Why Donald Trump’s speech worked

Trump’s speech revealed his plan for his presidency: positioning himself as an independent, while posing as a Republican. Will it work?


There’s a famous story that when Barry Goldwater accepted the Republican presidential nomination in 1964 with a fiery conservative speech, a journalist said: “My God, he’s going to run as Goldwater!” There are similar reactions to Donald J. Trump’s inaugural address, whose prepared text can be found here. For at least a year, mainstream journalists have been predicting that Trump will “pivot” to sounding presidential in a traditional way. Instead, his speech consisted almost entirely of the type of rhetoric that won him the nomination and the presidency. He’s going to govern as Trump.

There were predictions in advance of the speech that he would stress “unity.” He sort of did, but not in the way unity is usually defined: telling people to come together and compromise and meet in the middle. What Trump’s speech posited is that unity would be achieved if it weren’t for the establishment and elites standing in its way. “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.” This aspect of populism—telling the people that they have been misled by a small arrogant elite—makes a lot of people understandably nervous, and this understandable nervousness will inform a lot of the coverage, especially since journalists are more likely to be aware of the unpleasant historical associations of the term “America First.”

But as a speech, as a piece of rhetoric, it was effective, and may signal how a Trump presidency could succeed, if it succeeds.

MORE: Read the full text of Donald Trump’s speech

The essence of this speech, as well as Trump’s convention speech (written by some of the same people, like Stephen Miller), is that the U.S. is a failing country, ravaged by crime, terrorism and exploitation. He alone, as he’s said before at the Republican convention, can make it better. The conventional pre-Trump wisdom was that politicians have to be optimistic to succeed; this turned out not to be true. Pessimism sells as long as you offer hope that problems can be easily turned around. And blaming the problems on elites has always been an effective tactic to make problems seem easily solved.

Liberals sometimes seem to be arguing that these problems can’t be solved unless we end sexism and racism. This is a plan that has both the advantage and disadvantage of being impossible; it also makes people suspect that they’ll have to give up some things they like in order to create a more just world. Trumpism counters that people can go on doing what they were doing and believing what they believed, and that it only takes a few cosmetic changes to make their lives better. This is a powerful message unless the opposition comes up with its own simple, easily explicable fixes.

MORE: How the Trudeau government is bracing for a Trump presidency

U.S. President Donald Trump celebrates after his speech during the Presidential Inauguration at the US Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., January 20, 2017. (Saul Loeb/Reuters)

U.S. President Donald Trump celebrates after his speech during the Presidential Inauguration at the US Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., January 20, 2017. (Saul Loeb/Reuters)

But won’t Trump start to be blamed when he’s been in office for a while, and has ownership of the country’s problems? Well, that’s the other part of the strategy behind the speech: it presented Trump not as a Republican, but as an independent standing against the evils of the establishment; many people pointed out that it seemed aimed at both parties. He’s trying to set himself up so that when things go wrong, he can blame it not only on the Democrats (who have almost no political power right now) but on the Republicans who control Congress. He’s basically setting himself up as a third-party president who poses as a Republican.

Will this actually work? Quite possibly not. Trump may not be a normal Republican, but he’s stocking his cabinet with normal Republicans, and he’s going to listen to normal Republicans on a lot of issues. Trump is unpopular and so are the Washington D.C. Republicans (well, so are the Democrats, for that matter). When he signs the usual Republican bills for upper-class tax cuts, Obamacare repeal and other typical conservative items, it will become hard for him to distance himself from them, except for his core of loyal supporters. That core isn’t enough to keep him in power all by itself.

MORE: Watch Trump’s inauguration in 360

Still, Trump’s personal unpopularity shouldn’t make us assume that all, or even most, of what he talked about today is unpopular. As the pro-Trump journalist Byron York points out in examining a recent poll, most of Trump’s own signature issues are popular. The most important issue for Americans, he notes, is “keeping U.S. jobs from going overseas.” The issues that are not wildly popular or a huge priority for those surveyed are often the ones that are important to the Republican Party, not Trump: while the public doesn’t like Obamacare, they don’t think of Obamacare repeal as being a top priority issue. (One signature Trump issue that is not a priority is building a border wall; this may explain why it was mentioned not once in the speech.) The issues he focused on in this speech were the ones that had the broadest popularity; in a weird way, it was a poll-tested speech.

The more Trump acts like a conventional tax-cutting, Obamacare-repealing Republican, the less popular he gets. If he actually tried to act the way he does in this speech—rejecting both parties in favour of pure anti-elite hostility—some unpredictable or very bad things might happen. But he’d probably be more popular. Easy answers are usually popular.


