to “America First”. At his investiture he vested power in “the people”, however clumsily, pitting them against the government of which he is the new CEO. A candidate who won with a divide and conquer strategy exhorted us to be unified and loyal to one another.

President Trump’s inaugural address ended with a raised fist reminiscent of Edward P. J. Corbett’s (1969) essay about the rhetoric of the open hand and the closed fist.  “The open hand might be said to characterize the kind of persuasive discourse that seeks to carry its point by reasoned, sustained, conciliatory discussion of the issues,” wrote Corbett (1969). “The closed fist might signify the kind of persuasive activity that seeks to carry its point by non-rationale, non-sequential, often non-verbal, frequently provocative means.” That seems a fitting description of the Trump we have come to know, although Corbett’s focus was on the raised fist of Black Power and anti-war protesters on the Left.  Corbett argued that the key element of rhetoric is choice and concluded that, “If rhetoric is, as Aristotle defined it, ‘a discovery of all the available means of persuasion,’ let us be prepared to open and close that hand as the occasion demands” (Corbett 1969).

Following Corbett we can be prepared to open and close that hand as appropriate, but the inaugural genre has until now been an open-hand moment.  President Trump’s inaugural address was a close-fisted repudiation of government, altruism, and contemplation.  His calls for unity and togetherness came as commands for unity and allegiance. He offered no assurances to females or non-whites or those aspiring to citizenship unless of course they hear themselves among the Presidents “they” who look at the sky, dream, and bleed.  Surely, President Trump’s inaugural address will have excited his supporters and worried his adversaries…and that should trouble him.

The American constitutional system was designed to complicate change. Rhetorically adept presidents with strong public support who built bridges to their critics still met with mixed success.  Now President Trump begins with a combative closed-fist anchored not in the Constitution but in the popular support of a public that already disapproves of his leadership.  He pits those people against the government he leads.  He offers little to those who fear and/or oppose him. Renounces our record of helping other nations and tells them it will be America First.  His address was more populist and combative than its predecessors; one could even term it “revolutionary”. His path forward will be challenging as he seeks ways to use the open hand and closed fist to forge the allegiance, unity, and togetherness he deems essential to “make America great again”. What could possibly go wrong?

References

Calfas, J. (2017, January 20). Poll: Trump approval rating hits new low hours before inauguration. The Hill. Retrieved 1/20/2017 from http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/315223-poll-trump-approval-rating-hits-new-low-hours-before.

Campbell, K. K.& Jamieson, K. H. (1985). Inaugurating the Presidency. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 15, 395-411. Retrieved 1/19/2017 at http://www.jstor.org/stable/27550215.

Corbett, E. P. J. (1969). The Rhetoric of the open hand and the rhetoric of the closed fist. College Composition and Communication, 20, 288-296. Retrieved 1/20/2017 from http://www.jstor.org.prox.lib.ncsu.edu/stable/pdf/355032.pdf.

Korzi, M. J. (2004). The president and the public: Inaugural addresses in American history. Congress & the Presidency, 31(1), 21-52. Retrieved from http://proxying.lib.ncsu.edu/index.php?url=http://search.proquest.com.prox.lib.ncsu.edu/docview/205929590?accountid=12725

Smith, C. A. & Smith, K. B. (1985). Presidential values and public priorities: Recurrent patterns in addresses to the nation, 1963-1984. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 15(4), 743-753. Retrieved 1/19/2017 from http://www.jstor.org.prox.lib.ncsu.edu/stable/27550274

Trump, D. J. (2017, January 20). The Inaugural Address: Remarks of President Donald J. Trump J. – As prepared for delivery. The White House: Briefing Room. Retrieved 1/20/2017 from https://www.whitehouse.gov/inaugural-address.

One thought on “US – Donald Trump’s Inaugural Address: Closed Fist or Open Hand?

  1. zanna beswick

    Fascinating and informative in a manner that underlines the very lack of such approach already in Trump’s administration. In Brexit Britain we feel for you – two countries getting into very dire straits…

    Reply

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