“Unity” is the hot buzzword for pundits this week when asked to speculate about President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration speech, to be delivered Friday. “Trump To Stress Unity In Inaugural Speech,” read a RealClearPolitics headline. “Donald Trump Aims To Unite The Nation With Inauguration,” read one in US News & World Report. In USA Today, it’s “Trump’s Aim In Inaugural Address: National Unity.” On all the cable news networks, viewers could view debates on whether Trump could succeed in uniting the country with his speech. But few doubt unity is a yardstick by which to judge it.
There is not much to suggest, however, that Trump is approaching this speech with that goal in mind. Even the hints in that direction from the president-elects own staff are far more muted than, for example, previous Trump campaign feints toward a unifying Republican National Convention speech, which turned out to be anything but.
The reasons to expect a unity-oriented inauguration theme are manifest, explaining the punditry’s approach. Most newly elected presidents have wanted to emphasize unity, not only for the good of the country but for pragmatic reasons as well. Broad political support matters in making an agenda a reality, but it’s tough for presidents to get their way with public approval numbers like Trump’s. He approaches his inauguration with historically low approval for a president-elect, suggesting a particular need to reach beyond his loyal supporters with a call for unity, both in tone and content.
All very sensible. But, Trump has previously shunned all sensible opportunities to try the unifying path. Most predicted a “pivot” in that direction after Trump clinched the Republican nomination. If anything, he ratcheted up the “me-or-them” rhetoric. Pundits again anticipated a unity-themed convention speech and were stunned by the divisive, almost dystopian vision Trump presented of a society divided against itself — deadly problems, he warned darkly, that “I alone can fix.”
Even since winning the election, Trump has defied expectations by continuing to lash out against all who differ from him, whether it's CNN reporter Jim Acosta, "Saturday Night Live," fellow Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, or civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis.
If anything, Trump seems increasingly offended by any perceived dissent, lumping them all together equally and attacking back without differentiation or regard for consequences.
This approach has exacerbated divisions, which he then takes as evidence of outrageous disloyalty. His hostile personal Twitter attack on Lewis elevated a barely-noticed fringe demonstration into a headline-generating inauguration boycott by dozens of House Democrats. His wild accusations about the Intelligence Community have led to more damaging leaks and, reportedly, staffing problems. His belittling of senators from his own party may be imperiling the confirmation of his secretary of state nominee, Rex Tillerson. In all these cases, the lesson Trump seems to learn is not to be more unifying but to treat all dissent as a problem to belittle as he did his political opponents.
So why should we expect him to use his inauguration address — by far his most important opportunity yet to convey a message — for anything but a warning to get on board or get out of the way?
That message might be couched in a few gracious phrases about his intent to be president for all people. But I suspect he’ll link those words to declarations that as winner, he has been tasked with shaking up Washington — and the world — in ways that are unique to him and for which he will offer no apology.
The times are a-changin’, but Trump isn’t. If that makes some of the establishment uncomfortable, well, as someone once sang, “Your old road is rapidly agin’. Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand.”