From Ronald to Donald: The Inaugural Speeches of Reagan and Trump

By Jan Gudlowski

By Ronald Rea­gan pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, 1980

“Make Amer­i­ca Great Again.” Again. Despite what the media cov­er­age lead us to fear, the world did not end with the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump as the 45th Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States. No can­di­date in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign was as omnipresent in the pub­lic per­cep­tion as Trump. It has been said that the speech Trump gave on Jan­u­ary 20 did not fore­shad­ow a good pres­i­den­cy; it was aggres­sive, sim­ple, and pop­ulist. But is that real­ly some­thing new?

36 years ago there was anoth­er polar­iz­ing can­di­date, first laughed at until he shot to the top of the polls: Ronald Rea­gan. Few peo­ple then thought he could ever become Pres­i­dent. Nowa­days, how­ev­er, he is con­sid­ered an icon among Repub­li­cans, and many peo­ple across par­ty lines rank him as one of the great­est pres­i­dents in the his­to­ry of the Unit­ed States. Both men are divid­ed by sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences, such as per­son­al­i­ty, humor, or hair­cut. On the oth­er hand, the two old­est pres­i­dents so far share some pro­found sim­i­lar­i­ties, many vis­i­ble when tak­ing a clos­er look at two sig­nif­i­cant media moments: Rea­gan’s 1981 and Trump’s 2017 inau­gur­al addresses.

Trump had not only run on basi­cal­ly the same cam­paign slo­gan as Rea­gan did – “Let’s Make Amer­i­ca Great Again” was intro­duced dur­ing his 1980 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign – but also the top­ics both men cov­ered in their speech­es in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. were sim­i­lar and showed that some issues have not changed over the past 30 years:

After the sworn-in pres­i­dents fol­lowed the tra­di­tions of thank­ing their pre­de­ces­sors for a smooth tran­si­tion of pow­er, the two Wash­ing­ton out­siders demon­strat­ed their low opin­ion of the Wash­ing­ton elites. Rea­gan famous­ly stat­ed that In this present cri­sis, gov­ern­ment is not the solu­tion to our prob­lem; gov­ern­ment is the prob­lem. We’ve been tempt­ed to believe that soci­ety has become too com­plex to be man­aged by self-rule, that gov­ern­ment by an elite group is supe­ri­or to gov­ern­ment for, by, and of the peo­ple. Trump’s speech echoed the same con­cern: Today’s cer­e­mo­ny, how­ev­er, has a very spe­cial mean­ing because, 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 peo­ple.

Both men empha­sized the impor­tance of “the peo­ple” as a whole and inclu­sive­ness as a goal, and both saw them­selves as the mes­sen­gers for those whose voic­es had been ignored in the past: As Rea­gan stat­ed: We hear much of spe­cial inter­est groups. Well, our con­cern must be for a spe­cial inter­est group that has been too long neglect­ed. It knows no sec­tion­al bound­aries or eth­nic and racial divi­sions, and it cross­es polit­i­cal par­ty lines. They are, in short, “We the peo­ple,” this breed called Amer­i­cans. Trump’s words in 2017 are almost iden­ti­cal: What tru­ly mat­ters is not which par­ty con­trols our gov­ern­ment, but whether our gov­ern­ment is con­trolled by the peo­ple. The for­got­ten men and women of our coun­try will be for­got­ten no longer. Every­one is lis­ten­ing to you now. You came by the tens of mil­lions to become part of an his­toric move­ment, the likes of which the world has nev­er seen before. At the cen­ter of this move­ment is a cru­cial con­vic­tion that a nation exists to serve its cit­i­zens. We are one nation and their pain is our pain. Their dreams are our dreams and their suc­cess will be our suc­cess. We share one heart, one home and one glo­ri­ous des­tiny.

The two pres­i­dents also addressed per­ceived for­eign foes, using an almost aggres­sive lan­guage. Here’s what Rea­gan had to say: To those neigh­bors and allies who share our free­dom, we will strength­en our his­toric ties and assure them of our sup­port and firm com­mit­ment. We will match loy­al­ty with loy­al­ty. As for the ene­mies of free­dom, those who are poten­tial adver­saries, they will be remind­ed that peace is the high­est aspi­ra­tion of the Amer­i­can peo­ple. We will nego­ti­ate for it, sac­ri­fice for it; we will not sur­ren­der for it, now or ever.  Stress­ing the impor­tance of a strong com­man­der in chief, Trump also used the same rough lan­guage: We will seek friend­ship and good­will with the nations of the world. We do not seek to impose our way of life on any­one, but rather to let it shine as an exam­ple for every­one to fol­low. We will rein­force old alliances and form new ones — and unite the civ­i­lized world against rad­i­cal Islam­ic ter­ror­ism, which we will erad­i­cate com­plete­ly from the face of the Earth.

Of course, dif­fer­ences also exist between Ronald and Don­ald, which are indeed strik­ing: Rea­gan was called “The Great Com­mu­ni­ca­tor,” pos­si­bly due to his famous call across the Berlin Wall to the leader of the Sovi­et Union, Mikhail Gor­bachev: “Mr. Gor­bachev, tear down this wall.” Based on his cam­paign rhetoric, it is very unlike­ly that “The Don­ald” @realdonaldtrump will ever be giv­en a nick­name such as this. How­ev­er, in his inau­gur­al speech, the angry Trump every now and then fad­ed and turned into a calmer, more appeas­ing human being: So, to all Amer­i­cans in every city near and far, small and large, from moun­tain to moun­tain, from ocean to ocean, hear these words: You will nev­er be ignored again. Your voice, your hopes and your dreams will define our Amer­i­can des­tiny. And your courage and good­ness and love will for­ev­er guide us along the way.

If, against all odds, the new Amer­i­can Pres­i­dent works on his mod­esty, adapts some of Ronald Reagan’s best char­ac­ter traits, and keeps “the peo­ple” in mind and not his own ego – who knows, maybe the world won’t come to an end after all.


Watch the speech­es here:

Reagan’s Inau­gur­al Address:

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Trump’s Inau­gur­al Address:

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Jan Gud­lows­ki is a 26-year-old stu­dent in the Amer­i­can Stud­ies bach­e­lor pro­gram at Hum­boldt Uni­ver­si­ty in Berlin. He loves Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and movies, good ol’ coun­try music, junk food, and flamin­gos. Born and raised in the cap­i­tal of Ger­many, he fell in love with Amer­i­ca ever since his first vis­it 10 years ago, and it still amazes him how this coun­try is able to rein­vent itself again and again. His mot­to: “What a fan­tas­tic time to study in this aca­d­e­m­ic field right now – because one thing is for sure: The com­ing years won’t be boring.”