Sunday, January 22, 2017

The 2017 Inauguration in Historical Context

The 2017 inauguration has stirred America’s emotions to its core. Love him or hate him, Donald Trump is unlike any other individual to assume the mantle of the Executive Branch. He embraces a new breed of nationalistic populism and many Americans find his blunt manner (no matter how curt) refreshing in contrast to the more typical public façade of career politicians. Both he and Bernie Sanders challenged the establishment—informing the citizenry that your leaders in Washington tend not to work for your well-being, but their own. (Although, the ideology and presentation of Trump and Sanders otherwise are vastly different.) One can judge Trump for his complete lack of political experience, yet the historical record reveals that some of our worst presidents (James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson included) had over two decades of solid résumé-building credentials under their belts.

Despite the heated animosity of the 2016 campaign, I think it is important that we listen and dwell upon the words of our elected officials—especially their inaugurations. Swearing-ins are moments to start with a clean slate, move beyond contentious races, be gracious, and state one’s vision. Simultaneously, all presidential inaugural speeches should be taken with a grain of salt. Rarely do presidents adhere to all of the ideals they proclaim to the world on January 20. In this context, I find it helpful to compare and contrast the themes of Donald Trump’s opening remarks as commander-in-chief with those chief executives who have gone before him. We just might learn something about our present as well as our past. My commentary is marked in italics.

On American Exceptionalism:
Donald Trump, 2017:
“We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example. We will shine for everyone to follow.”

I found these words extremely reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s  farewell address of 1989. Whether we are discussing Bush, Obama, or Trump, notions of national exceptionalism as well as spiritualism are infused in the rhetoric of the presidential tradition. Our presidents convince us that we are a special breed of the human race as the purveyors of democracy. While invoking the Pilgrims or the Founders is not without its inherent historical flaws in this sense, it sells an alluring sense of nostalgia about the American Dream:

Ronald Reagan, 1989:
“And that's about all I have to say tonight, except for one thing. The past few days when I've been at that window upstairs, I've thought a bit of the 'shining city upon a hill.' The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined.”

On Fear:
Donald Trump, 2017:
“We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity. When America is united, America is totally unstoppable. There should be no fear. We are protected, and we will always be protected.”

Let’s face it. An abundant number of Americans are concerned and divided about the country’s direction. As president-elect Trump prepared to take office, his approval ratings were only 45%--the lowest in the twenty-five year history of that poll. Perhaps up to a half million protesters marched on Washington the day following the inauguration while demonstrations occurred simultaneously across the planet. Additionally, Trump's threats to limit the free speech of the press does not reinforce his statement here. Yet, the above quote speaks to Trump’s verbal effort to at least temporarily assuage the fears of at least some of his critics. Franklin Roosevelt warned us against fear as he took office amid the Great Depression, as we see below. The irony is that with these paternalistic remarks, both FDR and Trump essentially say, “The government will look after you.”

Franklin Roosevelt, 1933:
“This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself--nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”

On Globalism:
Donald Trump, 2017:
“From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America first.”

Do not expect President Trump to be using the phrase “global citizen” anytime soon. He was explicit in his critiques of globalized society. Other countries are not necessarily to be perceived as partners but entities who will potentially steal our jobs, drain our military, and diminish our cultural identity. (With the exception of Russia, this notion was seemingly greeted with hostility overseas. Even despite the proceedings of “Brexit,” protestors held a demonstration on London’s Tower Bridge proclaiming, “Build Bridges, Not Walls.”) Elsewhere, proposals are already afoot to remove the United States from the United Nations and the World Health Organization. These notions stand in stark contrast with those ideals of Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration.

Dwight Eisenhower, 1953:
“[Our principles include] appreciating that economic need, military security and political wisdom combine to suggest regional groupings of free peoples, we hope, within the framework of the United Nations, to help strengthen such special bonds the world over. The nature of these ties must vary with the different problems of different areas. . . . [It also includes] respecting the United Nations as the living sign of all people's hope for peace, we shall strive to make it not merely an eloquent symbol but an effective force. And in our quest for an honorable peace, we shall neither compromise, nor tire, nor ever cease.”

