We measured the content of every inaugural address dating back to George Washington to find out how the country’s newest president would stack up against his forefathers — at least, as far as leadership communication is concerned.
Donald Trump loves violating the conventional rules of politics and communication. After all, the one consistency throughout his campaign was surprise. So, in the weeks leading up to his inauguration, we were eager to see how #45 would compare to his predecessors in his first address as President of the United States.
While we collected scores on over 30 different metrics, we found one particularly fascinating trend in our analysis of past presidents:
With a few exceptions, engaging language didn’t play much of a role in inaugural addresses until the mid-20th century.
And then it took off.
The New "Politics-as-Entertainment" Imperative
So why the rise in engaging language? According to Mark McKinnon, chief strategy and media advisor to a former US president, and producer of the Showtime hit “The Circus,” these days we choose our leaders based on their stories. Political rhetoric, McKinnon says, is no longer about policy, credibility, or qualification. People connect with candidates, McKinnon says, the same way they connect with books and movies; they simply won’t buy in unless they feel that emotional connection.
So we measure engagement by the emotionally charged, sensory language that helps readers visualize the message and feel intimately connected with its outcome.
Consistently Scoring in the 90th Percentile of Speakers, Trump Has Mastered the Art of Engagement
Throughout his campaign, Trump used engaging language in spades, scoring in the top 10 percent in all but two of his key campaign events. And that aspect of his communication went a long way in helping him win the election.
As early as the initial Republican primary debates, Trump was capitalizing on that emotionally charged language to fire up his audiences.
“We are not talking about isolation. We're talking about security. We're not talking about religion. We're talking about security. Our country is out of control. People are pouring across the southern border. I will build a wall. It will be a great wall. People will not come in unless they come in legally. Drugs will not pour through that wall.”
- Republican Primary Debate, December 15, 2015
We know from research that negative language is highly engaging. And Trump has consistently painted a horrifying picture of society’s current state.
In fact, some of his most engaging moments have also been his most disparaging, as we saw in his second debate against Clinton:
“You know, when we have a world where you have ISIS chopping off heads, where you have — and, frankly, drowning people in steel cages, where you have wars and horrible, horrible sights all over, where you have so many bad things happening, this is like medieval times. We haven't seen anything like this, the carnage all over the world. And they look and they see.”
- 2nd General Election Debate, October 9, 2016
In His Inaugural Address, Trump Kept Up the Engagement — and the Gloom
On Friday, Trump continued to use that same emotionally charged language and dramatic imagery, delivering remarks that were 6.2% more engaging than Obama’s 2013 Inaugural Address.
But there’s another difference. As executive communication expert Dr. Maegan Stephens noted, Trump’s address diverged from historical inaugural addresses in its divisive, antagonistic tone.
“His remarks likely resonated with his base,” said Dr. Stephens, “but they did little to build a sense of community across the aisle or with our allies.”
While President Obama’s engaging moments were celebratory, Trump was again at his most riveting when he was painting a visceral image of devastation in America. Compare these passages from Obama’s second Inaugural Address, and Trump’s first:
“Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional — what makes us American — is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago.”
- Barack Obama, 2013
“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 all knowledge. And the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now. We are one nation, and their pain is our pain.”
- Donald Trump, 2017
Trump’s address was less a victory celebration and more a continuation of his campaign, as he rang in his presidency with the same fear he built his platform on.
Moving Forward as a Unified Nation
This election season was ugly — there’s no way to soften that. And, whether you’re celebrating today or not, it’s time to focus on bridging the divide.
After all, Trump himself encouraged unification in November’s victory address:
“Now it is time for America to bind the wounds of division, have to get together, to all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people. It is time. I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all of Americans, and this is so important to me.”
Our 45th president made a lot of promises over the course of his campaign, but this is the one we must hold him to — and help him uphold.
To find out how QC can use our communication analytics platform to help your leadership deliver best-in-class messaging, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.