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Of boldness: Some rhetorical pointers on Trump’s inauguration address

Donald Trump delivering his inaugural address. Reuters

“Wonderful like is the case of boldness in civil business: what first? Boldness; what second and third? Boldness,” a philosopher once mused. For:

there is in human nature generally more of the fool than of the wise; and therefore those faculties by which the foolish part of men’s minds is taken, are most potent.

This philosopher was not talking about the rise and rise of President Donald J. Trump. But he might well have been:

Libels and licentious discourses against the state, when they are frequent and open; and in like sort, false news often running up and down to the disadvantage of the state, and hastily embraced; are amongst the signs of troubles …

It will be interesting in this light to see the reaction of Trump’s alt-right supporters to his Inauguration speech. For, appropriately, it was one of the reality-television-come-POTUS’s most restrained performances.

One function of the inauguration address is for the new President to perform with due dignity the august role he has just assumed. And, although the media has picked up on several darker flashes in the address, Mr Trump was on his best behaviour.

The new President began almost conventionally. He thanked the Chief Justice and past Presidents present for the occasion. He praised the Obamas’ grace in presiding over the peaceful transition of power: “They have been magnificent, thank you.”

There was no mention of anything being “rigged”. None of anyone being “crooked”. No grabbing. There were no broadsides against the corruption of the media. No specific charges about the corruption of the “elites” (but see below).

After the thank yous, no individual was singled out for Mr Trump’s particular praise or censure.

Passion and persuasion

The other key function of this ceremonial address is to set forth the new President’s deliberative vision for his time in office, and to reunite the nation divided by the democratic electoral process.

Many of the most famous Presidential statements in US history have been made in service of this important function. Think JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

Mr Trump and his team will have drawn on all the President-elect’s resources, and those of a team of speech writers, to match or better his predecessor’s celebrated eloquence:

as the highest dignity is in the people, as the concerns of the republic [sic.] are of the utmost importance … a grand and imposing manner of addressing them seems necessary … (Cicero)

The greatest persuasive force that an orator can channel on such grand occasions does not lie in the unforced force of the better argument. This is something Donald John Trump well understands. It lies in the ability to arouse the passions of the audience:

either by exhortation, … or by moving the people to hope, or to fear, or to ambition, or desire of glory …

So what does a rhetorical analysis of Mr Trump’s inaugural address tell us about his vision, and the emotional bases on which he hopes to animate the “great national effort to rebuild our county and restore its promise for all our people” his opening statement announced?

American carnage

You can tell a lot about a writer by her stock of similes and metaphors. The great power of pictorial language is to make abstract ideas concrete and memorable, and distant things immediately present to minds’ eyes.

In America’s history, Martin Luther King’s magnificent “I have a dream” address – delivered on the same steps as Trump’s Inaugural address – unfolds in a “mighty stream” of metaphors: financial, architectural, meteorological, geological, even hydrological. “Let justice roll down like water, and righteousness a mighty stream.”

Trump’s speeches, by contrast, tend to be metaphor-poor. The first metaphor in the inaugural address (there are just eight) is nevertheless striking. Part of the speech’s case for radical reforms, it pictures the American heartland as a post-industrial graveyard:

Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.

Tombstones for America: Trump s first image in the Inaugural Address.

The image is in lock-step with Trump’s already-controversial image of the previous decades of American life as “carnage”, an historical bloodbath.

The final metaphor of the speech comparably depicts the United States as so divided as to be reunitable only in blood-letting sacrifice: “It’s 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.”

It is little wonder then that the first emotion mentioned in the speech is fear. President Trump feels the need to reassure the audience that:

There is no fear: we are protected and will always be protected by the great men and women of our military and most importantly we will be protected by God.

This appeal to God’s protection stands beside one reference to “destiny” and just one reference to the Bible: a thing unusual in the US, especially for a Republican President. Bland and nonspecific, its recital was also the one moment when Mr Trump’s delivery wavered. The sentiment brought no applause:

The bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity. When America is united, America is totally unstoppable.