On Employment:
Donald Trump, 2017:
“We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation. . . . We will follow two simple rules: Buy American and hire American. We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”

While Mr. Trump attempts to rebound slightly from his isolationist views in this segment, the truly noteworthy aspect to highlight here is his desire to invest in internal improvements—something that historically has been falling upon individual states. Indeed, Trump perceives himself as a builder, and this is just what he wants to do—even if it conflicts with his own party’s fiscal agenda. This statement, above all else, foreshadows Trump’s unpredictability and likely future clashes with his own party. By contrast, such infrastructure projects may be one of the president’s few agendas Democrats will widely support. After all, Americans heard a similar promise three years into the Great Depression:

Franklin Roosevelt, 1933:
“Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. . . . The basic thought that guides these specific means of national recovery is not narrowly nationalistic. It is the insistence, as a first consideration, upon the interdependence of the various elements in all parts of the United States—a recognition of the old and permanently important manifestation of the American spirit of the pioneer. It is the way to recovery. It is the immediate way. It is the strongest assurance that the recovery will endure.”

On the Military:
Donald Trump, 2017:
“For many decades we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry, subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military.”

While one can debate if and how the American military has been depleted, we nonetheless see here the continuing evolution of the military purpose in national consciousness. “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all,” said Trump of his vision for the Military Industrial Complex (which Eisenhower also warned us about). While Mr. Trump wishes to invigorate America’s image of defense with large scale military parades down Pennsylvania Avenue, presidents of centuries past had a vastly different mission for the military. The first generations of America’s leaders feared a standing army, worrying it would lead to tyranny. The lack of a standing army was also a primary reason for the crafting of the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

Andrew Jackson has been compared to Trump by several journalists and his own pundits due to his populist rhetoric, his desires to shrink the influence of government, his willingness to relocate ethnic minorities, his distrust of the establishment, and his colorful, unorthodox persona. Jackson's inaugural, however, departs from Trump's when it comes to matters of the military.

Andrew Jackson, 1829:
“Considering standing armies as dangerous to free governments in time of peace, I shall not seek to enlarge our present establishment, nor disregard that salutary lesson of political experience which teaches that the military should be held subordinate to the civil power.”

On Optimism:
Donald Trump, 2017:
“Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.”

Here is another point of separation from most presidential inaugural addresses. Much like his campaign itself, Trump’s words are burdened with negativity. While he offers promise, blame is cast upon others (although not the corporations themselves). Compare those sentences with these of conservative hero Ronald Reagan in his own first inaugural:

Ronald Reagan, 1981:
 “[T]his administration’s objective will be a healthy, vigorous, growing economy that provides equal opportunities for all Americans, with no barriers born of bigotry or discrimination. Putting America back to work means putting all Americans back to work. Ending inflation means freeing all Americans from the terror of runaway living costs. All must share in the productive work of this ‘new beginning,’ and all must share in the bounty of a revived economy. With the idealism and fair play which are the core of our system and our strength, we can have a strong and prosperous America, at peace with itself and the world.”

While some of those barriers remained (especially in inner cities), Reagan spoke of a universal commonality that did not cast censure. Indeed, a sense of patriotic optimism is a factor that endears Reagan to many Americans to this day. The fact that Trump is one of only five American presidents to win the presidency despite losing the popular vote might have warranted a lighter tread. Trump would have been better served had he used more language as he did here:

“We stand at the birth of a new millennium, 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.”

On Political Parties:
Donald Trump, 2017:
“What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. Jan. 20, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”

Trump here again demonstrates his antipathy of the political establishment—a belief that gained him many votes with the mantra of "Drain the Swamp." While many of these constituent concerns are incredibly valid, we also must underscore the importance of conversation, negotiation, compromise, and a degree of civility between parties—something that many scholars consider a bedrock of our democracy. Republican Herbert Hoover (who, despite his shortcomings in the Depression, was considered one of the great humanitarians in the world at the time of his inauguration) reminds us of this.

