Beware of overrating the significance of Donald Trump’s upcoming inaugural address. Eloquence can enhance but never substitute for tangible accomplishments. Memories of Obama’s soaring rhetoric — culminating in his delusional farewell address — will vanish into the ether, because the damage he inflicted on American power, prosperity, and prestige will define his legacy. Conversely, Americans revere Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr., and Ronald Reagan because their towering deeds matched their stirring words.
So what Donald Trump says matters less than whether his policies make America great again. Even so, President Trump can make the most of his inaugural — setting the right tone and priorities for his administration by drawing on the best examples of great statesmen adapted to the challenging circumstances he inherits. President Trump should heed Winston Churchill’s motto: In defeat defiance; in adversity tenacity; in war resolution; in victory magnanimity; in peace goodwill. Trump’s inaugural address should preview all these essential characteristics for a successful presidency. The Trump administration’s request to Britain for the bust of Winston Churchill that President Obama returned bodes well for his understanding of how to address the daunting challenges America faces.
Future generations may celebrate Trump’s inaugural if he succeeds. Few will remember what Trump says on Inauguration Day if he fails.
Trump harbors no illusion — nor should we — about the large numbers of Democrats and the preponderance of elites on both coasts recoiling from the outcome of the 2016 elections. He can diminish, however, the strength and credibility of that implacable opposition by resisting his propensity to gloat and boast. Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address in March 1801 offers venerable guidance for how to address a nation polarized after an election at least as controversial and rancorous as 2016. Jefferson expressed “his grateful thanks” to the citizens “for the favor which they have been pleased to look toward me,” a task that Jefferson approached “with those anxious and awful presentiments which the greatness of the charge, and the weakness of my powers, so justly inspire.
Reaching out to his opponents, Jefferson proclaimed “we are all Republican; we are all Federalist,” committed to upholding the Union and its “Republican” form. Donald Trump should emulate Jefferson’s humility and magnanimity in a manner fitting to his persona, extending a welcoming hand to all Americans of honor and goodwill.
Yet effusions of good feeling will not suffice to make Trump’s inaugural address memorable. Trump also must take more than several pages from Ronald Reagan’s historic inaugural address of January 1981.
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Reagan inherited an economy and international environment no less bleak than what eight years of Obama bequeathed Trump. Freedom was in retreat, collectivism on the rise. Inflation and interest rates had soared to double-digit levels. Reagan minced no words, telling the American people the United States confronted “an economic affliction of great proportion.” He did not promise a panacea nor succumb to despair. “The economic ills we suffer have come upon us for several decades. They will not go away in days, weeks, and months — but they will go away. They will go away because the American people have the capacity now, as we’ve had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve tomorrow.”
Reagan’s inaugural proposed concrete solutions to address “the crisis we face”: lower taxes; less regulation; a stronger military that had shrunk precipitously while an increasingly belligerent Soviet Union had continued the most massive peacetime military buildup in history. Reagan promised to restore American power and credibility throughout the world that his predecessors had dangerously diminished. He vowed to achieve peace through strength, drawing a clear and credible distinction between friends and foes, freedom and tyranny.
Donald Trump’s inaugural address should echo Reagan’s candor, clarity, and optimism in addressing the difficulties that lie ahead. He should set realistic but hopeful expectations. We cannot restore the credibility and capability of American military power in a day. Obama has shrunk the American military too drastically for that, while our adversaries have accelerated their military buildups. Nor can we cure what ails us economically without time and perseverance to stay the course. Obama’s voracious expansion of the nanny state Obamacare epitomizes accounts for the weakest recovery from a recession in American history.
What Trump can do on Friday is articulate a pro-growth, pro-preparedness agenda that will make America great again.
Since Election Day, trillions of dollars of capital sitting offshore have begun to return now that investors know they will have a president who relies on the private sector to generate wealth instead of Obama’s big government confiscating it. Trump’s inaugural address can build on that momentum. Trump can reiterate his determination to jettison Obamacare, unleash the vast untapped potential for the United States to become the world’s energy superpower, reverse economically stifling regulation, and cut taxes to incentivize creativity and initiative.
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Trump can reiterate his determination to rebuild the American military — a necessary if not sufficient condition for creating what Trump’s new hero Winston Churchill called “a favorable imbalance of power” on behalf of the forces of freedom, keeping at bay the devils in international relations always lurking around the corner, even in the best of times. Trump can reiterate his determination to make it safer again to be a decent democratic ally of the United States and more dangerous again to be an illiberal foe. Trump can assuage raw feelings and shift the burden to his opponent’s by conveying — in Lincoln’s words — goodwill toward all and malice toward none.
Future generations may celebrate Trump’s inaugural if he succeeds. Few will remember what Trump says on Inauguration Day if he fails. All Americans should wish him well.
Robert G. Kaufman is a professor at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy and author of “Dangerous Doctrine: How Obama’s Grand Strategy Weakened America.”