Trump’s Inaugural Address versus Reagan’s Inaugural Address

Trump’s Inaugural Address offers an interesting counterpoint to Reagan’s First Inaugural.

First, Trump includes an opening thanks not only to all the presidents and worthies assembled (Carter, Clinton, Obama, and Bush) and to all Americans, as did Reagan, but he also thanks “the people of the world.” Obama, like Reagan, didn’t do anything like that in his First Inaugural. Is this a first?

Second, and more important, Reagan’s sense of the political enemy was specific and ideological: it was liberalism. Reagan identified a litany of the problems that were ailing America and the targets he had his eye on: the tax system, deficit spending, big government (which he specified as the federal government against the states), and inflation. These were all the indices of the Keynesian welfare state economy created by the Democrats. Reagan also made a point of saying these were not problems created by one administration but were instead the result of a comprehensive set of norms and forms thad had developed over the twentieth century. That wasn’t Reagan letting Jimmy Carter off the hook. That was Reagan taking aim at the New Deal.

Trump’s sense of the enemy is more amorphous, its sins less specific:

For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished — but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered — but the jobs left, and the factories closed.

The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.

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; we’ve defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own; and spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.

We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.

One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions upon millions of American workers left behind.

The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world.

Notice that initially Trump’s enemies are “the establishment,” “politicians,” “Washington.” And what does this class of elites do? They sell out the nation to other countries. But notice how quickly the agents of malfeasance transition from the establishment and politicians to a generic “we.” In the end, we’re left with little sense of this elite belonging to any specific party or political formation. We’re left with little sense of this elite even being an elite. There’s just a set of processes and persons that somehow have liquidated the wealth of the nation to the world at large.

Last, there’s an interesting contrast to be drawn in how Reagan and Trump summon the people. Both men make much of the people as against the government. But where Reagan is very clear that government needs to get out of the way so that the people’s native talents and genius and initiative can flourish—

If we look to the answer as to why for so many years we achieved so much, prospered as no other people on Earth, it was because here in this land we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before.

You can see heroes every day going in and out of factory gates. Others, a handful in number, produce enough food to feed all of us and then the world beyond. You meet heroes across a counter, and they’re on both sides of that counter. There are entrepreneurs with faith in themselves and faith in an idea who create new jobs, new wealth and opportunity.

In the days ahead I will propose removing the roadblocks that have slowed our economy and reduced productivity. Steps will be taken aimed at restoring the balance between the various levels of government. Progress may be slow, measured in inches and feet, not miles, but we will progress. It is time to reawaken this industrial giant, to get government back within its means, and to lighten our punitive tax burden.

—Trump construes the people differently. They are either the objects and beneficiaries of government action—specifically, Trump’s actions—or they are partners with the government:

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.

I will fight for you with every breath in my body — and I will never, ever let you down.

America will start winning again, winning like never before.

We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams.

We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation.

We will get our people off of welfare and back to work — rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor.

We will follow two simple rules: Buy American and hire American.

You will never be ignored again.

There’s a lot of “we” talk there—more shades of Obama than Reagan—and a lot of “I and thou” talk—I will fight for you, you will not be ignored—suggesting an intimacy and partnership between Trump, the government, and the people, of the sort that you don’t see in Reagan. And where Reagan’s people are entrepreneurs, producers, and consumers—creating jobs, going about their jobs—Trump’s are more stylized and specific: workers building infrastructure, supported by the government.

Despite the amorphousness and vagueness of Trump’s delineations, there’s a narrowness and brittleness to his vision that we’ve long been aware of but which this Inaugural Address puts on almost forensic display. Trump is speaking to and for one very specific, and very limited, part of the electorate. His conception of the nation he intends to serve—on even this, the most generous reading—is considerably smaller than even that small sector of the population that currently approves of his presidency.


  1. ronp January 20, 2017 at 11:22 pm | #

    It really is Steve Bannon’s speech, I think Trump is just along for the ride. Trump has some beliefs but I think he is just sort of old and confused, a used car salesman with hangers on. He likes eminent domain for gods sake so he is pro government for the rich real estate developers.