Herbert Hoover, 1929:
“In our form of democracy the expression of the popular will can be effected only through the instrumentality of political parties. We maintain party government not to promote intolerant partisanship but because opportunity must be given for expression of the popular will, and organization provided for the execution of its mandates and for accountability of government to the people. . . . The animosities of elections should have no place in our Government, for government must concern itself alone with the common weal.”

On Protection:
Donald Trump, 2017:
“We've defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own and spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America's infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.”

Trump’s inclination to be a builder of great things and prioritize the American economy once again makes him echo the “shovel ready” projects of the Depression era. I wouldn’t expect him to adopt any social welfare programs, however.

Franklin Roosevelt, 1933:
“Through this program of action we address ourselves to putting our own national house in order and making income balance outgo. Our international trade relations, though vastly important, are in point of time and necessity secondary to the establishment of a sound national economy. I favor as a practical policy the putting of first things first. I shall spare no effort to restore world trade by international economic readjustment, but the emergency at home cannot wait on that accomplishment.”

On Welfare:
Donald Trump, 2017:
“We will get our people off of welfare and back to work rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor.”

Given the conservative revolution that blossomed in the 1970s and 1980s, the parallels between then and now regarding welfare are not surprising. This talking point will continue for years to come.

Richard Nixon, 1973:
"Let us remember that America was built not by government, but by people--not by welfare, but by work--not by shirking responsibility, but by seeking responsibility."

On History:
Donald Trump, 2017:
“One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions and millions of American workers that were left behind. The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world. But that is the past, and now we are looking only to the future.”

As far as I could ascertain, this is unfortunately the only reference President Trump made to history or the past. He mentions no other presidents other than the ones sitting behind him. This, too, is unprecedented. Going back to the early days of the republic, we can see presidents who utilize the past (and much more) as a moral compass, if not a solid guide for contemporary policy:

Andrew Jackson, 1833:
“A diffidence, perhaps too just, in my own qualifications will teach me to look with reverence to the examples of public virtue left by my illustrious predecessors, and with veneration to the lights that flow from the mind that founded and the mind that reformed our system. The same diffidence induces me to hope for instruction and aid from the coordinate branches of the Government, and for the indulgence and support of my fellow-citizens generally.”

Abraham Lincoln, 1861:
“I am loath to close. 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.”

Theodore Roosevelt, 1905:
“We in our turn have an assured confidence that we shall be able to leave this heritage unwasted and enlarged to our children and our children's children. To do so we must show, not merely in great crises, but in the everyday affairs of life, the qualities of practical intelligence, of courage, of hardihood, and endurance, and above all the power of devotion to a lofty ideal, which made great the men who founded this Republic in the days of Washington, which made great the men who preserved this Republic in the days of Abraham Lincoln.”

Ronald Reagan, 1985:
“History is a ribbon, always unfurling; history is a journey. And as we continue our journey, we think of those who traveled before us.”

George W. Bush, 2001:
“After the Declaration of Independence was signed, Virginia statesman John Page wrote to Thomas Jefferson, "We know the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong. Do you not think an angel rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm?" Much time has passed since Jefferson arrived for his inauguration. The years and changes accumulate, but the themes of this day he would know, ‘our nation's grand story of courage and its simple dream of dignity.’”

Barack Obama, 2009:
“For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth. For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.”

We need history. We need the humanities. We need to think critically. We should not believe every internet meme we encounter. We need to vet the sources we read—including this one. We need presidents who have knowledge of and can learn from the past. Without that knowledge, we are lost—and we prove it to ourselves continuously. I earnestly hope all who will live in the White House now and in the future eventually come to that realization. Otherwise, we will have nothing more than reality show presidents for reality show generations. That would be one sad chapter for American democracy.

In the interim, we should seek counsel from another inaugural speech which noted, “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. . . .” Will we listen?

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