The inaugural address of a new US President typically answers two questions: What and How.
First, to set down unambiguous policy markers: to spell out in broad but more or less specific terms what the new President aims to achieve. And second, to set the ‘tone’ of the new Administration: to point up the style and energy defining how the new President and his team set about the challenges ahead.
President Trump’s speech on 20 January weighed in at a brisk 1400 words – a full 1000 words shorter than President Obama’s 2009 address. He had scarcely finished speaking before the Twitterati were denouncing the speech as ‘dark’ if not dangerous.
What’s happening here?
This Trump speech did not sound like something pored over by wily speechwriters and policy wonks. It had all the strengths and weaknesses of the Trump campaign itself, above all reckless energy and brutish directness in attacking the USA’s ‘establishment’ by appealing over their heads to the ‘little guy’:
The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country … and while they celebrated in our nation’s Capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.
That all changes – starting right here, and right now … the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now.
He then swung into his key message:
From this moment on, it’s going to be America First. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.
We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world – but with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first …
We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones – and unite the civilized world against Radical Islamic Terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.
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…
What should the rest of us around the world make of this?
Modern global order is based on multitudinous rules and principles and a rich alphabet soup of international organisations developed since the Second World War: United Nations, NATO, ASEAN, EU, WTO, IAEA, ITU ICAO, OECD and so on.
The central underlying idea is that for all the often annoying and laborious features of this way of doing things, it’s far better for all countries to work within this shared global framework than ‘go it alone’. The USA has played a predominant role in setting up this system, from the Marshall Plan onwards. American leadership under successive Administrations has been expressed within it.
President Trump’s ‘America First’ rhetoric sounds like a sharp break from that long tradition, in both What and How. It conveys frustrated impatience with key outcomes at home and abroad that the USA has achieved by the patient give-and-take of global diplomacy. Be it in national security, trade or migration, others have been prospering at the USA’s expense:
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 …
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The risk in all this is obvious. That America First surges off with the UK First of Brexit and encourages Russia First, China First, Turkey First, Iran First, Germany First and most other countries to see the planet as fixed cake of options and opportunities, with each country grabbing slices for itself. Without American steadiness in support of multilateralism as an end in itself, the political and moral logic of self-restraint for shared prosperity/security frays in favour of greedy ad hoc deals cut for fleeting advantage.
The new Administration’s moves on Russia and the international sanctions against Moscow’s Ukraine policies will be one key test. So will policy towards China, the Middle East, climate change and plenty of other key areas where the world has become used to Washington operating within reasonably predictable policy parameters.
Maybe it will not be like that. At least in foreign policy America First in practice turns out to be more about Tone than Substance. After some initial startling moves it settles down again as weary global realities make themselves felt. Trump officials are just more bloody-minded and cynical in pushing US positions in international fora than US officials usually are.
No-one knows, including (one suspects) President Trump himself. His march to the White House has been all about defying categories. His inaugural address projected angry energy in favour of a totally new course at home and abroad, but on both What and How he left himself plenty of room for manoeuvre.
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Here is an interesting analysis of ‘positive’ v ‘negative’ language in different Presidential inaugural speeches. Despite the terse, truculent tone that so many pundits claimed to notice, this Trump speech was more positive than President Obama’s rambling 2009 inaugural. Thus:
Obama’s speech alternates strongly between the positive and the negative, between the challenges facing his new administration and his promises to make things better.
For all the apparent pessimism of Trump’s speech, the sentiment analysis algorithm classifies it as having a similar emotional valence to Obamas. The program sums up the total of positive and negative words and assigns each speech a top-line score: Trump’s rated +64, indicating more positive than negative sentiment, while Obama’s first inaugural rates a +56.
By contrast, George W Bush’s first inaugural address earned a score of 100, indicating considerably more positive sentiment than either of the presidents who came after.
How is this done? Thus:
Sentiment analysis is a tricky business — almost as much art as science. There are a lot of different ways to go about it. For the examples in this story, words are assigned emotional values from -5 (negative) to +5 (positive), as compiled by a data scientist at the Technical University of Denmark.
I used a statistical program that tallies up these sentiment scores at the sentence level and smooths away the noise of sentence-by-sentence language processing, allowing the underlying structure of the text to be plotted.
It’s a far from perfect process. Text analysis techniques like this have a hard time detecting irony and sarcasm. They can have trouble with intensity (“happy” versus “very happy”) and modifiers (“happy” versus “not happy”).
This is the point. President Trump sounded ‘angry’ and ‘dark’ because of the unexpected intensity of some of his language:
You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before.
At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.
Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves.
These are the just and reasonable demands of a righteous public.
But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.
This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
Over at the Spectator this last sentence and the almost lurid word ‘carnage’ is sniffily dismissed by Peter Jones:
Since nobody with the slightest intelligence would offer such hostages to fortune, there is no point in paying attention to what he says, any more than to what he tweets.
This disrespect for words would have appalled the ancient Greeks, who were well aware of the power of language, both for good and ill…
Maybe. But ancient Greeks are not modern US voters. President Trump is deliberately using harsh language to make his core point stand out: that he’s with voters and their real-life problems, not with swooning Washington elites on both sides of the political aisle. The fact that so many of those elite pundits hated this passage tells him that he was dead right to use those words.
This is why the Democrats are so rattled by his victory. What if he blasts aside prim political correctness and identity politics and starts appealing to hard-pressed workers and middle-class voters alike, regardless of gender or skin-colour? That could massacre their voting base! Even worse, he’s not hanging around:
First, let’s look at who Trump met with and how many workers they represent. The five unions at the meeting and their rough membership numbers are: Laborers (700,000), Carpenters (520,000), Plumbers and Pipefitters (325,000), Building Trades (150,000), and Sheet Metal Workers (150,000). That’s about 1.85 members. Not close to a majority of the roughly 7.4 million private-sector workers in a trade union, but not chump change either.
These are traditionally some of your more conservative unions, at least culturally. They’re the hard-hats. Back in the day, some of them split with the bulk of the labor movement over civil rights and other matters. They’re still mostly white, although the Latino membership in particular has grown recently in some of them.
… They undoubtedly liked the way Trump talked on trade, and they surely just related to the way Trump presented himself, but it was more than that. These are unions that, quite understandably, see their futures as tied to big construction projects. The building trades union, for example, has gotten close to the energy industry. So when they hear Trump talk about the Keystone/XL and Dakota pipelines, their eyes light up. The day after he met with the union chiefs, Trump signed executive orders reviving both projects.
This is something the haughty aloof Obama never grasped, or chose to ignore. Many Americans love to talk business and deals. And Donald Trump really loves to talk business and deals.
+ + + UPDATE + + +
This has just veered into my consciousness. Peggy Noonan knows a thing or two about political communication:
It’s a mistake for observers in Washington and New York to fixate on Mr. Trump’s daily faux pas at the expense of the political meaning of what he’s doing. He’s changing the face of the GOP. It is a mistake, too, to see Mr. Trump’s tweet on how Chicago had better solve its problem with violent crime or he’ll “send in the Feds,” as merely stupid—just a tweet that raises the question “What does ‘send in the Feds’ mean?” If you’re a parent in a tough Chicago neighborhood, you’d be heartened to think the feds might help. You’d be happy the president noticed. You’d say, “Go, Trump!”
And here is the important political point: Democrats don’t have a playbook for this. They have a playbook to use against normal Republicans: You’re cold, greedy, racist, sexist elitists who hate the little guy.
They don’t have a playbook to use against a political figure like Mr. Trump yet, because he jumbles all the categories.
EXACTLY. It’s all about all the familiar old categories fraying and fading.