    I still want to know where he stores all his bibles. “In the same 2012 CBN interview, Trump said fans often send him Bibles and he keeps every one of them “in a very nice place.” “There’s no way I would ever throw anything, to do anything negative to a Bible,” Trump said.”

  2. RJB January 21, 2017 at 2:03 am | #

    As I listened, the first part of the speech seemed to be ripped off from Bernie Sanders. Just with the Trump tone. Then he got crazy.

  3. mark January 21, 2017 at 4:48 am | #

    “The annual produce of the land and labour of England, for example, is certainly much greater than it was a little more than a century ago, at the restoration of Charles II. Though at present few people, I believe, doubt of this, yet during this period five years have seldom passed away, in which some book or pamphlet has not been published, written, too, with such abilities as to gain some authority with the public, and pretending to demonstrate that the wealth of the nation was fast declining; that the country was depopulated, agriculture neglected, manufactures decaying, and trade undone. Nor have these publications been all party pamphlets, the wretched offspring of falsehood and venality. Many of them have been written by very candid and very intelligent people, who wrote nothing but what they believed, and for no other reason but because they believed it.”

    (Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations)

  4. bowneps January 21, 2017 at 8:34 am | #

    As a liberal, I have to say that I prefer Trump’s speech. It leaves more options open for solving the problems, and doesn’t lock him in to undoing a specific set of policies. Reagan’s reads to me as an attack on one side.
    Of course, the way people interpret a speech as generic as Trump’s will be affected by the image they have formed of him from other, more specific speeches. I didn’t follow those, so my impression is less grounded in data.

  5. Escott January 21, 2017 at 9:25 am | #

    Raging BS. That’s my first impression of the speech. Fascistic too
    I think an appropriate discussion should explore this unsettling accusation

  6. Rachael L Sotos January 21, 2017 at 9:26 am | #

    Here’s another take on Trump’s seeming appeal to such a slim slice of the disaffected American populace: in fact this is the core of legitimacy for those who believe in the right to unfettered extraction of natural resources. This in fact is their principle as it was the principle of the right of genocide of native Americans under Andrew Jackson. Unless we Americans come up with some other ground for our social contract, we will be stuck accommodating such arguments.

  7. GRH January 21, 2017 at 11:23 am | #

    The speech was better in the original German.
    But I agree with “ronp” – this is classic Steve Bannon, but let’s not forget, Bannon wants to burn it all down, then the Right can rebuild on a clean slate.
    His world view smacks of Christian Reconstructionism.
    If you listen to the ‘alt-right” long enough they will admit that they just want Democracy to fail.

    • s.wallerstein January 21, 2017 at 11:38 am | #

      “The speech was better in the original German”.

      The first remark about Trump’s inauguration, among many that try to be funny, that made me laugh. Thanks.

  8. Bruce Wilder January 21, 2017 at 2:59 pm | #

    . . . we’re left with little sense of this elite belonging to any specific party or political formation. We’re left with little sense of this elite even being an elite. There’s just a set of processes and persons that somehow have liquidated the wealth of the nation to the world at large.

    Isn’t that generally how the neoliberal order has been experienced?

    Just a set of processes liquidating the local real economy in favor of a globalised financialized economy, the wealth of the manufacturing economy of the Midwest transferred to Mexico or China with a big commission paid to Wall Street and DC and no one in either Party opposing it or even admitting that these processes could be opposed or should be opposed, or might not be in the interest of the country.

    I know lots of people on the left who scorn any nationalism as a species of racism, but we face the same problem of a politics that refuses to govern the processes that devastate communities and make life increasingly precarious for a great many.

    If your constituencies feel helpless or in despair, maybe this is how you speak to them. In some critical respects, a great many Americans are less in control of their lives than was true in 1981. The country has worn down and gotten fatter.

  9. Blue Stater January 21, 2017 at 9:45 pm | #

    The remark about “better in the original German,” of course, originated with the priceless — and, alas, the late — Molly Ivins (said of Pat Buchanan). Molly, thou shouldst be with us at this hour.

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