Presidential inaugural addresses tend to be broad vision statements with gestures towards national unity and purpose. A few policy directions may be outlined, but that is not their main purpose. Donald Trump’s address on 20 January 2017, sits strangely in this genre, stylistically nodding in this general direction, but primarily addressed to his already convinced supporters, more concerned to connect with them, than to intimate policy aims, or include his opposition.
At many points in his campaign he said things that signalled a privileging of a white, Christian, male, working and middle class audience, although his electoral base was not limited to these. He cleverly favoured statements that could be read and heard in various ways. Criticism of ‘dangerous immigrants from Mexico’ can be either about sound border control, or racial hierarchy. Tirades about ‘Islamic terrorism’ can be either about national security, or chauvinism and bigotry on behalf of Christianity. Vulgar language about groping women can be repudiated by apology, while implying nonchalance about patriarchy and sexual predation. Criticism of political power and corruption in government can be either a statement about the nature of the political system, or a broadside against liberal and pluralist values. Most of these linguistic devices of ambiguity are at work in his inaugural. They allow his message to be received with varying emphasis, thereby extending his coalition of support, even allowing a few who would seem to be in targeted groups—black, Hispanic, women, Muslims—to find rationales for supporting him.
This allows him to serve one of the basic strategies of political rhetoric, defining people in and out of the favoured group or social category, the supporters of the cause and the leader, ambiguously. Members can hear what they want to hear, and buy into the definition of the group in different ways, with varying degrees of racism, sexism and religious chauvinism. This is very shrewd. Neither a blatant set of appeals to these bigotries, nor a ‘politically correct’ language cleansed in the standard fashion, would have allowed him to assemble the coalition of support that was just big enough to get him into office, with the help of the vagaries of the electoral college.
However, in a closer look at Trump’s inaugural speech, I want to examine a different aspect of how political rhetoric plays on and mobilises identities. My main contention is that this is not just about defining people in terms of valued and denigrated social categories, but more deeply, about constructing a narrative or mood, in regard to fundamental feelings of power and agency . Politics is about making a connection between the power of the political leaders, and the power of individuals, and the intervening social groups they see themselves as part of. Trump’s main message is that his presidency will restore power, control, self-determination, agency, to his followers.
Although he doesn’t tell a narrative story, leading from one point to another, his speech has a dramatic cast, used to define an archetypical move from one situation to another, from downtrodden, disempowered helplessness, to redeemed, empowered ‘greatness’. The dramatis personae, the ‘actors’, are simple: Trump himself, ‘the people’, and their ‘enemies’. And the last two involve all the ambiguities about defining social categories outlined above. But Trump’s key message to his supporters is not about concrete policies, or exactly who’s in and who’s out of the ‘us’ that Trump proposes to rescue. It is about how he will move them from feeling powerless to feeling powerful. It is these visceral feelings about agency that animate human politics. Clearly, many of Trump’s supporters are already much more empowered than their opposition in terms of personal wealth, and where they stand in terms of the country’s gender, racial and religious hierarchies. Only a marginal (though critical) portion fit the ‘left behind in the rustbelt’ profile. But the actual disposition of social power is not the point here. What matters is how Trump’s message appeals to those who construe themselves as disempowered and needing a champion. Processes of ‘globalisation’ and ‘neoliberalism’ have left many people behind economically, but only some of these have thrown their lot in with Trump. Many of his most adamant supporters have been left behind, not so much economically, as culturally, because these same processes are linked to the promotion of a more urban, liberal, educated and pluralist mind set. It is not so much the economic as the cultural assets that are differentially distributed and valued, in ways that have left the culturally conservative and traditional feeling that they are on the losing side of history .
Let me turn now the text of Trump’s speech itself, first minimally analysing it by highlighting key features: the three ‘actors’ outlined above, and the drumbeat of agentic language built around verbs and verb phrases, that drive home the underlying message.
Full text of Trump’s inaugural address s actually spoken:
Chief Justice Roberts, President Carter, President Clinton, President Bush, President Obama, fellow Americans, and people of the world: Thank you.
We, the citizens of America, are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country and to restore its promise for all of our people.
Together, we will determine the course of America, and the world, for many, many years to come.
We will face challenges. We will confront hardships. But we will get the job done.
