Donald Trump delivered a sixteen-minute inaugural address on January 20, 2017. Some have called it “the most divisive in American history.” I did not hear it—with Trump tone and delivery matter greatly—but on the page it certainly does not seem to me to be that divisive. Here are my thoughts about reading it quietly in my library.
Donald Trump’s inaugural address will either stand as one of the most important or one of the most delusory in American history. He made big promises, wild promises, and he drew a line in the calendar of American history—asserting that his installation as President of the United States would repair, restore, and renew the American experiment. If he “succeeds,” his inaugural address will be seen as pivotal, by those who thirst for his leadership and by those who dread what he represents and seeks. If he fails it will be regarded as a piece of naïve bombast that shattered against dynamics bigger than his will and his ego. I fear that in ten or fifty years his inaugural address will be regarded as not much more than hyperventilation.
Mr. Trump should have read through the inaugural addresses of his 44 predecessors as he prepared for his big moment. Here is what he could have learned from one of the most extraordinary men who ever held public office in America, Thomas Jefferson.
Humility. Thomas Jefferson was one of the most talented men in American history. He was, after Abraham Lincoln, our greatest writer among presidents. He was a polymath who knew seven languages, read incessantly, invented labor-saving devices and what he called gimcracks, conducted serious scientific experiments, helped to create American paleontology and archaeology, and made the Library of Congress a universal repository of human knowledge. He was America’s Da Vinci. And he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Donald Trump is a successful businessman. He did not write the books issued under his name. All of his life he has been surrounded by allegations of sharp business practices, fraud, self-promotion, human rights abuses, and sexual adventurism. He has bankrupted his businesses repeatedly, and left investors, partners, and Trump university students holding the bag.
There is not a single word in Trump’s inaugural address about how humbling it is to be selected as the principal representative of the principal representative of the American people.
Three times in his inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson informed the American people that he was not sure he was equal to the grave responsibilities of the presidency. He declared “a sincere consciousness that the task is above my talents.” He said “I humble myself before the magnitude of the undertaking.” He compared himself unfavorably to the first president George Washington. And he said, “I shall often go wrong through defect of judgment.”
And Jefferson said, with extraordinary insight, “it will rarely fall to the lot of imperfect man to retire from this station with the reputation and the favor which bring him into it.”
It is possible that Jefferson was emphasizing his sense of diffidence more than he actually felt it, but I believe he was essentially telling the American people how he felt in being made first among equals in a nation of six million people that included such worthies as James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, Patrick Henry, James Monroe, and the late George Washington. He was also reminding us all of the sense of respect and even awe that any president-elect should bring to the highest elective office in the United States.
Donald Trump did not make even a half-hearted statement of those humble sentiments. He is not a humble man. So far as we can tell, he has no doubts about his capacities.
Trump promised “I will never ever let you down.” Jefferson admitted that he could not possibly satisfy those who disliked him or his policies, but he would do what he could to conciliate them, and he admitted—with some firmness—that he knew he would sometimes let the American people down, even those who were his ardent supporters.
Acknowledge the primacy of the legislative branch. Donald Trump told us some ways in which he intends to make America great again, and he paid a number of populist tributes to the People, but he never told us how he intends to accomplish his goals and through whom. Someone from Jupiter reading his inaugural address might conclude that he intended to do all this by himself—with the support of the American people—but without any help from the other two branches of the national government. That is the very definition of one-man rule. In fact, President Trump went out of his way to condemn what he calls the Washington establishment. Jefferson said, “To you gentlemen, who are charged with the sovereign functions of legislation, and to those associated with you, I look with encouragement for that guidance and support which may enable us to steer with safety the vessel in which we are embarked.” Trump blamed established politicians (in other words, members of Congress) and the Washington insiders—bureaucrats, lobbyists, journalists—what he called “a small group in our nation’s capital,” of prospering at the expense of the American people, protecting its own perks and power without any desire to serve the rest of us who do not live in the District of Columbia, and of triumphing (strange word) while the rest of us suffered. He even accused the Washington establishment of celebrating while factories closed and families struggled all across America.
Such pronouncements are not just populism. They are irresponsible, irrational, and just not true. The Washington establishment may not have been sufficiently responsive to the needs and demands of the American people, but the portrait President Trump painted will make it harder to govern rather than easier. It woefully misreads the Constitution of the United States. It shows no understanding of how difficult it is for 535 members of Congress to craft legislation for a third of a billion people in places so mutually distinct as Hawaii and Mississippi, Montana and New York. By denying any virtue, good will, earnestness, or good sense to the Washington establishment, which he portrayed as a parasite on the body of the American people–worse, a gang of parasites bent on enriching themselves and living in sybaritic comfort while deliberately destroying the American dream–Trump may have pleased the radical wing of his populist base, but he showed a lack of professional balance and decorum that manifests a fundamental contempt for the American system. He spoke like a strongman of a hapless island regime. He spoke like someone who would be Mussolini if he could get away with it.
