The Inaugural Address of Donald J. Trump: Terministic Screens and the Reemergence of “Make America Great Again”

Jim A. Kuypers, Virginia Tech
Caitlin McDaniel, Virginia Tech


Using Burke’s notion of terminological screens, we perform a cluster analysis on Donald Trump’s inaugural address. We discovered keywords that appeared to point to Trump’s stock campaign phrase, Make America Great Again: we, Washington, D.C., people, you/your, and America. Our analysis seeks to explain how the phrase's rhetorical presence in Trump’s inaugural address opened and closed possibilities for unity and division, and ultimately allowed for an inaugural speech reception on par with prior presidents

On Friday, January 20, 2017, an estimated 31 million viewers tuned in to watch Donald J. Trump’s inauguration as the 45th president of the United States (“Nearly 31 Million”).  His inaugural address, officially titled, “Remarks of President Donald J. Trump—As Prepared for Delivery,”1 was his first opportunity to approach the American people, not as a partisan and contentious political candidate, but as their president for the next four years. There is no doubt that this past presidential election cycle was among the most divisive between the two parties in modern history, especially considering the exchange of words the two presidential candidates had towards one another; President Trump’s inaugural address was an opportunity to put all of the stories, rumors, and his controversial rhetoric as a candidate behind him. Since the founding of the American Republic, presidents have delivered such addresses,2 and because of this tradition, certain characteristics overtime have emerged and coalesced to form generic expectations.  As Lee Siegelman noted, “presidents have become more and more likely to employ language that is accessible to the masses, have invoked more and more unity symbols, and have done more to establish links with traditional American values” (Siegelman 90).3  Inaugural addresses are important because they “commemorate the nation’s past . . . envision its future, and to try to set the tone for the next four years” (Siegelman 81).

During his campaign Trump had one particularly hard worked and controversial stock phrase he used to motivate his supporters and relay his message--Make America Great Again (MAGA). He used this phrase throughout his campaign as a rhetorical touchstone for the changes he wanted to make to the country if elected.  Of note is that even as the phrase’s rhetorical presence runs throughout the inaugural address, Trump used it only once.  The phrase captures the essence of his rhetorical efforts in a campaign that ultimately persuaded over 63 million Americans to support him with their votes.  Trump’s persuasiveness in capturing approximately 46% of all votes cast (Hillary Clinton capturing roughly 48%) bears investigation.  Understanding Make American Great Again, a stock phrase containing the rhetorical essence of his persuasive appeals, is especially important to this goal.  Our purpose, however, is not to understand the term in relation to Trump’s base, but to understand how Trump attempted transition from the term’s initial partisan implications to opening up its meaning to a more inclusive view of America when he became president.  Does the presence of the term open up, in Burkeian terms, possibilities for increased consubtantiality?  Or does it continue to appeal only to a partisan base, thus closing off possibilities for greater unity?

In the pages that follow, we use a form of cluster analysis as a means to discover the rhetorical workings of the phrase Make America Great Again as Trump transitioned from candidate and president-elect to president.  Moreover, through this analysis we discovered that even as Make America Great Again was technically used only once in the inaugural speech, offering a break from the campaign trail and its contentiousness, the terminological screen surrounding the phrase ran strongly throughout the speech, thus offering ideational continuity with Trump’s prior rhetorical efforts.4  For our analysis we first provide a brief history of Trump’s road to the White House that includes a summary explanation about the Make America Great Again phrase associated with Trump and his campaign. We next provide a brief overview of terminological screens and cluster analysis.  We then examine Trump’s inaugural address and offer insights into both the workings of terminological screens and Trump’s use of Make America Great Again. 

