David R. Henderson  

Ominous Inaugural Addresses

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WASHINGTON--President Donald Trump delivered what historians and speechwriters said was one of the most ominous inaugural addresses ever, reinforcing familiar campaign themes of American decline while positioning himself as the protector of the country's "forgotten men and women."

In a speech that his predecessors had famously used to inspire Americans to place country before self and urged them to fear only fear itself, Mr. Trump on Friday described the nation as a landscape of "rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones" and inner cities infested with crime, gangs and drugs.

"The American carnage stops right here and stops right now," Mr. Trump said, using a noun never before uttered in such a speech.

These are the opening three paragraphs of Michael C. Bender, "Trump Strikes a Nationalist Tone," Wall Street Journal, Saturday/Sunday, January 21-22, 2017.

It's hard to evaluate these historians' and speechwriters' claims without seeing their case for their claims. And it's also hard to evaluate their claims without reading, and thinking about, every previous inaugural address, something that I'm unwilling to take the time to do.

I see how it was ominous in some ways. The most ominous part I found in it was this:

We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.

It shows what I've been saying for some time now: Donald Trump does not understand gains from trade. Countries don't "ravage" us by making products that we voluntarily buy. Not to understand that is like not understanding the difference between consensual sex and rape.

The sentence just preceding this part I quote is this:

Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.

If Donald Trump understood trade and immigration, that would not be ominous at all. Because if he made every decision on trade and immigration "to benefit American workers and American families," he would decide to move in the direction of lower tariffs and import restrictions and fewer restrictions on immigration. Remember that "American workers and American families" includes pretty much all Americans, including those who gain from buying cheap imports (which, by the way, is all of us) and those who gain from hiring cheaper labor. The fact of gains from trade and immigration is not controversial in the economics literature. What makes this statement ominous is that Trump doesn't understand trade.

As I said above, I'm not willing to read every past inaugural address. But there are two such addresses that I know best and that I found quite ominous. They are those of John F. Kennedy in 1961 and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933.

First, the ominous part of JFK's address:

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

This was an open-ended commitment to intervene around the world.


And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.

Here's what Milton Friedman said about that, on page 1 of his modern classic, Capitalism and Freedom, published a year later:
It is a striking sign of the temper of our times that the controversy about this passage centered on its origin and not on its content. Neither half of the statement expresses a relation between the citizen and his government that is worthy of the ideals of free men in a free society. The paternalistic "what your government can do for you" implies that the government is the patron, the citizen the ward, a view that is at odds with the free man's belief in his own destiny. The organismic, "what you can do for your country" implies that government is the master or the deity, the citizen, the servant or the votary. To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them. He is proud of a common heritage and loyal to common traditions. But he regards government as a means, an instrumentality, neither a grantor of favors and gifts, nor a master or god to be blindly worshiped and served. He recognizes no national goal except as it is the consensus of the goals that the citizens severally serve. He recognizes no national purpose except as it is the consensus of the purposes for which the citizens severally strive.

Many of the people who cite FDR's speech as one of hope point, quite rightly, to its most famous line:

We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

I wonder how many of them have read the whole thing. Here's the part I found ominous:
It is to be hoped that the normal balance of Executive and legislative authority may be wholly adequate to meet the unprecedented task before us. But it may be that an unprecedented demand and need for undelayed action may call for temporary departure from that normal balance of public procedure.

I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken Nation in the midst of a stricken world may require. These measures, or such other measures as the Congress may build out of its experience and wisdom, I shall seek, within my constitutional authority, to bring to speedy adoption.

But in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis--broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (25 to date)
Syed Ahsan writes:

I think America is strong enough to absorb and sustain the aftershocks but the rest of the world is not. Happy trumponomics America and best of luck the rest of the world.

Will writes:


If one were to take the liberty to assume that the President's public messaging is not the same as the conversations held privately, and further assume that such private conversations can shape his eventual actions,

1) can a 140-character statement (Ok, a tweet, but before last year might have been an elevator speech) provides a singularly pursuasive counter to the President's current take on tariffs?
2) same as above, but on immigration?
3) who "tweets" them such that they provide the intended effect?
4) do you have any confidence that the President's inner circle advisors or nominees share your opinions on tariffs and immigration?

David R. Henderson writes:

1) can a 140-character statement (Ok, a tweet, but before last year might have been an elevator speech) provides a singularly pursuasive counter to the President's current take on tariffs?
I’m not sure what you mean by “singularly persuasive.” I do think a clever tweet could be somewhat persuasive.
2) same as above, but on immigration?
With the earlier caveat, possibly.
3) who "tweets" them such that they provide the intended effect?
I don’t know.
4) do you have any confidence that the President's inner circle advisors or nominees share your opinions on tariffs and immigration?
No. See my earlier post about his trade advisors.

