Where Was The History In Trump's 'Historic' Inauguration?

The difference could not be starker between Trump’s approach to governance and Barack Obama’s.
01/20/2017 11:18 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2017
Carlos Barria / Reuters

Reading between the Lines at Trump’s Inauguration

Donald Trump’s inaugural speech was groundbreaking. That is not a compliment.

It was classic Trump. It ignored all conventions, broke every rule, disregarded historical precedent, and showed signs of being written by a narcissist.

Shortly after the speech, a friend asked me if I’d noticed any historical inaccuracies in Trump’s remarks. Looking at the transcript, I was shocked to realize that Trump hadn’t even alluded to past events. This fact, when considered in comparison to the addresses of previous presidents, reveals fascinating features of Trump’s personality and gives insight into how he might act differently than his predecessors.

Unity and Disloyalty in the Trump Era

Inaugural addresses have long been appeals to unity. No matter how acrimonious the election cycle, the presidency has been won, and it is time for the nation to once again remember how to work together. Thus, incoming presidents have frequently used their first speeches to begin the reunification process. For example, at his second inauguration in 1957, Dwight D. Eisenhower remarked, “May we know unity—without conformity.” Four years later, John F. Kennedy declared, “Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.” These presidents, though of different parties, recognized that disagreement was expected in even the most united democracy.

By contrast, Trump’s speech was hardly an appeal for concord. Even the few lines that did call for unity creepily seemed to imply that dissent would disappear if people were truly loyal. For example, Trump predicted that in the future:

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.

The unspoken insinuation is that if at the end of debate, you still disagree, then you are not truly loyal to the United States. Is this our future? Is opposition to Trump and his policies soon to be tantamount to disloyalty to the nation? This sentiment gives me pause—while solidarity is a goal of mine in the era of Trump, the solidarity I seek is not with Trump.

The difference could not be starker between Trump’s approach to governance and Barack Obama’s. Four years ago, at his second inaugural, Obama issued a call to action in which he said:

Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life. It does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way or follow the same precise path to happiness. Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time. For now decisions are upon us and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle or substitute spectacle for politics or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.

The point was clear: compromise was necessary, and the perfect could not be the enemy of the good. But while Obama followed in the footsteps of Eisenhower and Kennedy in appealing to the past, Trump rejected history:

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.

This “new vision,” presumably Trump’s, is not one that unites Americans by appealing to the better angels of his opponents’ nature, but instead one that demands unity on Trump’s terms.

Whereas Obama was perhaps too willing to compromise, Trump seems to be heading in the other direction. He unrealistically declared that he “will never, ever let you down,” referring, he claims, to all Americans. For this to ever be possible, we as a nation would have to accept Trump’s definition of success without dissent. I fear that instead of loyal opposition, the new president expects acquiescence and demands victory.

Division is Trump’s game, and compromise is not a word he likes.

Trump promised that under his leadership, “a new national pride will stir our souls, lift our sights, and heal our divisions,” but I fear that the “solidarity” he wants from Americans endangers democracy. Based on his speech, I’m convinced that he doesn’t want to heal divisions so much as make them disappear. He wants us to accept his version of the world because he’s the winner, the biggest, the wealthiest, the best. He doesn’t want to work across party lines—he wants parties to submit to his world view.

Perhaps not surprisingly, modesty was a theme lacking from Trump’s speech. A failure to study history may contribute to his current self-assurance, as the history of the office makes clear that being president is neither easy nor without occasional disappointment.

Shared History and the Lessons of the Past

Traditionally, inaugural addresses have appealed to a shared history in an attempt to heal the divisions left by the campaign. For instance, when Lincoln closed his first inaugural, which was full of historical allusions, he did so with the immortal words:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

At his second inaugural, Lincoln again sought to heal a nation divided by war as well as an election. The words he said are now etched on his memorial:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Turning to more recent elections, almost every inaugural in the modern era has referred to a shared history. Ronald Reagan discussed the Founding Fathers, Lincoln, and those who perished at “Belleau Wood, the Argonne, Omaha Beach, Salerno, and halfway around the world on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Pork Chop Hill, the Chosin Reservoir, and in a hundred rice paddies and jungles of a place called Vietnam.” George W. Bush, in his first inaugural, referred to Thomas Jefferson and how the peaceful transition of power has been common in U.S. history. Obama mentioned the soldiers who died at “Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn,” and quoted Thomas Paine in his first address, and then, four years later, he referred to the Revolution and paraphrased Lincoln’s second inaugural. Referring to Lincoln and the Founding Fathers is so common in addresses from the last 75 years that it is surprising when neither shows up in an inaugural address.

Why should this be so? Simply put, reminding the audience of the most revered moments of our nation’s past helps the president present a shared history and appeal to a united country. If we share the same past as other Americans, then we must all be one nation. Benedict Anderson famously explained that “an American will never meet, or even know the names of more than a handful of his [or her] 240,000,000-odd fellow Americans,” but those millions he or she never meets remain members of his or her “imagined community,” united in national identity and shared collective memory of the past. Presidential references to history can raise the audience’s hope of unity by reminding Americans that if we have been united in the past, we can be united once again.

Trump, breaking with tradition, avoided any direct historical allusions. At first, it surprised me that there were no references to the past—and, in fact, an actual rejection of the past. But then again, Trump’s campaign was unique in how it used history and nostalgia to divide the electorate. “Make America Great Again” would never have worked as a unifying motto. The word again is the problem. How could Trump find a past that wasn’t just shared, but that was better than today, in the eyes of all Americans? A mythical past that white supremacists, African Americans, Latinos, anti-immigration activists, born-again Christians, feminists, and the LGBTQ community would all want to return to is unlikely to exist. Beyond the problems of the motto, I wonder if Trump’s reliance on fringe elements, white nationalism and white fragility, and on feelings of loss would have made it harder for him to present a shared past that both his supporters and detractors also share.

