Trump’s Inaugural Address, and the Words That Were Missing

Donald Trump, in his inaugural address today: “The oath I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans.” A harmless rhetorical flourish, no doubt, and one that Trump is by no means the first to make. And yet…

Note that the President’s actual oath of office says nothing about allegiance. It instead contains verbs promising two types of action: “faithfully execute the Office” and “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.” Its exact text reads: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

If a President does those two things, the American people as a whole will benefit. So no big difference from what Trump said, right? Maybe. 

The words of the actual oath require the President first to uphold legality, even above his vision of what might be good for the people. This element of legal constraint is lost if a President sees his allegiance as being to someone rather than something. As colleague Tim Lynch wrote on Wednesday, “There are many other checks and balances in our system, but the oath of office is supposed to be the first line of defense.”

Now history may look back and see this as an unimportant choice of words. Trump’s actions one way or the other will speak louder than his shades of wording.

Still, I wish the speech had used the word “Constitution,” or “law” in a way beyond the phrase “law enforcement,” or “Framers” or “Founders,” or “Declaration” or “Amendment” or “individual” or perhaps “rights.” The one occurrence of “right” was in a passage about “the right of all nations to put their interests first.”

During his campaign, Trump’s style was noteworthy for how seldom he mentioned the Constitution, the legal limits of government power, or the rights of the individual. Let us hope that these themes emerge in future speeches by the new President.