AlanG writes:

I read the annotated speech rather than watch someone whom I find repellent. It was no better nor any worse than a speech assignment for a 10th grade rhetoric class. I have not seen many positive comments in any of the major news outlets. The comments by reliable conservative writers (Gerson, Will, Parker - all in the WaPo) were particularly scathing.

Other than Betsy DeVos who is really not qualified at all most of the Cabinet appointees interesting in terms of not agreeing with some of the Trump approaches. Ross at Commerce will likely lead the trade war effort; Mnunchin's comments particularly about the IRS and tax policy were positive; Price is just an MD who will carry the water for his profession (why did he not instruct his broker to only trade in index funds and not any single stock that could raise a conflict of interest? I think Congressional ethics rules need to be tightened up in that regard). Tillerson is a good man who may be in over his head. Defense and Homeland are good choices. Pruit at EPA is a disaster.

I still believe Trump will not serve a full turn. He has not addressed his business holdings and when he sees Congress may not go along with him he will self-implode. He still does not grasp that only about 35% of the public supports him and even those are tenuous once they see they are losing healthcare.

David R. Henderson writes:

We disagree on a lot, especially DeVos, Price, and Pruitt. Probably best not to bother discussing our disagreements because they don’t have much to do with my post.

Cyril Morong writes:

Said by D. B. Norton in the 1941 movie "Meet John Doe"

""These are daring times, Mr. Barrington. There's a new order of things coming. There's been too much talk going on. Too many concessions being made. What the people need is an iron hand." "Discipline!""

BC writes:

I did not know about the last FDR quote, and I agree that it is quite ominous. If Trump had uttered those words, people would (rightly) be even more alarmed than they already are.

The JFK line, "Let every nation know...", is not necessarily an "open-ended commitment to intervene" everywhere. There is a qualifier, "to assure the survival and the success of liberty." It is a statement that we will engage with allies to defend liberty. If one believes that the purpose of government is to secure liberty, then the statement by itself would not seem to expand government beyond its limited purpose.

The famous "Ask what you can do for your country" line can have many interpretations because "country" itself is ambiguous. "Country" could mean "government", but it could also mean "fellow citizens" and/or "founding ideals".

My impression about Trump's address was that he did not seem to know the difference between a campaign stump speech and an inaugural address.

Glen Smith writes:

In light of what was going on in the world at the time, Kennedy's speech, even just that most famous part, is the most ominous thing a President has said in an inaugural speech. While I might disagree with Trump's problem statement and his solution to it, nothing in it was necessarily scary until one pours their prejudgments in it.

David R. Henderson writes:

If one believes that the purpose of government is to secure liberty, then the statement by itself would not seem to expand government beyond its limited purpose.
True. But if one believes that the purpose of the U.S. government is to defend our liberty and not, say, that of people in Vietnam, it is quite ominous.

Weir writes:

"Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many--and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet. These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable, but no less profound, is a sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights." That's Obama's first inaugural.

Had the word "nagging" ever been uttered in such a speech before? "Crisis" would be pretty common. On the other hand, how many presidents claimed the entire planet was being threatened?

David R. Henderson writes:

Thanks. I had forgotten how negative Obama’s speech was.

BC writes:

"True. But if one believes that the purpose of the U.S. government is to defend our liberty and not, say, that of people in Vietnam, it is quite ominous."

I understand your point, but since the statement does not have an adjective in front of "liberty", I would read it to mean Liberty as a general concept. The survival and success of American liberty requires the survival and success of Liberty.

Note also that it does not say that we will pay any price, bear any burden, etc. *to* support any friend, e.g., to defend the friend's liberty. Rather, "support any friend" is parallel to "pay any price", "bear any burden", etc. Supporting friends is one more thing that we are willing to do, in addition to paying any price, bearing any burden, etc. to assure the survival and success of Liberty. It would be strange to say that we are willing to pay any price to assure the survival of Liberty but not if it required supporting certain friends. Supporting friends would seem to be less costly than paying any price or bearing any burden.

Thaomas writes:

Let's hope nothing much comes of Mr Trump's appalling opinions about economics or at least that the Congress will prevent him from acting on them.

AntiSchiff writes:

Dr. Henderson,

I don't think either the JFK or FDR inaugural passages you point to were ominous. In fact, Khrushchev took Kennedy's inaugural as him speaking from a position of weakness, which is part of the reason he moved forward with the effort to put nukes in Cuba. Don't forget about this line from that great Kennedy speech: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

When it comes to FDR, there was certainly overreach in his administration, such as with the NIRA and court packing threat. However, given the exigency of the crisis he faced, I think approaching relief during the Depression as one would a war was the right thing to do, for both humanitarian and political reasons.

