Trump may project himself as a president who is breaking from the past, but the religious and populist rhetoric in his inauguration speech and his campaign is not unprecedented in US politics.
Last Friday (January 20), I followed the presidential inauguration from the US embassy in Dublin. As in many other world capitals, politicians, experts and average citizens gathered to watch the event live. Most of the subsequent commentary has generally pointed to how the new President Donald Trump represents a marked break with the past. Supporters have argued that he is an outsider who does not belong to the inefficient and self-serving political establishment at Washington. Critics have noted that after a very divisive presidential campaign, he has showed no serious interest in mending fences with those Americans who did not vote for him. Tellingly, his main campaign challenger, Hillary Clinton, received no mention at all during the inaugural speech. Trump himself has also actively contributed to the popularity of this idea of ‘breaking with the past’. On inauguration day, he described his presidency as a momentous shift,
“We assembled here today, are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first.”
In sum, both supporters and critics see the new president as a bearer of change. I recognise that Trump has his own peculiar way of communicating. However, how does Trump’s rhetoric fit within the broader tradition of the US’s political discourse? Did his inaugural address offer us unequivocal signs of change?
To begin with, Trump in his address extensively referred to religion and god. He directly quoted the Psalm 133 from the Bible, when he said, “the Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” But the political discourse in the US featured references to religion and god even before the actual creation of the country. As early as in the 16th and 17th centuries, Puritan settlers from England and Scotland identified North America with the New World, the New Israel, the New Jerusalem and a religious special place whose inhabitants were blessed by god. Moreover, key documents of the US contain religious references. The 1776 Declaration of Independence, for instance, is filled with references to nature’s god, the creator, divine providence and the supreme judge of the world. Finally, the expression ‘God Bless America’ has been the traditional way for a US president to end a public speech.
A second theme of Trump’s rhetoric that clearly fits into the broader tradition of the US political discourse is that of leading the world by example. The new president stated that, “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone but rather to let it shine as an example. We will shine for everyone to follow.” Here, Trump drew on the words of John Winthrop, a devout 17th century Puritan and leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who said that, “We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” The same image was later used by successive US presidents. John Quincy Adams, in one of his most recalled quotes, affirmed that the US, “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.” More recently, John F. Kennedy declared, “Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us – and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill”.
This leads us to the third and final theme – populist nationalism. President Trump announced that “from this day forward” the policy of his administration – “it’s going to be only America first.” The phrase ‘America First’ is often associated with the America First Committee, which strove to prevent the US entry into WWII. However, the idea of putting the US’s interests before anything else is part and parcel of what American academic Walter Russell Mead called the Jacksonian tradition in US politics, named after US president Andrew Jackson. According to Mead, Jacksonians hold that “the most important goal of the US government […] should be the physical security and the economic well-being of the American people”. These are the same themes President Trump has been reiterating since the campaign trail.
So going back to my original question about whether Trump’s rhetoric is in line with the tradition of US political discourse, this piece has offered evidence of clear continuity. Although I acknowledge the idiosyncrasy of some of Trump’s statements, his extensive use of references to religion, leading by example and populist nationalism perfectly reflects themes that have characterised US politics since before the US came into being.
Eugenio Lilli is a lecturer in American Studies at the Clinton Institute, University College Dublin, Ireland.