Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
Not Your Usual Inaugural Address
This past week was stuffed with interesting blog topics, from the varieties of protest signs to the rhetorical meaning of fashions to the power of words to shape our perceptions. I plan to return to some of those in future weeks. Since it’s a oncer, a one-time event, I’ve decided this week to write a bit about Trump’s version of the inaugural address.
Donald Trump’s inaugural address did not carry out the genre in the usual way. I’m not the first to notice. But I’m a genre lover, so here’s a chance to do a little genre analysis. What’s expected of the genre usually? How have others done that in the genre in the past? How does this one compare to those past patterns?
So what’s the usual inaugural address like? Two of the greats in presidential rhetoric, Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, studied past inaugural addresses and explain the functions of an inaugural address (my thanks to Christian Lundberg and Joshua Gunn, on theconversation.com, for the list):
an inaugural address functions to:
Did Trump’s address fulfill those functions?
Lundberg and Gunn argue that his address did call for unity, but in an “us against them” way. Let’s unite to fight against the establishment. Even the “common values” that Trump rehearsed seemed mostly negative, with a litany of all the things wrong in America.
His speech did conform to the inaugural address functions, but shifted them to his own way. He used the speech
As for the fourth function: Did he demonstrate that he could act like a president? I know a lot of people who don’t think so, at least not what we usually think of as presidential. His address was indeed much shorter than the usual, the briefest since Jimmy Carter’s. And his tone of challenging the legislature is far from conventional. These are, after all, the people he will have to work with to pass legislation.
But that’s part of the point, isn’t it? Trump doesn’t want to be the usual president or act in the usual presidential way. That’s “them,” not “the people.”
BUT in some other ways he did act conventionally presidential by using traditional moves that presidents make in inaugural addresses. The presidents make the presidency through their use of the presidential genres, as Campbell and Jamieson show. Trump used the inaugural address to begin making his presidency into what he (and his writers and advisors) wants it to be.
How have others carried out the functions of the inaugural address? Is Trump's address unconventional in how he goes about it?
A Chines scholar, Fang Liu, published an analysis of the American inaugural address in 2012. The inaugural address, Fang Liu writes, is a ceremony in which “a leader assumes and expresses power.” Certainly, Trump’s address was an expression of power.
Fang Liu studied all the inaugural addresses, from Washington through Obama, to discover the typical rhetorical moves they make, how they accomplish those functions. Fang Liu identified 8 usual moves.
What do these moves look like in Trump’s inaugural address?
To see for yourself, here’s a link to the official video of his inauguration from whitehouse.gov
And here’s a link to a transcript of the inaugural address as delivered.
And the youtube video of the speech
Let’s see whether Trump uses the same moves Fang Liu describes and just how Trump is using the inaugural address to change the terms of the presidency.
Yep, Trump begins in the usual way, with listing of the chief justice and former presidents, then greeting “fellow American, and people of the world.”
2. Announcing their assumption of the office of President
Not in the usual way, which would have been something like an early sentence that refers to accepting this office solemnly. Perhaps when he says, “The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans”?
In a less conventional move, Trump seems to reject, in this speech, reference to his individual assumption of the office. Instead, he places the transfer of power on the people, not himself. At the point in the address where many past presidents assumed the office, Trump says, “Today’s ceremony has very special meaning because today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or one party to another but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people.” That populist approach shows up throughout the speech in his use of pronouns, as I'll say more about below. It’s not about me, it’s about you.
3. Expressing thanks and other sentiments
Trump did thank his predecessor, with “we are grateful to President Obama and First Lady Michele Obama for their gracious aid in this transition. They have been magnificent. Thank you.”
4. Making pledges
Trump makes many pledges, as have past presidents.
The biggie in his case perhaps is, “I will fight for you with every breath in my body – and I will never, ever let you down.” Notably, that is the only place in the entire address that Trump uses “I.”
Then many statements that might seem like pledges, like, “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.” In fact, word analyses show that “will” is the most frequent word in Trump’s inaugural address, as it was in Obama’s and many presidents before him.
And his final refrain takes the nature of a pledge:
“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.”
So I’d say Trump’s inaugural address is full of pledges, broad as they might be, but they are pledges of what "we" will do, not what he will do.
