Donald Trump’s inauguration has been and gone, but I can confidently claim that we’ve heard it all before. So much so, that I wrote this before bed last night!
A few hours ago, Donald Trump delivered his Inauguration Address. While I write this, I don’t know what he is going to say yet, but I am guessing there will be something about border security, the economy, and fixing problems. I bet the word “great” will feature often as well, together with other superlatives, most of them slightly out of place. Trump’s rhetoric has become a tongue all of its own, something The Guardian called, “Trump-speak, a loose, untutored language form” which “should be taken seriously, but not literally.” I thought it might be interesting to compare Trump’s words with some that have gone before. Not just in America, but in Australia as well. I think the contrast will tell us a lot about what we are dealing with here and what we can expect in the future.
America’s first Presidential Inaugural came from George Washington delivered from the balcony of the Federal Hall in New York City on April 30th, 1789. It was a speech that would not roll off Trump’s tongue easily, because Washington spoke about being “peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies” when the “voice of [his] country called [him].” He also told his listeners that the renounced “every pecuniary compensation” for doing the job of President, which is something I can’t see the host of The Apprentice do either.
There were, however, sentiments in Washington’s address that Trump will undoubtedly have referenced. Americans in general are convinced that they can be, as their first President phrased it, “in humble anticipation of the future blessings” from God, “the great Author” who has “entrusted” them with the “experiment” of creating a free Government which commands the respect of the world. They are, they think, the guardians of “the sacred fire of liberty” and therefore the moral leaders of the world. They inherited this idea from the Puritans and their leader, John Winthrop, who believed that his little band of religious refugees was meant to serve as a model of what community should ideally be. To explain what he meant, he referenced part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”
The closest Australians got was when Ben Chifley referenced “the light on the hill,” but he didn’t use it to preempt world domination; instead it was a description of the workers who had toiled to “bring better conditions to the people.”
This idea of America as “a city on a hill” explains a lot about the country and why it behaves the way it does. America genuinely feels that it is superior to all the other nations in the world, that it is a “nation above nations,” blessed by God, chosen to lead the rest of the world. It thinks it occupies a special place and has a mandate from God to civilize and show the planet how it is done. This exceptionalism, or superiority complex as most of us would like to call it, led to Manifest Destiny, an 1840s idea that allowed for the annexation of the whole of the West of America, “from sea to shining sea.” That they didn’t stop there, we know from many, many instances where the USA has attempted to bring its own particular brand of “liberty and democracy” to countries, if need be through the barrel of a gun.
Australians are less convinced of their exemplary qualities. When Arthur Phillip landed at Port Jackson on the morning of January 26th, 1788, he planted a flag and took possession of the place for Britain. Next, he and a small group of officers got out the booze and toasted the British King, his Queen, the Prince of Wales, and the success of the colony. Then the group gave three cheers, had another drink, and started offloading the livestock. So much for the start of a new country. When Australia became a nation 113 years later, there were no big statements either. On January 1st, 1901, at a party for 60,000 people in Centennial Park in Sydney, the Federal Constitution was proclaimed, a sleep-inducing document about the minutia of the organization of the new Commonwealth of Australia. No stirring words, no glowing descriptions of either the new nation or its people, no Bill of Rights or Preamble even. There were floats by the Italian and Canadian Citizens, though, flags and garlands of flowers, and a slogan, “One People,” at the entrance of the park. But that was it.
Trump’s rhetoric has become a tongue all of its own, something The Guardian called “Trump-speak, a loose, untutored language form” which “should be taken seriously, but not literally.”
A few months later, the Duke of York, the future King George V, opened the temporary Parliament in Melbourne by saying that he hoped that Australia would “prove an instrument for still further promoting the welfare and advancement of [the King’s] subjects in Australia, and for the strengthening and consolidation of his Empire.” Not particularly eloquent either, but much more articulate and moving than the speech by Australia’s first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, delivered in, of all places, Maitland, in 1901. There is not even a real transcription of his address, just some speaking notes. In them, Barton says that he hopes and believes that the “Parliament will not be degraded by vulgarism and disorder.” More a description of the bottom line of what can be achieved, one would say, and not necessarily on par with Thomas Jefferson’s famous words in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Instead, Barton spoke about the rental revenue for the soon-to-be-built permanent Parliament building, gave the accountant’s reports, and talked about the institution of the post office, because “if efficient defense is a prime necessity, so also an efficient working of the posts and telegraphs.” Hear, hear!
The closest Australians ever got to a rousing speech was when Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley himself referenced “the light on the hill” during a Conference of his party. But in contrast to the Americans, he didn’t use it to preempt world domination. Instead, for Chifley it was a description of the workers, the grunt of the labor movement, who had toiled to “bring better conditions to the people.” Nothing highfalutin’ here, and that is exactly the difference between Australia and America. We are a nation of down-to-earth practicalities: we believe in post offices and giving people a leg up. The Americans are convinced of their special compact with what Washington called “the ruler of the Universe, who presides in the Councils of Nations.” Self-confidence and ideals are great, but they can also be deadly and piss off everybody who is not included in your special group. Our only hope now is that the American people remember Jefferson’s advice, that if a government becomes “destructive,” it is “the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it,” for the sake of “their safety and happiness.”