Sure, Milton Friedman taught us that it would have been enough for the Fed to expand the money supply. But, Roosevelt and his government didn't know that then, and even Friedman has defended Roosevelt's aid and make work programs during the Depression. Here he is in his own words:


Friedman obviously lived through the Depression, and saw first-hand the suffering and rise of political extremism on the left and right, not only in the US, but around the world. Friedman only objects to Roosevelt's permanent programs, like Social Security.

I object to the regulation of banking and the investment business due to FDR, and Social Security is a very bad way to ensure retirement security. But, he is a hero for many of the actions he took during the Depression, and I think we owe a lot of the good economic times in the decades that followed World War II to his interventions during the Depression that helped keep the communists and fascists out of government.

David R. Henderson writes:

You missed the point. What was ominous was not that FDR took all kinds of measures to make government bigger. What’s ominous was his threat that if Congress didn’t go along, he would do so.

AntiSchiff writes:

Dr. Henderson,

Yes, I didn't miss your point. I just disagree with it. I am fine with FDR unilaterally expanding executive power during a real emergency, to the degree Congress didn't sufficiently respond to the crisis. There are things far worse than having an FDR overreach during times of great crisis, such as providing opportunities for fascists like Trump to take power.

AntiSchiff writes:

I should go further and say I think there was much wrong with FDR's inaugural address. He effectively demagogued bankers and financial speculators, but I think he believed they really did have much to do with the Depression. He was technically wrong in most of what he said, though the line that "...despite having much at our doorstep, a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply." is the best expression of the paradoxes resulting from falling aggregate demand I've ever heard from a politician.

The point is that good leadership requires that good people overreach with authority during times of crisis, and in absence of an ability to end the actual crisis, demagoging the "money changers" as a profession as Roosevelt did is surely better than Trump's personal demagoguery of immigrants and muslims, for example.

We've seen the results of weak and feckless leadership under Obama, who was detached from the visceral experiences of most Americans. The failure of this relatively decent man to be strong, if not effective, has led to the most indecent man taking office we've ever witnessed in America.

Mark Bahner writes:
Yes, I didn't miss your point. I just disagree with it. I am fine with FDR unilaterally expanding executive power during a real emergency, to the degree Congress didn't sufficiently respond to the crisis.

The guy takes an oath of office to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States"...and then, in his first speech, he warns that he will ignore that oath if things get really bad. That seems pretty ominous to me.

Andrew_FL writes:
But if one believes that the purpose of the U.S. government is to defend our liberty and not, say, that of people in Vietnam, it is quite ominous.

Never let anyone tell you open borders is about believing foreigners have equal rights to Americans.

ColoComment writes:

A different reaction to the inaugural speech. I wonder if the difference derives from selective listening? Or selective thinking?


Roger McKinney writes:
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule
If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.

All from H. L. Mencken at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/h/h_l_mencken.html

Niko Davor writes:

With all respect, I've heard the econlog pro-immigration open borders arguments. I don't find them convincing at all. They are absurd in fact. It seems this site has cleaned house of most of the prior commenter population that didn't agree on the immigration issue. And you guys keep repeating the same arguments.

AntiSchiff writes:

Mark Bahner,

I guess I can see how FDR's mention of assuming extra powers, even without consent of Congress could've seemed ominous to some at the time, but in retrospect, it isn't ominous at all.

And, limits were placed on FDR. For example, NIRA was overturned by the Supreme Court, and his effort to pack/intimidate the Supreme Court was defeated.

Don't get me wrong. FDR's overreach was far from optimal policy. Some of that overreach actually made the Depression worse. Better to have simply gone further with his dollar devaluation.

But, people want strong leadership in times of crisis, especially when faith in institutions has been shaken. Better for generally good people like FDR to meet that demand than Donald Trump. Unfortunately, Obama didn't understand this.

mariorossi writes:

Doesn't FDR explicitely say he will ask Congress for executive power?

He doesn't say he will ignore Congress, but that he is willing to take the decisions (and one would imagine the blame) if Congress is not willing to take decisions itself. It's giving them the option to give him the responsability for the crisis.

Is asking for emergency powers dangerous as well? Even if times of emergency?

As far as the Obama speech, maybe a bit of historical context might be relevant? We were in the middle of the worst recession for a century. Surely some mention of the crisis was relevant? Are you arguing that the current situation in the US is the same? Is 10% unemployment the same as 4.8%?

Jerry Ware writes:

If you receive subsidies or income from the Federal government the speech should concern you.

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