Every four years, we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power, and we are grateful to President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition. They have been magnificent.
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.
For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.
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.
That all changes – starting right here, and right now, because this moment is your moment: it belongs to you.
It belongs to 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.
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.
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.
At the centre of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.
Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighbourhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves.
These are the just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public.
But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge; and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealised potential.
This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
We are one nation – 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.
The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans.
For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry;
Subsidised 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.
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.
The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world.
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 day forward, it’s going to be only America First, 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.
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 labour.
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 – we will shine – for everyone to follow.
We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones – and unite the civilised world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.
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.
When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.
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.
When America is united, America is totally unstoppable.
There should be no fear – 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 and, most importantly, we will be protected by God.
Finally, we must think big and dream even bigger.
In America, we understand that a nation is only living as long as it is striving.
We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action – constantly complaining but never doing anything about it.
The time for empty talk is over.
Now arrives the hour of action.
Do not allow anyone to tell you that it cannot be done. No challenge can match the heart and fight and spirit of America.
We will not fail. Our country will thrive and prosper again.
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 our souls, lift our sights, and heal our divisions.
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.
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.
So to all Americans, in every city near and far, small and large, from mountain to mountain, and from ocean to ocean, hear these words:
You will never be ignored again.
Your voice, your hopes, and your dreams, will define our American destiny. And your courage and goodness and love will forever guide us along the way.
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.
Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America. Thank you. God bless America.
First, for a man often characterised as a narcissist, it is notable that Trump only refers to himself a couple of times. He does this when pointing out his oath of allegiance ‘to all Americans’, and when saying he ‘will fight’ for the people and ‘never, ever let you down’. So when he mentions himself, it is to identify and himself as a faithful champion of the people. This points to one of the most fundamental aspects of political discourse, used throughout the speech, which is the use of the indexical ‘we’, whereby the object of attention is not labelled, but indicated indirectly through generic ‘pointing’ words . By using ‘we’ throughout the speech, Trump manages to infuse his audience’s identity with his own, and by alternating ‘we’ and ‘you’ he further associates himself with his supporters.
The combined indexical figure of ‘you/your/we/they/everyone’ is variously fleshed out as ‘Americans’, ‘citizens’, ‘the nation’, and ‘the people’. At points this is further specified: ‘struggling families all across our land’, ‘men and women of our country’, a ‘historic movement’, ‘American workers and American families’, ‘our middle class’, ‘God’s people’, ‘patriots’ and so on. Together these sketch a complimentary portrait of a ‘righteous people’, dedicated, hard-working, and put upon.
And who is doing the putting upon? Who are the enemies of these people? Over the course of the address Trump identifies a few. He starts by identifying ‘a small group in our the nation’s capital’ (Washington, Politicians, The establishment), stressing that their ‘victories and triumphs’ have not been shared by the people. These enemies reappear later as ‘politicians who are all talk and no action’. In between the only other internal enemy briefly suggested are ‘gangs’ involved in ‘crime’. The main external opponent of America’s interests are ‘other countries’ whose industries and militaries have been subsidised by oppressed and over-generous Americans. The other threat is ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ which must be opposed by the ‘civilised world’ led by the United States, another version of ‘us’, which will ambitiously ‘erradicate it completely from the face of the Earth’. So in this narrative America has been betrayed by its own political elite, hoodwinked by its foreign neighbours taking advantage if its charity, and directly threatened by the deeply alien force of radicalised Islam.
So that is the cast of characters. However the deeper message is not just about who is who, but about who can and will do what. It’s about where power lies, how it has been lost and how it will be regained. The speech is impressively written around vigorous verbs and verb phrases, that assign different kinds of action to the actors, and identify what has been and will be done. The central message about ‘transferring power from Washington D. C. back to the people’ is stated early on. As a whole actions fall into three main categories: injuries done to the people and their suffering, powers that will be restored to the people, and a seizing and taking possession of the historical moment.
Among the injuries suffered by ‘the people’: they have ‘borne the cost’ of enriching elites, been ‘trapped in poverty’, ‘deprived of all knowledge’, ‘robbed of unrealised potential’, they’ve had their ‘wealth…ripped from their homes and … redistributed all across the world’ and had their militaries ‘sadly depleted’. It is this degraded state that Trump promises to deliver his followers from.