On first read, I thought that Trump’s failure to try to use a shared past to reinforce an imagined American community represented a missed opportunity, but after a second perusal, I wasn’t as surprised by his decision. Uniting America wasn’t Trump’s goal. Celebrating his victory was the order of the day.

“Real Americans” and the Extra-Special Inauguration

Historically, one approach presidents have used to refer to the past is to celebrate the tradition of inauguration and all it represents while downplaying their own importance. Take Reagan, who said, “In the eyes of many in the world, this every-four-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.” Presidents and other politicians often discuss our uniqueness as a nation because of our predictable transfer of power. As Senator Ben Sasse celebrated in his recent video, the turnover of power from Adams to Jefferson has often been called the “Revolution of 1800,” as it set a precedent that each administration “doesn’t last forever.”

Inaugurations remind us that democracy still lives. George W. Bush may have said it best (something I rarely say) when he began his first inaugural address by proclaiming, “The peaceful transfer of authority is rare in history, yet common in our country. With a simple oath, we affirm old traditions and make new beginnings.” He continued by making clear that he was “honored and humbled to stand here where so many of America’s leaders have come before me, and so many will follow.” Bush saw himself as just the latest of many leaders. This celebration of democracy has varied in the exact wording, but is a common trope in inaugurals, along with the theme that the current inaugural is no more important than the ones that came before.

While Trump mentioned unity once or twice later in the speech, it was clear that unity would be on his terms.

Trump, by contrast, made his inaugural out to be an extra-special ceremony. He started out by giving lip service to the traditional “peaceful transition” rhetoric, saying, “Every four years, we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power.” But he then failed to point out how this fact was what made the day important. Instead, after a quick thank-you to the Obamas, Trump said, “Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning.” In other words, we as a nation were gathered not to celebrate democracy, but rather to laud Trump’s electoral victory. Once again, an opportunity to appeal to unity was lost.

Then again, as Trump’s speech was directed squarely at his base, sincere appeals to unity were unnecessary. When Trump said, “January 20th, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again,” he ignored the 73,648,823 people who voted for someone other than him. Rhetorically, Trump overlooked those who supported Obama’s agenda as not being American, because to Trump, “the forgotten men and women of our country” who “will be forgotten no longer” did not include his opponents. He made clear that he was referring to those who “came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before.” For Trump, what made Inauguration Day important was not the successful handover of democracy, but that his side won.

Even his opening made clear that he was not speaking to the audience as previous presidents had. While every inaugural since Reagan had begun with a call to “my fellow citizens,” Trump instead used, “citizens of America.” This was not Nixon’s 1969 “my Fellow Americans—and my fellow citizens of the world community” because Trump was not speaking to the world. He wasn’t even speaking to non-citizens who live inside the United States. Rather, Trump was speaking to “real Americans”—which, to him, are only his supporters.

While Trump mentioned unity once or twice later in the speech, it was clear that unity would be on his terms. I doubt he assuaged the fears of any Black Lives Matter activist by announcing, “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 […] law enforcement.” Indeed, his decision to call out law enforcement as “always protecting” all Americans without mentioning civil rights made me wonder if the “we” being protected was still referring to just his supporters. Is this an indication of how he will lead? Will he only be concerned with the welfare of his friends? Does he believe that to the winner go the spoils? Are we on the verge of a kleptocracy? Based on this speech, I wouldn’t be surprised.

A Historically Sore Winner

The past is a powerful tool for politicians. For example, when Bill Clinton was inaugurated, he wanted to change direction from how George H.W. Bush had been leading the country, but he used history to seem less radical and to avoid insulting his predecessor. He didn’t call Bush a bad leader. Instead, he said:

When our Founders boldly declared America’s independence to the world and our purposes to the Almighty, they knew that America, to endure, would have to change; not change for change’s sake but change to preserve America’s ideals: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. Though we marched to the music of our time, our mission is timeless. Each generation of Americans must define what it means to be an American.

Clinton presented the changes he would bring about as the product of the Baby Boomers inheriting the country from the Greatest Generation, whom he explicitly thanked alongside Bush. The message was clear: Clinton would continue Bush’s good work in new ways. His approach would not reject the standards of the past, but instead continue them. As Clinton explained:

From our Revolution to the Civil War, to the Great Depression, to the civil rights movement, our people have always mustered the determination to construct from these crises the pillars of our history. Thomas Jefferson believed that to preserve the very foundations of our Nation, we would need dramatic change from time to time.

Still, the “dramatic change” Clinton was calling for was premised on the same love of country that Bush also bore for his nation.

While Clinton tried to unite the country based on shared historical values, Trump has long shown himself to be a master of using vague nostalgia to drive anger and division. Trump may be one of the sorest winners in history, as he continued to show during his inaugural address. Thanking the outgoing president is a part of inaugural tradition. Trump gave superficial thanks to the Obamas, but he then almost immediately implied that his predecessors had willfully made decisions against the interests of the country. The problem was not that they had policy differences, but that Obama, sitting next to him, was against Americans. Division is Trump’s game, and compromise is not a word he likes.

Trump’s address was a scary speech, and its lack of history (both in its rhetoric and in its break from the past) was profoundly unsettling. For a speech that concluded with, “We Will Make America Great Again,” the lack of history is notable. To what point in history, exactly, is Trump promising to return the nation? Either he recognizes that the motto works best if he doesn’t clarify, or he doesn’t know enough history to tell us when America was great. Or perhaps he doesn’t care about the country’s past, our traditions, and the history of our democratic institutions—and that may be the scariest thought of all.

Adam H. Domby is an Assistant Professor of History at the College of Charleston. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. He can be followed on twitter here.

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