Explain your philosophy of governance. Jefferson not only laid out what he took to be a consensus view of American public happiness—“a wise and frugal government that shall restrain men from injuring one another, but leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement”–but he went on to outline his own philosophy of governing, in other words his own playbook for serving as the third president of the United States: majority rule, a preference for state rather than federal solutions to public problems, a deep commitment to free speech, freedom of religion, payment of the national debt sooner rather than later, a firm preference for a people’s militia over a permanent army and navy. Etc.
In other words, Jefferson not only explained what he took to be the national consensus about how much government the American people wanted and how it should operate, but he outlined his own theory of presidential power.
Donald Trump provided no clues of any sort about how he intends to preside over the United States and by what processes and procedures. He merely told us what he intends to get done: rebuild America; force our international partners to pay their own way; protect our borders; utterly destroy Islamic terrorism, etc. But he gave us no indication of just how he intends to do all of that. He promised to give America back to the people—a Jacksonian pledge, even a Jeffersonian one—but how exactly does he plan to do that? He talked as if America were a giant corporation of which he is new CEO, governing without even a board of directors; but he will soon learn that that is not how the American constitutional process works. It is not how a 21st century democracy works; and if the American people put up with such dictatorial actions, it will indicate that the republic is now officially dead, and we the people have lost the spirit of America’s constitutional genius.
Finally, conciliate, unite, forgive, seek national reconciliation. In his first inaugural address, Jefferson famously said, “Let us, then, fellow citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.” Jefferson acknowledged that the election of 1800 had been vicious, bitterly partisan, and destabilizing, but he promised to do all that he could to reach out to his detractors and take their concerns seriously, and he carefully warned his own majority that they must not lord it over their defeated brethren. “Though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate which would be oppression.”
There was no spirit of national reconciliation in the inaugural address of Donald Trump. There was only triumphalism. At the beginning of his speech he praised his predecessor and Michelle Obama, but only for “their gracious aid throughout this transition.”
In his address, Jefferson never said a single negative thing about the government of the United States, about the “establishment,” about his predecessors, about his political enemies, about opposition newspapers, about sincere and angry critics. He gave one of the most inclusive and gracious inaugural addresses in American history.
Even his personal and ideological enemy John Marshall said, after hearing Jefferson’s address from very close proximity, that it was “well judged and conciliatory.”
Trump spoke again and again of the People of America, but at no point did he acknowledge that only 27% of the American people voted for him, that Hillary Clinton received several million more popular votes than he did, that about half of the country believes he is a disaster, little short of Beezebub, and that no president since Lincoln has entered office under such a cloud of anger, bitterness, disapproval, and disbelief.
Had he been a Jeffersonian, Trump would have acknowledged the polarization of the country, the bitterness of the election, and the intensity of those who are having a difficult time accepting the fact that he is now the 45th President of the United States. Had he been a Jeffersonian, Trump would have reached out to all of those who distrust or dislike him, and said it is his intention to do what he can to win them over, to gain their trust and respect, and to remember that as a president with a little less than half the country on his side, he cannot possibly succeed without at least the grudging cooperation of the other 170 million individuals.
Instead, Trump spoke of the people as if it were a monolithic phalanx of 340 million people all of whom support him against the establishment and the elites, all of whom are praying that he will give them back their country. By not acknowledging the fact of the opposition, and making some gesture of his desire to represent them too, some urge to find a way to win their approval, Trump wound up speaking of “the People” in a way that is merely demagogic and self-serving, but without any fundamental truth or reality. Or generosity of spirit.
Don’t get me wrong. There were plenty of good things about Donald Trump’s inaugural address. To be a good president or candidate for the presidency you must be able to sing what I all the Jefferson Music about America. Trump did so, admirably. He was profoundly Jeffersonian when he said the country belonged to the American people not its government, that government exists to serve the people and not the other way around, that he intends to give the country back to the people, that the people will not be ignored and held in contempt any longer. He said “This is your day. This is your celebration. And this, the United States of America, is your country.” I was moved by that—and I do hope he meant it.
Trump spoke movingly of American optimism, the can-do American spirit, the boundless opportunities before us.
He spoke of our universal desire for good schools, safe neighborhoods, and good jobs. And he spoke movingly of those trapped in bad schools, unsafe neighborhoods and dead-end jobs, if they have them at all.
These are great things. If we did not know so much about Trump, if we were just reading the inaugural address of January 20, 2017, in the abstract, not knowing who delivered it, not having witnessed the circus and mayhem of the last two years, it might be possible to see the speech as the utterance of a populist democrat, even a social and political liberal. But Trump has been so profoundly Trumpish, Trumpastic, Trumperistic, Trumpompous, Trumprageous since he burst into the political arena, that it is no longer possible to read his words without seeing his wild gestures, his grimaces, his clowning, his scowl, his self-love, his arrogance, his bombast, and his colossal self-assurance.
Mr. Trump, you should read Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address, and Lincoln’s second, and Washington’s second, and John Kennedy’s and Ronald Reagan’s first.