The powers they will regain include abilities to, again ambitiously, ‘determine the course of America, and the World,’ and more modestly, to ‘face challenges, ‘confront hardships’, and ‘get the job done’. They will ‘think big and dream bigger’, they will ‘thrive and prosper again’. As the staccato conclusion sums up, they will ‘make America…strong again…wealthy again…proud again…safe again…great again.’ This language of recovered agency and power is the spine that runs throughout the speech.
The new state of affairs is announced arrestingly mid-way: ‘This American carnage stops right here and right now’. The people are finally being ‘listened to’, and will ‘never be ignored again’. This ‘moment’ in which they became the ‘rulers of their nation again’, ‘belongs’ to them. In a prophetic turn of phrase:
From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America First, America First.
The dramatic thrust of the speech is carried by this condensed narrative of power lost and regained, taken back from those who have stolen it. The history is ersatz, and the promises unrealisable. The reason America must be first is not because Trump has remembered a proto-fascist slogan from America in the 1930s, it is because his audience, ‘the people’, believe that they and America have been put last, and this must be put right. This correction of the agentic order is the nugget of the narrative. The last shall be first.
All this poses the classic question of ‘reception’ in the study of public discourse. How do we know how what is being said is being heard? What does the speech itself tell us about its intended audience? In this case, unlike the odd fragment of elite discourse we might find in the archaeological or historical record, we know the message has been effectively tailored for its audience, as its speaker has just won a political victory on the back of similar rhetoric. We have good reasons to think it works, that it connects with its audience. But that poses the more difficult question—why does this message resonate? If ‘the people’ in question is not, on the whole, really so severely oppressed, why do they think they are?
The language of political mobilisation does not deal in cold and objective measures. It’s not necessarily realistic. People judge their situations through a complex of comparisons. It is true that the power of American industrial capitalism has declined, and the state’s global hegemony has weakened. It is true that the mores of society have shifted, so that the taken-for-granted nexus of superiorities of whites, men, Christians, is now routinely challenged in public discourse, even while the de facto advantages of those structural positions persist in many respects. The people that Trump appeals to are not a monolithic body. Some of them have experienced the sharp edge of deindustrialisation and the precarious casualization of labour. Some of them have seen traditional advantages of social status decline. And the median markers of social standing have changed. Where once higher education was a minority option for advancement, it is now an expensive expectation for membership in the more advantaged side of the middle class. The point here is that these people feel less secure, and marginalised by history, for a variety of interacting reasons. Trump’s appeal does not need to provide a critical analysis of the causes of their various situations. It just needs to provide an abstract emotional image of their situation, to convey a mood and sentiment around feelings of power and disempowerment, to be relevant. Whatever the causes, and however well or poorly explained, if people feel disempowered, they will be receptive to messages that promise to correct that condition. It is the affective isomorphism of Trump’s drama of frustrated agency, with a spectrum of personal experiences, which enables him to enlist his following.
We need to understand better the social forces that have led to Trump’s support and success. But I limit myself here to two final comments on what should be done in terms of public debate, given the nature of Trump’s way of communicating. First, those in opposition should by-pass Trump and his tweets, and seek to engage directly with his supporters. As difficult as it may be, don’t condescend, but advance an alternate view. And that process has to begin by recognising, like Trump has, their own understanding of their position, even if one thinks it is false. Circumventing Trump’s pastiche of contradictory and misguided solutions requires this initial move of recognition, followed by an effort to get them to articulate their understanding of their situation. One cannot effectively challenge beliefs before doing this. Secondly, we should take seriously the affective language of power. Everyone wants to feel empowered and in control of their lives, and the art of political rhetoric is to get people to connect power in their personal lives to a larger social agenda. Critical engagement has to challenge and break that connection when it is falsely made. That engagement needs to show how ignoring views of half the US population, and withdrawing from relations of international support (NATO, foreign aid), are signs of national weakness, not strength. Such things as economic stimulus measures, protectionism, and rising national debts may make people feel empowered for a while, but they will bring problems. The rejoinder is that casting one’s lot in with Trump will ultimately make both the nation, and the individuals that make it up, weaker. We should turn Trump’s promises of empowerment on their head, while taking seriously the natural human yearning for power over one’s life.