What most media missed in Trump’s inauguration speech

It was a “fiery inaugural address,” FoxNews said of Donald Trump’s short speech at his inauguration on January 20th. Many other major media highlighted Trump’s “America First” comments, labeling the speech nationalist, and remarking on the “white” crowd that turned out. Others found the speech “dark,” “militant” and divisive. One reporter thought it had “anti-semitic” overtones. NPR even has a talmudic style annotated version of the speech.

Most of the views of Trump’s speech were preconceived. Most of the commentators had already decided that it would be nationalist, racist, anti-semitic, dark, extremist and divisive. It wasn’t judged in a vacuum or on its merits or weighed against other similar speeches.  Nothing happens in a vacuum of course. Trump’s speech came after a long and bruising campaign, one that was tarred with Trump’s own tendency towards making outlandish and offensive comments, some of them inflated by critics. Critics of Trump have a long laundry list of reasons to oppose him. George W. Bush, now seen as an elder statesmen, was once seen in 2000 as a “fascist” and “moron,” who was unfit to be president by many major media commentators.  Such views take a long time to wear off.

The speech was 1,400 words, shorter than Obama’s 2009 speech (2,400) and Bush’s 2001 speech (1,500), as well as many others such as FDR’s 1933 address (1,800). Let’s take a step back and look at the speech by itself and highlight what some of the media commentators have missed.

“The people”

Trump used the words “the people” five times in his speech, in two paragraphs hammering home the following: “We are transferring power from Washington and giving it back to you, the people. For too long, a small group of people in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have bore the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth.”

This “power to the people” notion is echoed more on typical left-wing and revolutionary contexts than on the right.  More Karl Marx than conservative tradition. But there has always been a populist “Republican revolution” spirit on the right in the US, just as there has been a similar strain among the right in Europe. Yet Trump’s fervor for “the people” sounded a key note in his concise address that harkens to other ideologies and popular cultures. It was a key theme and slogan of the Black Panthers, the Pakistan People’s Party, and a lyric by James Brown as well as a song by John Lennon.  “The people” didn’t feature very large in Bush or Obama’s speeches, nor even in FDR’s 1933 speech. Trump’s tenor was far less international than JFK’s 1961 address or Obama in 2009.

The “people” theme was stressed throughout. “Struggling families,” would be the center of policy and the country would not belong to “the establishment” but rather to “you.” beyond referencing the “forgotten men and women,” a term borrowed from a 1932 FDR speech, Trump claimed that “January 20th, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”


Although George W. Bush mentioned poverty in his 2001 speech, the word was absent from Obama’s 2009 address.  Yet poverty and the poor were a center of Trump’s speech. “Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families and good jobs for themselves. These are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public.”  The demand for “justice” is not a usual term employed by the right. Trump described an America with mothers and children “trapped in poverty” and a darkly poetic description of a landscape festooned with “rusted our factories scattered like tombstones.” Crime and gangs had “stolen too many lives,” but he assured listeners that the “carnage” would “stop right now.”

The poverty caused by shuttered factories was a major theme of the speech. “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.” He asserted that no one would ever be “ignored again” and painted a picture of Americans united from the “urban sprawl of Detroit” to the “windswept plains of Nebraska.”

“America first, America first”

The term “America first” got most headlines from the speech and it forms the centerpiece of the address, setting the stage for about a third of Trump’s exhortation to make American interests paramount. “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.” Contrast this to Obama’s “to the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish, to nourish starved bodies.” For Trump it would be “every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”  Borders would be reinforced to protect America from the “ravages of other countries,” which he claimed were “stealing out companies and destroying our jobs.”

