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WVU expert: Trump's unpredictability signals a shift from the norm for inaugural addresses

Inaugural experts

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With the presidential inauguration just days away, a West Virginia University professor notes that President-elect Donald Trump’s frequent refusal to stick to a script could signal something completely different from what the American public has come to expect from presidential inaugurations.

But despite this, Tom Sura, an assistant professor in English specializing in rhetoric and writing, says that Trump may attempt a more unifying approach than he has used in the past — similar to that of former President Ronald Reagan.

“Using ‘we’ instead of ‘I,’ Reagan positioned himself—at least rhetorically speaking—as one of the American people,” Sura said. In Reagan’s inaugural speech, he used the word “we” 56 times and the word “us” 25 times.

“If (Trump) and his writers stick to the Reagan template, we can expect an effort to galvanize a divided American public through a clear narrative that casts the current, or outgoing, government as the villain and that casts the American people as the heroes. We can also expect Trump to position himself within that group of heroes—as one of us.”

Sura can be reached at 304.293.9712 or
Presidential inaugural addresses are momentous occasions that have historically set the course for the country and provided solutions in uncertain times.

According to Carolyn Atkins, a professor and director of Undergraduate Programs in Speech Pathology and Audiology, phrases like “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” from Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” helped shape American society during a tumultuous 20th century.

However, when Trump takes the podium at the US Capitol building to deliver his inaugural address on January 20, he will have a more difficult task than most in conveying a unifying message because many Americans have developed their own perceptions of him.

“Any two listeners can hear the same speech and have different ‘take-aways,’” Atkins said, adding, that especially with regard to content, supporters will likely praise the message and critics condemn it.

“For example, Trump is described by supporters as bold, inspiring, mesmerizing, authentic, honest, sincere, real, outspoken, comedic, relatable, trustworthy and engaging and by critics as inappropriate, bigoted, chauvinistic, inexperienced, disrespectful, vulgar, rude, controversial, unprepared, incoherent, and narcissistic and arrogant.”

Atkins can be reached at 304.293.2361 or

West Virginia University experts can provide commentary, insights and opinions on various news topics. Search for an expert by name, title, area of expertise or college/school/department in the Experts Database at WVU Today.



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