Trump’s speech and divided America

Could you please shortly assess President Donald Trump’s Inaugural Speech, what do you think this speech could mean, if anything, for Trump’s Presidency also in the context of the theme of divided America? We have seen protests, today a huge Women’s March takes place in DC.

Donald J. Trump is the 45th President of the United States. Credit:

Donald J. Trump is the 45th President of the United States. Credit:

Robert Y. ShapiroProfessor, Political Science, Columbia University

Trump just spoke in scripted way about what he said all along during  his campaign.  He portrayed grim aspects of the country that have occurred because the nation’s leaders, as he says, have not put the lives and well-beings of the nation’s people first.  There was nothing new in the speech and nothing inspiring.  The speech set the stage as did his campaign for what he does next — which frankly we don’t know until he actually acts, since he has proposed to do things that he may not do because of opposition, especially in his own party, such as in the area of increasing tariffs and changes in immigration policy.  The protests will just remind him of those policy areas in which he should expect opposition to initiatives he might take.  The speech did not mean anything new for his presidency.

John PitneyProfessor of Politics, Claremont McKenna College

His speech was the very opposite of John F. Kennedy’s.  Echoing the isolationists of the years before the Second World War, he said that he would put America first.  Kennedy, by contrast, spoke of goals higher than our narrow interest: ” Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”  Trump spoke about spending trillions abroad while letting our infrastructure decay.  Kennedy endorsed foreign aid:  “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”  Trump spoke of resentments.  Kennedy spoke of sacrifices.

Trump’s speech will worsen the divisions in America.  He spoke of “politicians who are all talk and no action” — the words he used a few days earlier. to deride Representative John Lewis.  Taunting a hero of the civil rights movement is a very bad way to start a presidency.

Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, Professor and Chair of Political Science, University of North Texas

Short speech, that was not a typical Inaugural.  More like his convention acceptance speech, and certainly not memorable in the ways of January 1961, JFK.

The speech targeted specific groups and general ideas.  Although anyone might be able to hear something in the speech that would appeal to their ideas for America, Trump was clearly speaking to his supporters and, what is more, with the division in the nation, even if he was trying to reach out more broadly (which I do not think he was) those who oppose Trump would not see anything favorable.

It was a speech touting protectionism, isolationism, and American nationalism.  I think those themes might be too narrow to maintain or expand his base of support, and it is likely that most of the world views those words with caution.  Words and words, nevertheless, and the Trump Administration has party control of Congress and at least some time to put words into actions.  Just as we might attempt to predict what will happen based on words, it is on those actions that presidents will be judged.

Eric Ostermeier, Research Associate, Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, University of Minnesota

The political and ideological environment in the United States, including the media, at the moment is such that people heard two different inaugural addresses by Trump, depending on their firmly-rooted views of the nation’s 45th president.

Trump was criticized that his address did not discuss policy, however he mentioned his vision for America while discussing more than a dozen issues in his brief address: education, crime, jobs, military spending, immigration, border security, gang violence, impoverished cities, trade, foreign aid, taxes, terrorism, prejudice, and foreign affairs.

Trump’s speech was also discredited by his critics for being too dark and pessimistic, although the common thread throughout Trump’s address was the same sort of populism and nationalism that permeated his speeches at campaign rallies throughout the presidential campaign. To those people who have felt left out of the economic recovery and political process that rallied behind Trump during the 2016 election, Trump’s address was likely seen as quite uplifting.

To be sure, many Americans were predisposed to dislike Trump’s speech even before it was delivered – which is psychologically understandable considering millions were planning to march in protest against him the following day.

As for Trump, the goals he outlined were lofty – and there is little expectation among policy experts that he will be able to successfully implement many of his ideas, even with a Republican-dominated Congress. Trump himself has also not been wedded to his own words and positions – vacillating on policy throughout the campaign on certain issues.

However, if Trump fails to make progress on these policies in his first term, that does not necessarily mean he will be a one-term president. Trump has proven himself to be a rhetorical expert at deflecting criticism, and will no doubt have little qualms with blaming any failings of his administration on the Republican establishment and legislature in D.C. if he has to.

Andrew Rudalevige, Professor of Government, Bowdoin College

I guess I would say simply that Trump’s speech spoke almost exclusively to his core of supporters. The grim rhetoric he used to describe life in the US now – “this American carnage” – bears little resemblance to most people’s daily lives, including those supporters’.  But setting the bar of the status quo so low does set the stage for him to claim that great progress has been made in making America great again.

Most inauguration addresses have a sense of occasion – they are part of an almost theological ceremony honoring “the American creed.”  Trump’s speech was forceful and energetic, but it ignored the opportunity the speech offered to reach out to the 54% of the country that did not support him in the election. Those people were in the streets today, protesting – though if that is to make any real impact on elected officials, protest must turn to sustained organization and involvement in the political process. (This is what made the Tea Party so strong over the past few years: they made an electoral difference, and politicians take notice of that!)

Joshua ClintonProfessor of Political Science, Co-Director for the Center of the Study of Democratic Institutions, Vanderbilt University

Trump’s speech answered pretty definitively that the Trump we saw on the campaign trail is the Trump we will see in the White House. The broad appeals he made about the important of patriotism and putting “America first” will likely not resonate among those that did not vote for him and it is hard to imagine that the speech that he gave will help bring the political divisions closer together. It was also remarkable to observe the President openly and vocally critique the political establishment which had gathered for the inauguration and whose assistance Trump will need in the coming years to accomplish his vision — a vision that was not spelled out in any real detail. Especially given the protests that followed the inauguration, it is clear that whatever chance there was for a coming together following this closely contested election has probably vanished.

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