Donald Trump began his presidency with blunt, searing talk about a crippled nation in dire need of bold, immediate action. Breaking with more than two centuries of inaugural address history, the new president made clear, in case anyone had not yet gotten it, that his will be a very different presidency.
Trump spurned the poetry and grandeur of most inaugural speeches and instead delivered a rallying cry, reminiscent of his stream-of-consciousness campaign talks, brimming with brash bravado about his intention to bring massive change: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
“This was pure Trump, just a declaration of war against the Washington establishment and President Obama,” said Craig Shirley, author of books on Ronald Reagan and a Republican political consultant. “It was not the usual call for togetherness; it was Trumpism, the speech of a businessman — problems and solutions, very utilitarian.”
Trump had promised for nearly a year that when the time came, he would pivot to a style he called “presidential.” But his speech made plain that he intends to govern as he campaigned, in direct communion with his followers, bypassing the usual niceties and channels of power.
After a quick nod to his predecessors, Trump launched into a fiery recitation of the ills of a country that he has long described in apocalyptic terms — a hollowed nation that he intends to restore to greatness by “giving it back to you, the American people.”
Seconds after taking the oath of office, Trump tore into the people who have run the country. “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost,” he said. “Politicians prospered — but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.”
“This was a campaign speech,” said Elvin Lim, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore who has written extensively on inaugural addresses. “This is a big break from the inaugural tradition: Where others have emphasized continuity, he stressed that this is a sharp break with everything that has come before.”
The president’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, the nationalist polemicist who had a hand in crafting Trump’s speech, called the address “an unvarnished declaration of the basic principles of his populist and kind of nationalist movement.”
Bannon compared the speech to the populist appeal of the 19th-century president who famously invited the unwashed masses into the White House: “I don’t think we’ve had a speech like that since Andrew Jackson came to the White House. But you could see it was very Jacksonian. It’s got a deep, deep root of patriotism there.”
Whether Trumpism comes to be defined as a vibrant patriotism or a virulent nationalism will play out over the coming years, but the first president to be elected without government or military experience put down his marker as a man who will govern by the strength of his personality and the power of his blunt, sometimes lurid language.
Never before had an American president used words such as “carnage,” “depletion,” “disrepair” and “sad” to describe his own country in an inaugural address. Trump’s speech was unusually short — about three-quarters the length of the previous nine inaugurals — but it delivered a clear message: He aims to turn the country’s direction, hard.
“This was not the speech of a conservative ideologue or of a Republican in any traditional sense,” said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. “It was a nativist and at times jingoistic speech. People around the world will be frightened that we are really going to hunker in on them, creating a Fortress America. This is American nationalism on steroids.”
Trump said in recent days that he was inspired by the inaugural addresses of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. But there were few echoes of their poetic, uniting rhetoric in Trump’s address.
Instead, Trump paid tribute to Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression-era homage to the “forgotten man,” tapped into a bit of Reagan’s language of optimism about U.S. energy and resolve, and included a line that almost directly shadowed Kennedy, promising that at “the birth of a new millennium,” the nation is “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.”
But Trump’s language was chosen to emphasize urgency rather than eloquence or abstract ambition. This was, as Lim said, “a defiant speech. The inaugural is generally the time to say the campaign is over, but Trump is proving to his supporters that he is still the same man he was in the campaign. This is not the usual defense of the Constitution but a speech about him and the people, that special personal relationship he has built with his supporters.”
Trump has never been a traditional or eloquent orator, and he sometimes scoffed at those who crafted their speeches with artisanal care. He boasted about writing his books on the fly, talking them through with his ghostwriters, believing that plain, punchy language and simple ideas were the best ways to build his brand and connect with his audience.
He has always considered himself as much a showman as a businessman, and he inherited his mother’s passion for pageantry and pomp. He believes that straight talk in simple sentences is the best way to cut through popular skepticism about authority and institutions in a troubled era.
In his speech, Trump made no reference to his party, Congress or any other means by which he expects to accomplish the sweeping change he promised. Instead, he once again vowed that he personally will deliver a national restoration. “I will fight for you with every breath in my body — and I will never, ever let you down,” he said. “America will start winning again, winning like never before.”
“There weren’t any memorable, bumper-sticker lines,” Shirley said. “Eloquence and statesmanship were not what he was going for. This is a break with the past, including with the Republican Party and its ideals.”
Trump had said he was modeling his address on his favorites: Kennedy’s short, stirring call in 1961 for Americans to unite to “explore the stars, conquer the deserts . . . and encourage the arts and commerce,” and Reagan’s gracious yet blunt 1981 speech, perhaps the first inaugural oration to include a moving anecdote about an ordinary American.
But historians listening to Trump’s speech were struck by the relative lack of historical context for his vision of where to take the country. “He didn’t really dwell on American history, really nothing on Lincoln or Jefferson,” Brinkley said. “He wanted this to be seen as a populist manifesto, raw nationalism. In the end, it’s not about any ideology. It’s about Trump.”
In nearly every paragraph, Kennedy reached for poetry and posterity. He hit time-honored themes of unity (“Divided, there is little we can do”) and change (“the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans”). But he also went big from the start, challenging the nation to confront the horrifying prospect of nuclear annihilation and to contemplate the possibility of eliminating human poverty.
Reagan’s first inaugural is remembered mainly for its tonesetting catchphrase, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” But Reagan’s full speech was a masterful blend of velvet and hammer: a frank critique of the nation’s malaise, “an economic affliction of great proportions,” but also a warning that “progress may be slow — measured in inches and feet, not miles.”
Trump offered no such cautions. He promised to “eradicate completely from the face of the earth . . . radical Islamic terrorism,” and he repeatedly swore allegiance to Charles Lindbergh’s “America First” theme, stating that he will “follow two simple rules: Buy American and Hire American.”
“This was a speech dedicated almost only to people who voted for him,” Lim said. “The inaugural is generally used to heal wounds, but he barely went there.”
Trump did say that “When America is united, America is totally unstoppable.”
But his central message for his presidency was a near-perfect copy of the core of his campaign, a resolute belief that the country is severely damaged and that only Trump can fix it. “The time for empty talk is over,” he said. “Now arrives the hour of action.”