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Donald Trump’s inauguration: Expect the unexpected

Presidential rhetoric scholars are at a loss what to expect from Donald Trump’s inaugural address. But what they do know is that it is likely to be remembered for some time to come, not necessarily because of Trump.

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The eve of inauguration

Inaugural addresses are one of the most traditional, tightly structured and heavily scripted pieces of American oratory. If you think that sounds like anathema to what Donald Trump stood for in his entire campaign and beyond you are right. That's because Trump eschewed scripted speeches in favor of making off-the cuff remarks at his rallies or shooting off curt salvos on Twitter.   

"Trump's previous oratorical performances have suggested he either doesn't know or doesn't care about the conventions of presidential speechmaking as a candidate or now in the inaugural situation”, said Paul Stob, who researches the American rhetorical tradition at  Vanderbilt University.

Stob colleague's Jennifer Mercieca, a political rhetoric expert at Texas A&M University, argues that Trump has not just deliberately flouted traditional political speechmaking - he even built his political appeal around breaking with convention.

Basic requirements

"He has claimed throughout his campaign that he speaks what's on his mind, not what has been scripted or poll tested or written by political consultants”, she said via email. "This claim to authenticity has been his evidence that he isn't a corrupt politician.”

While this approach may have worked for Trump during the campaign, it creates a problem for him when it comes to the inauguration, said Mercieca. "So, how does a person who claims that unscripted speech is the only real truth deliver a scripted speech? And, at the same time, how can a person deliver an unscripted inaugural address?”  

To give a successful inauguration speech, note the scholars, would require that President Trump at least fulfills the three basic requirements for the genre: Describe Americans as a people holding specific values, explain his political principles in a convincing manner and show that he understands the presidential powers he has been given and their limits and is willing to uphold and defend the constitution.      

"Up to now Trump has had difficulty expressing a vision of the nation as one people, he's had difficulty expressing American values, and he has had difficulty convincing Americans that he understands the office the of the president and that he will abide by the limits of the constitution”, said Mercieca.

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No idea what to expect

Given Trump's past behavior, predicting what he will do or say in his inaugural speech is almost impossible. "Honestly, I have no idea what to expect”, said Stob. "I am expecting the unexpected.”

Adds Texas A&M's Mercieca: "Trump does like to keep folks guessing, so maybe there will be something of interest or surprise in the speech.”

What both experts, however, are convinced of, is that it will be very difficult for Trump to reach the goal outlined previously by his team: to unify the country.

Unity is hard to come by

"Trump's appeal to unity will ring false to those Americans who remember his attacks against President Obama for his birth certificate and all of his attacks throughout the campaign and since his election”, said Mercieca.

"It's really going to be very hard for him to pull that off”, concurred Stob.

What is also already clear regardless of how Trump's inauguration speech turns out is that January 20th, 2017 will be remembered for a long time.

Watch video 01:44

"If he fails they will get him out of there"

Historical moment

"It will have a lasting impact in that it marks a very noteworthy time in American political history”, said Stob. "I don't think that this speech will be known because of any of the content or the oratory, it will be known as marking this peculiar transition.”

"I think that the moment itself is important historically, but I'm not sure if Trump will be seen as the cause or the effect”, said Mercieca. "I see this moment as revealing rifts in this nation's orientation toward change.”

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