At nearly 3 a.m. on Nov. 9, Donald J. Trump spoke to the world after TV networks declared him the victor in the presidential election. His remarks were short. Trump praised his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. He even reached out to those who had not supported him and asked for their guidance and “help so that we can work together and unify our great country.”
Brief, gracious and unifying – Trump’s acceptance speech might be a perfect template for the inaugural address the Republican will deliver next Friday. Trump spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters Friday to expect the victory remarks’ theme of “uniting and bringing all Americans together,” with a focus on restoring pride in America, American jobs and “the role he sees every American playing in making the country better.”
The Inauguration, however, lacks the element of surprise that often charges Trump productions. When the GOP nominee swept the electoral college, but lost the popular vote with 46 percent of the tally compared to Clinton’s 48 percent, most political observers found themselves on terra incognita as Trump emerged praising his opponent and detractors, in a way that showed a different – read: more presidential – presidential hopeful.
Since that high moment, said Democratic strategist and CNN commentator Maria Cardona, Trump has returned to his Twitter wars and occasional Clinton bashing. “I think he was magnanimous the night he won,” Cardona said, “but that is when the feeling ended.”
Bill Whalen, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, sees a president-elect who takes office with many voters “not liking him and not planning to like him.” The latest Gallup poll reported that only 44 percent of voters approve of Trump’s transition, while 51 percent disapprove. The inauguration provides Trump with a chance to win over skeptics — or drive them further away.
Ken Khachigian, who wrote President Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address, has some advice for the Trump team. Avoid the mistake most speechwriters make when they are working on a president’s first inaugural address – don’t, as Khachigian started to do, “read Lincoln’s inaugural” and then think you “need to write for the ages.”
Leave soaring eloquence for past presidents, Khachigian advised. Trump should not “try to be someone he’s not.”
“I do not expect it to be particularly historically significant,” Whalen said, as few inaugural addresses are. The best course would be for Trump to “very directly declare where he sees America’s standing in the world” and standing on its own. Let Trump save the policy pronouncements for his State of the Union speech on Feb. 21.
“I think it would help him to try to bring a message of unification and calm,” Khachigian said, “not in a groveling, pandering way, but in a straightforward way that shows he’s prepared to work with his counterparts in government and be responsive to the public as well.” Also, Trump has to keep in mind, “it’s not a rally.”
This is where Cardona expects Trump to stumble. “He continues on this very misguided belief that he won and that the people who don’t support him need to get over it,” she said.
Cardona cited Trump’s Cabinet picks – they’re mostly white and male – as indicators that Trump does not recognize the ill will that he has brewed as one of the hurdles he must surmount if he truly wants to unite the country. And: “He think it’s somebody else’s fault that we’re not united.”
The inaugural stage presents unique optics, Whalen observed. Rather than being surrounded by his die-hard boosters as he was election night, Trump will take the Oath of Office below the Capitol, where he will be surrounded by the very people he so brutally vanquished. Former presidents will attend. That means Bill and Hillary Clinton, aka “Crooked Hillary,” will stand nearby, as will George W. Bush, whose brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Trump, Trump destroyed when he labeled him “low energy.”
Also expected are his defeated GOP rivals in the Senate – Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, aka “Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, whose looks Trump mocked, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Long after the campaign ended, Trump continued to trash talk his rivals. At Wednesday’s press conference, Trump quipped that he’d been competing with Graham for years and one day Graham “ is going to crack that 1 percent barrier.” On Friday, Trump tweeted that Hillary Clinton was “guilty as hell.”
There’s a potential, as Cardona put it, that Trump will come across as a “sore winner.”
Add another element – the inauguration also will draw countless protesters and hecklers. Whalen expects Trump to keep his cool this time. “We tend to lose sight of this with Trump,” he noted, “when people overdo it with Trump, Trump gets the better of the exchange.”
Perhaps the same dynamic will work with Democratic House members like Reps. Barbara Lee of California and John Lewis of Georgia who have announced they will boycott the ceremony. The tables have turned. Just last year the Clinton campaign took on Trump for saying the election was “rigged.” “You must accept the outcome,” Clinton’s campaign scolded. For her part, Lee pledged to spend Friday “preparing for the resistance.” Lewis declared that Trump is not “a legitimate president.”
On Friday on the Capitol steps, Donald J. Trump will take the Oath of Office. He will assume office with the sure support of an enthusiastic plurality. But what of the majority of voters who did not support him but want to root for him to succeed? America will learn the answer at noon.