It figures

This is not to say that the speech is poorly written. There are several ornamental features that run thought it. Trump almost achieves eloquence with:

whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the windswept plains of Nebraska, they look at the same night sky, and dream the same dreams, and they are infused with breath by the same almighty creator …

There is ample use of anaphora, when Trump begins successive sentences or clauses with the same words: “We will get our people off welfare and back to work … We will follow two simple rules … We will …”

In his culmination, Trump interlaces anaphora with clauses ending in the same words. Such “symploce” is a rhetorical figure that can be very elegant, although here it verges into prolix sloganeering:

Together we will make America strong again, we will make America wealthy again, we will make America safe again and yes [with self-correction for emphasis], together we will make America great again.

Such figures of the speech, however, form the stock and trade of a rhetorical training. If we ask what is distinct about Mr Trump’s rhetoric in the speech, we need to pitch for the trope of antithesis.

Trumpian Manichaeism

The classical textbooks set out five parts of a speech: the introduction; the narration which sets the scene; then the division, which stipulates what will be new about the speaker’s contribution; the main argument (including responses to likely criticisms); then a conclusion.

What is remarkable about the structure of Mr Trump’s speech is just how brief is his narration, and how all-encompassing his divisio becomes.

After just three sentences, including the formalities thanking the Obamas, Trump’s Address launches straight into what divides this POTUS from all who have come before:

Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning because today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, but transferring it from Washington DC and giving it back to you the people.

As well as being a very bold thing to say, this is the classically populist keynote of the speech. “The people” are named twenty-one times within it, trailing only “America” itself with thirty-eight uses as Trump’s most-used noun. (As a contrast, “the people” are there only eleven times in Obama’s 2013 inauguration address.)

How the power can be transferred back directly to the people in a large nation with a system of representative government, facing almost unprecedented material and educational inequalities, was of course not explained. The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, both of which were central to Obama’s inaugural addresses, were not mentioned.

(Note: perhaps Twitter is the new plebiscite, in a high-tech take on the Weimar Right’s conception of “democracy”.)

Instead, Mr Trump proceeded straight into the antitheses that structure the entire argument:

for too long a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost …

There follow six antitheses in sequence that set down the battle lines dividing America’s “forgotten people” from the enfranchised few:

“Washington” (which “flourished”) v. the people “not sharing its wealth”.

“Politicians” (who “prospered”) v. “the jobs left and the factories closed”.

“The establishment” (that “protected itself”) v. “the citizens of our country”.

“Their victories” v. “your victories”.

“Their triumphs” v. “your triumphs”.

“Their celebrations” v. “little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.”

Manicheism a preChristian religion holding that the world is the product of the struggle between good and evil deities.

It’s between You and Them

Antithesis can again be a very elegant thing. The bard himself used it often—think:

To be or not to be. / Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles, / And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep …

But decisive in Trump’s antitheses are the way they make everything at once totally impersonal and viscerally personal. The “small group” or “establishment” in “Washington”, these “politicians”, are lined up against “the people” in the first four oppositions of the sequence.

These nefarious elites end up, in the last three antitheses, reduced to a bare “they” whose only determinate feature is that “their” victories and triumphs are not those of “yours”.

In other words, this is politics, not poetry. And it is a very divisive form of populist politics which trades on simplification and provocation. It stokes the fires of the resentment to which it makes its only-ever-half-concealed appeal.

The ensuing argument of the address is then all structured around a further binary contrast, onto which the earlier “you-versus-them” antithesis is superimposed. This is the opposition between the horrifying past (“then”, associated with “them”) and the redemptive future (“now”, happily reclaimed by “we”/“you”/“the people”, in the person of Donald J. Trump).

In the Manichean light thereby cast, it is hard not to hear the President’s closing appeals to “your courage, goodness and love” as fig leaves concealing more of the same politics of envy and rage that brought Trump to the Oval Office.


“The time for empty talk is over, now arrives the hour of action,” Mr Trump concluded. It is true. But for the vast majority of the people in the USA and around the world, all rhetoric aside, there is very little that can be done except to wait and see and hope. For boldness

does fascinate, and bind hand and foot, those that are either shallow in judgment, or weak in courage, which are the greatest part; yea and prevails with wise men at weak times: [and thus it] has done wonders in popular states; … [but] more always upon the first entrance of bold persons into action, than soon after; for boldness is an ill keeper of promise.

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