5. Arousing patriotism
Trump arouses patriotism throughout his address, as that final refrain shows with the pride of Americans and making America great again.
The patriotic appeals, too, seem focused on defining America as an us, as a group that needs loyalty within and protection from outside forces. Famously, Trump vowed, “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America First.”
In a direct appeal to patriotism, “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.”
And flag waving, “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.”
Today, in fact, Trump continued the tradition of naming the day of his inauguration. He named his inaugural day the "National Day of Patriotic Devotion."
6. Announcing political principles to guide the new administration
Many principles seem phrased as pledges, too, but the primary guiding principle Trump announces is “America First.” More common in past inaugural addresses have been basic principles of the American Constitution, freedom, and democracy, but “America First” is clearly presented as Trump’s guiding principle. He goes on, “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”
A second part of announcing political principles, according to Fang Liu, is pointing out the problems. I don’t think I need to rehearse the litany of problems that Trump’s inaugural address recites.
7. Appealing to the audience for action
Interestingly, Trump doesn’t seem to call on the audience to do anything. Instead, his appeal to the audience seems to be to just wait for all the things they are entitled to. Although he ends with "Together, we will" do this and that, he gives no role for the people to play. The closest thing to an action I can see him asking is a call for non-action, "Now arrives the hour of action. Do not let anyone tell you it cannot be done."
Fang Liu reports that, in all other inaugural addresses, "There is always a general appeal for aids or assistance or some specific appeal for sacrifice and dedication." But not in Trump's inaugural address, or his presidency. You don't need to do a thing. You're entitled. In fact, don't do a thing. Just leave it to me on your behalf. All you have to do is deny anyone who tells you I'm wrong.
8. Resorting to religious power
Fang Liu tells us that most presidents ask for divine blessings or “invoke God for guidance.” Trump’s references to religion, I would say, are less humble than that. Of course, he does end with the traditional “Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.” Mostly, he seems to be using the Bible as confirmation of his perspective.
He says, “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.”” Toward the end, he refers to all people being the same because “they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty Creator.”
And three sentences later, God is on our side, “We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement and, most importantly, we are protected by God.”
So Trump does seem to be following the moves of inaugural addresses of the past, but he’s making them his own.
The assumption of the office, pledges, patriotic appeals, guiding principles, appeals to the audience, and references to religion all create and confirm this new role for president—as advocate and protector for those who agree with him (or more fairly from just this speech, perhaps, those who will work within his pledges).
I find Trump’s use of pronouns especially revealing of his appeal to the people. In the inaugural address of 1,433 words, three of those words are “I,” one in the reference to "the oath I take today" and both of the others in his pledge, “I will fight for you with every breath in my body – and I will never, ever let you down.”
The “you”s in that pledge are much more common. Leaving out the “you” in conventional “Thank you” and “God bless you,” Trump uses a form of “you” 21 times, making his presidency all about giving power back to the people. He adds to that populist appeal to “you” an anti-establishment appeal against “them.” “They” are the ones who were celebrating in Washington while the people suffered in the heartland. His positioning of the groups and where he sides is clear through the contrast of "their" and "your": “Their victories have not been your victories, their triumphs have not been your triumphs.”
And of course “we” appears 50 times in Trump’s address. “We” is common in all inaugural addresses since the president is working to unite people under common American values, so the “we” usually refers to Americans and America. Perhaps that’s what Trump means by “we.” He does, to his credit, begin with reference to “We, the citizens of America” and he refers to America and Americans before his reference to “we.” But his “we” comes after he distinguishes “them” from “you” and then “us.” In the context of his campaign, it might be difficult to see Trump as wanting to be the president for everyone. The “we” who have “been ignored,” who want American strong again and want America first are clearly not all Americans.
Many analysts have compared this inaugural address to a campaign speech, but, even though the themes and even words are often the same, they are very different actions. This is an inaugural address, the American assumption of power of a new regime. It is the first act of making the presidency, and for Trump it is his first act of remaking the presidency. Everything is about you, the people, not I. In fact, the power is now yours, not mine. But you don't have to do a thing with that power, no action needed from you. I'll take care of everything in your name. That's how we will make America great again.