Will Donald Trump Stick The Inaugural Address Script, So To Speak?

Here's what we've come to expect this time-honored tradition

Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Jan 20, 2017 at 8:41 AM ET

The inaugural address is a longstanding tradition of American history, and whether or not President-elect Donald Trump will honor its decorum is pretty much anyone’s guess at this point. As we count down the hours left before Trump is inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States, we reflect on the historical significance of this momentous occasion and what history has taught us to expect of it.

According to Trump transition spokesman Sean Spicer, the theme for his address following a campaign of divisive rhetoric will be, ironically enough, “unity.” Interestingly, the word itself was used in both of Barack Obama’s inauguration speeches, and those of the three presidents preceding him, signaling the possibility of Trump’s deciding to emulate his predecessors (including those he has disparaged so fervently).

Historically, inaugural addresses have centered around themes of optimism, patriotism, and historical reverence. It has been an opportunity for new presidents to reflect on the great responsibility before them with humility and grace, marked by famous quotes like “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” and “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

As the AP noted in the days preceding the inauguration, these are not necessarily known attributes of Trump, whose acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention was decidedly dismal.

“Our Convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation,” he said immediately following his first few moments of self-congratulations. “The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life.”

It was also steeped in the rejection of “political correctness,” and filled with attacks lobbed against Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.

Though he chose to take the high road in his victory speech, Trump has since returned to using the same kind of inflammatory rhetoric that got him elected to begin with. Within the past month, he has called a news organization a “failing pile of garbage,” made a “joke” likening the current state of America to Nazi Germany, insulted the national treasure that is Meryl Streep, and called citizens questioning his relationship with Putin and the Russian government “stupid.”

Given that Trump recently claimed he himself wrote the speech (rather than, say, a speechwriter, as is customary) is it really that hard to imagine him becoming the first president to throw out the word “hater” or “loser” during an inauguration speech?

While it’s quite likely that Trump’s peculiar vocabulary and pet topics will introduce some choice new words to the vernacular of inaugural addresses (just as he did during the debates) one means by which he will likely uphold tradition is in the relative simplicity of how he speaks. Trump’s bizarre manner of speech has been the subject of much linguistic analysis, but for all the high-level thinking that has gone into scrutinizing it, his communication style is incredibly simple. This is something that will likely work to his advantage.

As Vocativ has found in the past, presidential speeches have become less linguistically sophisticated over time, and the same can be said of inaugural addresses according to the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, which accounts for syllables per word and words per sentence. Experts say this shift reflects increased democratization and the need for understandability across the entire American population. When George Washington first took office, he spoke to an audience of his peers. Today, tens of millions of viewers typically tune in to watch the event on television.

Another thing Spicer has said of the speech is that it’s going to be short, roughly 20 minutes in length. Assuming that the Trump team isn’t accounting for moments of expected applause in this estimate, at a standard pace of roughly 150 words per minute, this would mean a 3,000-word speech, a little longer than has been seen in recent years.

Of all past president’s inaugural addresses, William H. Harrison’s was the longest. At over 8,000 words, the speech took almost two hours for him to get out. And it may have literally killed him: That night, he came down with pneumonia after standing in the cold to deliver it, dying 32 days later.