Trump's Dark, America First Inaugural Address Has Strong Historical Parallels

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

Last week we said goodbye to President Obama and dissected the meaning of his farewell address delivered right here in his hometown of Chicago. On Friday, Donald Trump was inaugurated as the nation’s 45th President, and delivered a brief address that has since been dissected by pundits ad nauseum, mostly with deep criticism for its dark tone and lingering campaign flavor.

Donald Trump Rally 10-21-16 (29849627834) As teachers, we owe it to our students to dive deeper. True, Trump’s speech cast a shadow on the state of the country he inherits, and he used it as a contrast for his agenda to “make America great again.” But it is not without historical parallels. Andrew Jackson claimed that his victory in 1828 represented a revolution in that the people took back their government.

Trump struck similar tones in suggesting that “…today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another -- but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.”

And Trump’s “America First” adage has 20th Century connotations, reflective of the isolationism that gripped the country between the First and Second World Wars, and the slogan of Charles Lindbergh that smacked of anti-Semitism.

It was Richard Nixon that spoke for the so-called “silent majority” in 1969, representing a counter-weight to a decade of progress on civil rights and economic equality.

Trump enters office on the heels of eight years of our first African-American president and massive progress on the issue of marriage equality. By contrast, he rallied white working class voters left behind in an era of globalization, speaking to their anxieties and harkening back to more prosperous times. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, characterized his supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” and many of them proudly embraced the moniker.

Trump cast their state, and that of the country as a whole, in dystopian terms:

“But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.”

Beyond a retreat from multilateral trade agreements and military alliances, Trump points to patriotism as the bond that will heal the nation’s seemingly intractable divisions.

“At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.”

Trump is far from the first political leader to wrap himself in the flag, and there is something to be said about introducing young people to a common set of ideals and institutions that define America. But we must also teach them that a “more perfect Union” is not only possible, but imperative.

A new political era is indeed upon us, and as educators we must grapple with its inherent complexities alongside our students. On Wednesday we’ll sort through the growing opposition to President Trump and Republican leadership in Washington. As was true in the historical instances referenced above, its emergence is critical to the continuation of our longstanding experiment with constitutional democracy.

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