FDR had a more poetic way of asserting Trump’s values. “Our international trade relations, though vastly important, are in point of time and necessity secondary to the establishment of a sound national economy. I favor as a practical policy the putting of first things first.”  FDR thought the emergency at home could not wait for with restoring world trade. Contrast that with JFK’s notion that “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…if a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

Trump argued that a new line in the sand had to be drawn and a break with the past decades. “Buy American and hire American,” he said. “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.” Here he sketched a policy where America would “not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example.”  This would be a break from Bush’s neo-con democracy agenda and a break from Obama’s view that the US was responsible for healing the world’s problems, some of which he believed were the making of America. For Trump the “redistribution” of the wealth of America’s middle class “all across the world” would end.  There would be no more “defending other nations borders while refusing to defend our own,” and no more “enriching” foreign countries or spending “trillions and trillions” overseas.

“Open your heart to patriotism”

One of the most interesting sentences in Trump’s speech was his claim that “when you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” The sentence was not elaborated on. Since much of the speech was about national self interest the issue of embracing patriotism without fear and without shame was clear. But the portion of the sentence dealing with prejudice was left hanging. A subsequent paragraph spoke of “unity,” but it was not as heartfelt as rest. This was in contrast to Obama’s “we are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.” Obama spoke of “old hatreds,” whereas Trump spoke of a unity in nationalism, “through our loyalty to our country we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.” There would be a “new national pride,” in Trump’s American vision.

“Radical Islamic terrorism”

When Obama spoke in 2009 he sought to stress the Muslim heritage of America and reach out to the “Muslim world,” to whom he said “we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” He sought to encourage foreign leaders to not “sow conflict” and “blame their society’s ills on the West.”  He claimed “Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.”   Bush had eschewed any mention of terror or Islamist extremism in 2005.

Trump sought a major contrast with Obama’s view that “extremists” were targeting “random” and “innocent” people. For Trump there would be no mincing of words. “Unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.”

Trump’s pledge to eradicate “radical Islamic terrorism” was a bold decision to name a threat and an enemy. Besides his excoriating of “the establishment” and his castigating of “their victories have not been your victories,” the only enemy named in the speech was “radical Islamic terrorism.”  In this phrasing he walked away from the concept of “extremism,” which has been the preferred term used by the previous US administration. He focused on the method extremists use, which is terror. That’s equivalent to attacking “radical white terrorism” as a euphemism for the KKK or “radical German national socialism” as a term for Nazism. Here Trump was calling a spade a spade, that the threat is not some amorphous, general “extreme” category, but a specific type of extremism. There was a purposefulness behind not using the term “Islamist,” which would identify the political ideology, but to name “Islamic” as the type of terrorism, akin to Sikh terrorism, Christian terrorism, Jewish terrorism or any myriad other types. This surely offends the sensibilities of those who don’t see in the terror of Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Islamic Jihad, Al-Shabab, Jama’a Islamiyeh, Abu Sayef, the Taliban, Boko Haram or thousands of other hate groups an Islamic thread, but rather a thread of non-Islamic extremism, namely that ISIS “is not Islamic,” even though 50,000 volunteers from Muslim communities, some of them recent converts, joined it between 2014 and 2015. It’s like arguing that since Stalinism doesn’t embody the perfect ideals of Communism, then the Soviet Union was not really Communist and that all the misdeeds it did in the name of Karl Marx had nothing to do with Communism. Just extremism. Here Trump and his speechwriters wanted to draw one of the clearest distinctions from the last 16 years of US approach to fighting terror. Whether it was Bush’s much mocked “war on terror,” or Obama’s widespread use of drones, the US has been engaged in a two decade war. Here Trump was laying out the goal of that war, much to the dismay of many who would prefer the war go on forever without any real goal or distinction. It’s easier to fight nameless inoffensive enemies in Libya and Afghanistan, than to decide who one is fighting. Bush was widely critiqued for “declaring war on Muslims,” and Trump was saying “well, we are fighting Islamic terrorism.”