Why Donald Trump’s speech worked

  1. The speech simply spoke to his base. I was hoping that someone in his team would have had him focus more on trying to unite Americans than these platitudes about governing for the people. He simply trashed Washington but he will learn pretty quick that he better play nice in the sandbox or he will have difficulty trying to pass any laws that he’s promised.

    • Why does everyone put the onus solely on Trump to unite America?? Yesterday there were Democrats who said they did not support a peaceful transition and you have the likes of Robert Dinero and Cher saying, “We will never give up the fight-we must keep fighting”. Those for Clinton wanted more of the same as they have had for the last 8 years with Obama and Trump has offered something much different. The Democrats don’t want that and Trump won’t change what got him elected. Were those protesting Republicans throwing pieces of concrete at the police today-I think not!! That was very unifying.

      • Putin, racism and misogyny got Trump elected. These are all things that any intelligent person ought to fight against.

        Is changes needed in the US? Yes. And while Hilary may not have been a likely candidate for change, I think those who voted for Trump because they wanted change are going to regret not looking closely at either the changed promised, or the guy supposedly leading the charge.

        Assuming the world survives – and assuming they are still having elections in the US four years hence – Rump will be (at best) a one-term president.

    • And be like Obama, who immediately on being elected, soldout to the Deep State, the banksters, the 1%’ers, and the neo-cons and neo-liberals.

      Obama didn’t even make a pretense of trying to drain the swamp. Trump will probably fail to drain the swamp, but he is at least going to try.

      • No he’s not. He’s simply cutting out the middleman and directly appointing the bankers, businessmen and other oligarchs to his cabinet, rather than merely have them contribute to the coffers and pull the strings of their puppets.

  2. I am more convinced than ever that Trump can’t read. I don’t say that to be demeaning. He can’t read and there are many people who share his disability.

    He didn’t give a speech. He reminded me of those travelling salesmen who dotted the American West during the years of Manifest Destiny, selling bottles of nondescript elixirs to gullible people. The Washington establishment was sitting beside him as he scolded them “for doing nothing.”

    America has never been great, though it aspires to it or, as Robert Browning might have put it, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”  It is illogical to postulate that America can return to greatness that it never possessed. “Make America great again” is a huckster’s mantra.  Had Trump lost the election, he would have claimed that ‘the election was rigged,’ words which didn’t cross his mind the day after he won.  In the weeks that followed, it became less certain whether running for office was his idea or Putin’s influence.
    Watching the church leaders give their prayers at the microphone, I wondered if Trump possessed a Faith and, in a nation so adamant about the sanctity of the separation of church and state, I wondered why and to whom their blessings really mattered.

    Trump gave the impression to me that he would take America back to the isolation that characterised her before WWII, when she was willing to sell anything to both sides of the conflict.  Ignoring the role that computer technology has played in the loss of so many North American jobs, he seemed to be arguing that disadvantageous trade deals were the primary cause of America’s financial difficulties.  I thought how ironical that today, with unemployment in America at 4.9%, Trump inferred that trade deals with Mexico and Canada, where unemployment is stuck at 7%, had closed manufacturing plants.  Yes, manufacturing for a range of goods had moved to Mexico and Asia but the notion that every job lost could be returned seemed naïve.

    Trump didn’t read from prepared text or appear to use a teleprompter.  He stood at the microphone with his jacket open, his tie flitting in the breeze, and a promise that he “will return the government to the people.”  I couldn’t imagine a more stark contrast between Trump and his predecessor, eight years earlier, who projected a cerebral grasp of issues and a polished demeanor. Trump was campaigning again, selling his elixir to an audience parched by memories of the financial collapse of 2008, too many expensive wars, and too many layoffs.

    • Obama seemed like a nice man and a good speaker but he was no leader. He offered hope and change and since he didn’t deliver, he should hold himself personally accountable for Trump’s election success.

      • The American economy has an unemployment rate at 4.9%. Bearing in mind that full employment is 3% unemployment, the economy under Obama’s administration has made a remarkable recovery. Turning back to America in the 1940’s is a move in the wrong direction.

    • That’s one ult-left opinion. Even CNN thought there were many impressive parts!!

      • As I pointed out – this is a REPUBLICAN writer. BTW- there is no ‘alt-left”; there is, however, an “Alt-Right”.
        They gave themselves the name- Bannon & Breitbart.
        Look it up.

  3. I thought it was a great speech. But I don’t really think Trump will live up to it at all, it’s all just talk. He’s full of crap. For example “buy American and hire American” – not something he ever made a priority in business. But, as a speech it was pretty badass.

    • It was nasty & divisive- and rambling- much like his speech today to the intelligence service.
      I suspect the man is becoming seriously unhinged.
      A sad time for America and the world. God help us all.