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No moderation in tone at Trump's inauguration

The brand-new American President Donald Trump delivered his inaugural speech on 20 January. There was little sign of conciliation and he was liberal with the truth, in the opinion of a number of Leiden academics. One professor is more positive: 'He wants to take on radical Islam.'

Directly to:
Sara Polak - university lecturer in American Studies
Jaap de Jong – Professor of Journalism and New Media  
Willem van der Does – Professor of Clinical Psychology
Peter Burger – university lecturer in Media Studies/Journalism and New Media
Paul Cliteur - Professor of Jurisprudence
Giles Scott-Smith – university lecturer in the Diplomatic History of Trans-Atlantic relations since the Second World War

Sara Polak – university lecturer in American Studies

'Every US president starts a new presidential term with an inaugural address. A speech with a fairly fixed form, in which, moments after having been sworn in, he explains his vision, and usually tries to restore unity after the elections. In the past, inaugural addresses have produced proverbial phrases. Examples are: ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’ (Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933) and ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country’ (John F. Kennedy, 1961).

Adopting this phrase grants official power to the discourse and ideology of the alt-right.

The most striking thing about Donald Trump’s inaugural address was that it made hardly any attempt to reach out to those who did not vote for him – surprising for a minority president, who received three million fewer votes than his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. The tone of the address was generally harsh. From now on American policy will be grounded in the principle of ‘America First’. That slogan refers explicitly to the America First movement from the nineteen-thirties and forties.  The movement wanted the United States and Nazi Germany to form a friendship treaty, and had anti-Semitic tendencies. Adopting this phrase grants official power to the discourse and ideology of the alt-right, the collection of far-right and white-supremacist groups. '

Jaap de Jong – Professor of Journalism and New Media

'Trump's speech was short and aggressive. He carried the style of his tweets through into his inaugural speech. In a short address, punctuated by hammering hand gestures and made up of dozens of sharp antitheses both small and big, Trump made it clear that, following a rough period, from now the message is: America first. How does this new patriotism work? After Obama's poetic style, we now have the battle cry of the trading classes:  Buy American and hire American.

Trump didn't extend an olive branch to the larger group of electors who voted for Clinton rather than for him. 

Trump did not extend an olive branch to the larger group of the electorate who voted for Clinton rather than for him. Nor was there any olive branch for the countries whom he had previously rubbed up the wrong way. He threatened the establishment: ‘When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice'. Trump described the present economic climate as a bloodbath and even his call for unity under the flag of patriotism had a ring of combat: whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots. The man who has become known for his 'I' statements retreated to the background: in his speech he used 'I' three times, 'God' four times and 'we' 49 times. The Almighty, Trump and the forgotten Americans will make America great again.'

Willem van der Does – Professor of Clinical Psychology

'From a psychological perspective, the crucial sentence in Trump's inaugural speech was: This American carnage stops right here and stops right now. That was how he won the election, by fueling fear and presenting himself as the solution, or even the saviour. Fear is our most powerful emotion. Any politician who manages to reinforce this emotion increases the likelihood that - whether they are aware of it or not - people will look for a strong leader, and care less about such issues as glass ceilings. 

Any politician who manages to reinforce fear increases the likelihood that - whether they are aware of it or not - people will look for a strong leader.

In spite of the fact that in all kinds of perspectives America is in a better state than eight years ago, Trump has managed to convince enough people of his doom  scenario and conspiracy theories. Now he starts mitigating the fear: There should be no fear – we are protected, and we will always be protected. This sentence also has to be understood in the context of the following statement:  …radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely…. There's not a single expert who believes this is possible. Hardly anyone who heard it believed that Trump believed it himself. Isn't it dangerous, making such an important promise that you can't keep? What's more important here than the literal message is the 'meta-message': your safety is my top priority. Trump the salesman. When the electorate is anxious, what gets through to them is the meta-message.' 

Peter Burger – university lecturer in Media Studies / Journalism and New Media

'At his inaugural speech, but even more so the day before, it was obvious that Trump has a difficult relationship with the news media and the facts. The applause for his speech had hardly died down on Friday before the first fact checks appeared on line, at Politifact, Factcheck.org and The Fact-Checker of the Washington Post. These checks demonstrated both the power and the limitations of these watchdogs of political power. All three anticipated Trump's claims of relativistic figures. It is, for example, not true that the US has rendered its own armed forces powerless by supporting the armies of other countries. At the same time the question is how much impact fact checks have on policy or on electors if the claims made by the president himself are different. 

The press will have to find ways of handling this.

Fact checks and facts are political, as the day after the inauguration showed. Trump's spokesman threatened the press, maintained that the crowd for Trump's inauguration in Washington on Friday was bigger than any previous  inauguration (quod non) and refused to answer any questions. The press will have to find new ways of handling this kind of media management. Relying on investigative journalism is costly, but it may be a necessity if a government lays such a strong claim to the facts.' 

Paul Cliteur - Professor of Jurisprudence

'In contrast to what many people at universities and quality newspapers believe, I thought that one aspect of Donald Trump's inaugural speech showed some hope. He promised to fight Islamic terrorism and he also said he will take on 'radical Islam'.  That's a good diagnosis. It isn't about 'Islam', and it isn't about 'most Muslims'. Instead it states clearly that we have a problem with 'radical Islam'.  

Obama failed to set a diagnosis and his policy was a series of errors

Obama and Clinton have done their best in recent years not to make this diagnosis. Obama only wanted to talk of violent extremism. He therefore failed to set a good diagnosis and his policies in recent years were a series of errors. Everyone can see that, apart from the girls and boys at Harvard and Yale. It takes a property entrepreneur to see it. And that's rather embarrassing.' 

Giles Scott-Smith – Professor of the Diplomatic History of Trans-Atlantic Relations since World War II

'Donald Trump has in recent months often been characterized as the President who will bring an end to the post-WW II period of ‘benevolent hegemony’ – the willingness of the United States to play a leadership role in global governance through a dense apparatus of international organisations, maintaining norms and exporting values. These observations are largely correct. Trump has expressed disdain for long-standing security commitments such as NATO, and has shown contempt for the century-long US drive for a system of global free trade. These views also characterized his inaugural speech. From now on it will be ‘America First’ in every policy field.

Let's hope there will be more constructive grounds for international cooperation than merely a militarized anti-Islamic crusade.

Trump’s speech did not express the aim to simply cut the United States off from the rest of the world: “We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world - but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.” This is Realist talk, where the international system is based on unique national interests, but which does not exclude cooperation for specific, mutually-agreed goals. On the downside, the only subject that drew a direct call for cooperation was this: “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones, and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.” Let's hope that there will be more constructive grounds for international cooperation than merely a militarized anti-Islamic crusade.'

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