“The magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me… could not but overwhelm with despondence one who (inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration) ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies.”
—George Washington, First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789
“He referred to my hands—‘if they're small, something else must be small.' I guarantee you there's no problem. I guarantee."
—Donald Trump, Republican primary debate, March 3, 2016
Unless he manages to fire off a tweet in between taking the oath and approaching the podium, today’s Inaugural Address will be the first time Donald J. Trump addresses the public as president. We’re told it’s going to be a “philosophical document”; what that will mean we’ll have to wait to find out, but I’ll hazard one guess about the contents of the speech. Early Inaugural Addresses nearly always included a profession of humility by the man about to assume such grave responsibilities, as with Washington, above, or Jefferson (“the task is above my talents”); Madison (“my own inadequacy to its high duties”); Monroe (“conscious of my own deficiency”); and even Andrew Jackson (“a diffidence, perhaps too just, in my own qualifications…”). I doubt that Trump’s Inaugural Address will contain anything like that.
Presidents don’t talk like they used to, and they haven’t for some time. Most presidential scholars recognize “a significant transformation of the presidency at the turn of the twentieth century from a traditional, administrative, and unrhetorical office into a modern, expansive, and stridently rhetorical one in which incumbents routinely speak over the head of Congress and to the public to lead and to govern.” In a 2002 article, presidential scholar Elvin T. Lim exhaustively examined all Inaugural and State of the Union addresses from 1789 to 2000, and found—it will hardly shock you to learn—that presidential rhetoric has become “more anti-intellectual,” more imperial, “more assertive,” and characterized by “an increasing lack of humility.”
Trump won’t be the first president to simultaneously dumb down the content and ramp up the hubris, but it appears likely that, as president, he’ll take the prevailing rhetorical trends to a new level, offering the Xtreme Energy Drink version of what’s usually on tap.
Hard as it may be to picture now, in the early years of the Republic, the prevailing norm was that the president was mostly supposed to keep his mouth shut. The Founding Generation didn’t believe in Teddy Roosevelt’s Bully Pulpit: the very idea of a president claiming a special mandate to speak for the people, pounding the podium and rallying the masses behind his agenda was anathema to them.
In his pioneering study The Rhetorical Presidency, Jeffrey Tulis observed that “the founders worried especially about the danger that a powerful executive might pose to the system if [presidential] power were derived from the role of popular leader. For most federalists, ‘demagogue’ and ‘popular leader’ were synonyms, and nearly all references to popular leaders in their writings are pejorative.” In fact, that fear bookends the Federalist, with the first essay warning that of “men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants,” and the last raising the specter of “the military despotism of a victorious demagogue.”
Instead of translating popular passions into government activism, the president’s role was to resist those passions, to, as Federalist 71 puts it, “withstand the temporary delusion in order to give [the people] time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection.”
Accordingly, a web of tacit norms—what Tulis calls a “rhetorical common law”—constrained the president’s ability to engage in popular appeals. They weren’t supposed to address the public very frequently. As Tulis notes, Washington’s first Inaugural is addressed to “Fellow Citizens of the Senate and House of Representatives”—not the public at large; and 19th-century presidents gave very few public speeches in general.
Those norms also governed what presidents were supposed to say when they did address the public. “Every president in the nineteenth century, except Zachary Taylor, mentioned the Constitution” in his Inaugural Address, Tulis observes, and most elaborated with “reflection upon its meaning.” Lim tracks a 20th-century decline in references to the Constitution, and finds that “other keywords of typical republican rhetoric have become unpopular, with references to the once honored words like republic, citizen, character, duty, and virtuous falling significantly. … In contrast, references to leader, people, and democracy have increased dramatically over time.” Moreover, “as modern presidents have rhetorically represented themselves increasingly as protectors and defenders of the people, their rhetoric has also tended to aggrandize their status within the governmental system.” Where once presidents humbly sought the blessings of “Providence,” in their formal addresses, lately they’re more likely to invoke “God,” suggesting He’s on our side, after all.
We’ve come a long way, baby: and, as president, Donald Trump seems likely to take us even further from the “rhetorical common law” that once restrained presidential demagoguery and, with it, presidential power.
Where Obama indulged in the occasional feel-good, “rock-star” rally as president, Trump has signaled that he may make the mass rally a regular feature of his presidency. And where Obama, our first Twitter president, had a feed so reassuringly dull, you could safely unfollow it without fearing you’d miss anything, you could hardly say the same about @realDonaldTrump. As a medium of direct address, Twitter is ill-suited to encourage the “cool and sedate reflection” the presidency demands, and which Trump seems constitutionally incapable of providing. Just since his election, Trump has used it to rail against bad restaurant reviews, Saturday Night Live skits, and the United States’ nuclear-armed rivals.
Rhetorically, Trump represents the antithesis of the modest, restrained vision of the presidency shared by most of the Founders. That’s apparent from his nomination acceptance speech at GOP Convention this summer, which was dominated by alarmist hyperbole (“attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life”) hubristic promises (“beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored”); and a vox populi conception of the presidency: “I AM YOUR VOICE” (ALLCAPS in the prepared-for-delivery version released by the campaign).
In a famous (perhaps borrowed) refrain to one of his speeches, Barack Obama intoned: “Don’t tell me words don’t matter.” In this case, they do: how the president communicates reveals how he views the office—and how he intends to wield power. Trump has given us ample reason to worry on that score.