“Constantly complaining”

Trump accused politicians of complaining, part of his wider anti-establishment views. He painted a picture of an out of touch Washington political bubble that distributes wealth and jobs to its nepotistic networks, and mocks the rest of the country. “The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of the countries…and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. This phrasing is similar to UKIP’s Paul Nattal who said on January 21. “I have heard people say that these communities have been left behind, this is no doubt true…I prefer to say that these communities have been let down, and let down time and time again.Let down by a haughty political establishment that looks down its nose at working class people, let down by a Labour Party in particular that takes their votes for granted.” UKIP isn’t the only one sounding the trumpet, Marine Le Pen gathered with other right wing populists such as Geert Wilders in Germany and heralded a continental populist “spring” they saw coming after the Anglo-Saxon votes in the US and UK.

“Our country will prosper again”

Trump built his campaign on the slogan “Make America Great Again,” which found its way into his inaugural address, but the larger theme of the address was that America was a dystopian poverty-stricken country with its middle and lower class heart being ripped out as jobs go overseas. Is America as Dickensian as Trump paints it? Certainly on Wall Street, where the Dow is up over the last decade, it isn’t poverty-stricken. But Trump’s theme is that middle America will prosper again.

The closing of US factories was truly a problem of the 1970s and 1980s. Michael Moore’s 1989 Roger and Me captured the problem well.  Trump in some ways is living in a 1960s economic vision. His speech spoke glowingly of “Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.” But what is being protected? Can manufacturing jobs return, and if they can’t return then what kinds of jobs can make middle America prosper again.  It’s undoubtedly true that the gap between rich and poor has been growing for decades. Bush and Obama did little to reverse that.

But Trump’s depressing view of a America that has to be lifted up and is ravaged by crime is inaccurate. Crime has risen in Chicago (762 murders in a year) but it has declined in many places. The economic issues that Reagan or FDR faced were far more destructive to the US than what Trump inherits. But Trump passionately believes that America must “bring back our borders” and that it must “bring back our dreams,” and set to rebuilding infrastructure such as tunnels and railways with “American labor.” In some ways that echoes themes that FDR would have agreed with, Trump almost seemed to sketch out a a New Deal style Public Works Administration. His evocation of dreams harkened back to Kennedy and his distaste for big government looked to Reagan.

But what separates Trump’s economic and social vision from the others is a more populist suspicion of Washington, a vision that pits the “forgotten” against the elites in a kind of class warfare, a populist style that has roots in other Americans such as Huey Long or William Jennings Bryan.  Trump articulates this revolutionary populism in his appeal to a “historic moment, the likes of which the world has never seen before.”  This outlandishness and boastfulness is stressed in other parts of his address.  A “glorious destiny” of a “righteous people,” guided by a “new vision” and “new decree.”

What was unique in this speech?

Every president promises some kind of break with the past, but Trump’s speech was remarkable in seeming to castigate decades of US policy, both of Republicans and Democrats. He was repudiating numerous visions of the past. There was very little reverence for the US founding fathers, no quotes from legislators of the past, no colorful stories about some random person he met on the campaign trail, and very little interest in foreign policy. There were few specifics about policy, few specifics in general.

Gone in this speech was some of the sense of humor or the angry and offensive outbursts of the campaign, or the sometimes funny, sometimes brutally accurate and sometimes boorish twitter abuse Trump has subjected others to.  But removing the caricature of Trump, the offensive Trump, and replacing it with revolutionary Trump leads one to question whether this is just another manifestation or a more sharpened and polished decision-making tool. Statements about fighting to the last breath and never letting people down will be hard to live up to. Can the nation’s workers always be put first, can the country cut its foreign aid and live up to this crafting of policy based on a new national self-determination?

Trump’s critics wanted a sexist, racist, Trump. Their inability to digest almost any of the substance of the speech which channeled discussions about poverty into the national discourse, reveals once again an inability of much of the major media to wonder about the lives of those outside their circles. Critics would say in response that they simply cannot forgive Trump for his past behaviors, a man who exploited fears of immigration and was exposed as sexist and bullying is not legitimate later on.

The future will tell which Trump emerges after January, the one the opposition has conjured up from past misdeeds, or the one that was presented on January 20.

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