In his inauguration address on Friday, Donald Trump pledged to put “America first” and ensure that Americans’ voices would be forgotten no longer.
Early in his address, Trump took aim at the so-called Washington establishment, saying it has worked to benefit itself and not its citizens. This day, he said, “would be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”
Far too many Americans, he said, face poverty, fleeing jobs, crime, and poor education. “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” He asserted that as the U.S. has spent trillions of dollars overseas and protected others’ orders, the nation’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and U.S. factories have been shuttered. “From this day forward, “Trump said, “a new vision will govern our land.”
In assessing his remarks, a trio of Northeastern political science professors said Trump’s address felt very much like a campaign speech, noting that he struck a populist tone in declaring that the people, not Washington, will have the control.
John Portz, William Mayer, and Nick Beauchamp all agreed that Trump’s speech echoed the themes and tone of his campaign. Portz said that Trump’s remarks that “we follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American” stuck out, even if they were familiar messages. “It was a very populist tone, in my view,” he said.
Trump, Beauchamp noted, was “trying to thread the needle between a stump speech, where he’s rallying his base, and speaking to the whole country.” But he added that it was difficult to distinguish between which people Trump was addressing at times—all Americans, or his supporters.
Mayer, for his part, didn’t think the address would be remembered decades from now. He also said Trump’s rhetoric was more forceful than most inauguration speeches. “Most other presidential addresses are more subtle,” he said.
Portz asserted that the inauguration speech likely didn’t change many Americans’ views—positive or negative—of Trump. But he was particularly interested in how Trump’s address would be interpreted overseas. Apart from some passing remarks about defeating “radical Islamic terrorism,” Trump focused primarily on “America first,” and Portz said the speech might make foreign leaders wonder about his views on America’s international commitments.
The Guardian summarized how other countries such as China, Russia, and Mexico reacted following Trump’s address.
“It really was, in my mind, a very borderline isolationist approach to the world, more so than we’d heard from Obama and in some ways more than we’d heard from Bush,” he said.
Plotmaps of the inaugural addresses of the past four U.S. presidents
Beauchamp has developed a visualization tool, called plotmap, that takes any text—say, a political speech—shows the most common words. The more frequent words are shown larger, but the plotmap also shows how the speech moves through its themes, from the first quarter of the speech, designated with a “1,” to the last part, designated with a “4.” The words closer to the numbered segment are more common in that part of the speech. Here are plotmaps from the past four presidents’ inauguration speeches, and Beauchamp’s analyses.
The clear theme here is change, although what that change is from or to remains a bit more ambiguous and generic, and he moves away from the somewhat conflictual “change” toward a broader vision. As a relatively conservative Democrat, Clinton spent a fair amount of campaign time being tough on crime and critiquing the government in the Reagan mold: “It is time to break the bad habit of expecting something for nothing, from our government or from each other.” But he also wrote poetically about ideals, service, and posterity. Imagine Trump delivering this line in his inauguration: “Anyone who has ever watched a child’s eyes wander into sleep knows what posterity is.”
George W. Bush
Bush at the time of his inaugural address was a very different person and president from what he would become less than a year later. He takes the poetic story-telling tendencies that worked so well for Clinton and magnifies them, making them the center of his narrative. This was the era of “compassionate conservatism,” with its emphasis on narrative and redemption, and decreasing emphasis on government, reform, or opposition. But we also see the move from the Clinton-esque “story” to the theme of “citizen,” which is one that Obama picks up on in the aftermath of what was a much more oppositional Bush presidency than this speech might have led us to believe.
With Obama too, the themes of his inaugural speech were not necessarily the ones that would come to dominate his presidency. This speech was delivered in the midst of economic “crisis,” and begins there, and then turns to the ongoing wars and efforts to seek peace. But it finishes with uplifting language that repeatedly evokes religious themes, a constant throughout Obama’s speeches. Substantively, it emphasizes and ends with finding “common” purpose, which ultimately proved so unsuccessful. His farewell address, notably, replaces common ground with appeals to the “citizen”–not agreement on substance, but on the basic principles of democracy.
Donald J. Trump
Trump’s speech is difficult to plot, because generally I omit generic words, which for presidential speeches usually includes “America.” But for Trump, this term was central, and if plotted would dominate everything else. So we see here the words that circle around, underlie, and perhaps define what he means by “America” and greatness. It begins with returning power to the citizens—picking up on that term from Bush’s speech and Obama’s farewell address—then turns to dreams of greatness and bringing jobs home, and then to his themes of protection and God. So what does “make America great again” seem to mean? Power, jobs, dreams, protection, and God. What’s less evident here is the oppositional nature of the speech; while Reagan or Clinton began with what they were opposed to or with what was changing, Trump touched on a myriad disjoint enemies (Washington, foreign powers, “radical Islamic terrorism”), that were mentioned only one time each, and thus are not picked up in simple word-counting methods like those here. Whose jobs, dreams, power, and citizenship are being protected, and against what, remains ambiguous here.