Donald J. Trump’s Road to the White House

Trump began his presidential journey on July 16, 2015 when he announced he was running as a potential presidential nominee for the Republican party (Kimble). In the months that followed, he made his stances on issues known through campaign rallies and GOP debates; he eventually won a string of primary races, landing him as the GOP candidate on July 19, 2016, surpassing the minimum 1237 minimum delegate votes required by 204 (Kimble). He continued his journey to the White House through three intense debates with the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton (“Timeline”). Throughout his run as a presidential candidate, he used the Make America Great Again phrase repeatedly, finding it quite attractive to his supporters. Although losing the popular vote (46.2% to 48.1%), Trump won the 2016 election with 306 of 538 electoral votes (“Presidential Election Results”).5

The “Make America Great Again” Campaign Phrase

MAGA hatThrough the phrase Make America Great Again, Trump in part asserts that the current state of America had declined from previous generations, and was in a diminished state at the time of the campaign due to a variety of reasons which he repeatedly stressed during the campaign.6 The slogan quickly caught on, and a signature red hat was created and worn by Trump and many supporters at various rallies across the nation during the campaign season. Far from being a quickly thought up campaign gimmick, the slogan had actually been in Trump’s mind prior to his announcement to run for office; he trademarked the slogan days following Romney’s loss to Barack Obama in 2012 (Engel). What, though, does this phrase mean? In an interview with CSPAN, when asked how he would “make America great again,” Trump explained:

we are going to bring back jobs from China, from Mexico, from all of the places that have just absolutely taken our jobs; we’re just being stripped, we’re being stripped of our jobs, we’re being stripped of our money. We’re going to strengthen our borders, we’re going to build a wall, we’re not going to have people pouring in here, we’re going to change health care, we’re going to take care of our military, we’re going to take care of our vets.  We’re going to make our country potentially better than it has ever been. (“Donald Trump”)

This was not the only time Trump made references to this phrase throughout his campaign. During a campaign speech in Wisconsin in 2016, Trump used the Make America Great Again phrase to end his campaign speech after touching on some of the similar ideals that were suggested in his CSPAN interview. During the rally he stated, “on crime, I am going to support more police in our communities, appoint the best prosecutors and judges in the country, pursue strong enforcement of federal laws, and I am going to break up the gangs, the cartels and criminal syndicates terrorizing our neighborhoods” (“Full Text”). During the same campaign speech, he also mentioned his goal to reestablish law and order in America: “We will once again be a country of law and order, and a country of great success.” He goes on to promise the American people that he will be tough on terrorism when he stated, “to defeat crime and Radical Islamic Terrorism in our country, to win trade in our country, you need tremendous physical and mental strength and stamina. Hillary Clinton doesn’t have that strength and stamina. She cannot win for you.” Trump ties these ideals and his plans regarding a greater America together at the end of this campaign speech when he stated, “Together, We Will Make America Strong Again. We will Make America Safe Again. And We Will Make America Great Again.” This campaign rally was just one of the many references expressing his ideas on what would make America once again great.

In his first speech as the official Republican presidential nominee, Trump established a vision about a less safe America created by previous administrations through focusing in on four specific areas: crime, immigration, the economy, and terrorism (Kuypers, “Presidential Nomination” 144). Through the terministic choices he made during his campaign, starting with his first speech as the official nominee, Trump suggested that America was losing against other nations in trade, and also failing to live up to each generation’s promise to leave a better standard of living to its children.  Of note is that he emphasized the use of the word “we” in these speeches, which acted to enjoin “empowered citizens, as individuals, to work toward success in a resurging America—with Trump as their voice directing a tone deaf Washington to essentially get out of the way so The People can act” (Kuypers, “Presidential Nomination” 150). The themes he focused on in his nomination address, as well as his vision for reinventing America, undergirded future mentions of Make America Great Again throughout his campaign, on election night, and following his victory.  For instance, the month before the election, in an interview with conservative talk show host Sean Hannity, Trump clarified his stock phrase while hinting at those themes once again. This time, however, he used the phrase Make America Great Again and then followed it with reasons why he felt America diminished in its current state: “I can only say we’re going to make America great again. We have so many problems. Our taxes are too high. We’re going to reduce them. Our borders are weak. Our regulations are crazy, drugs are pouring into our country. People are coming into the country that we really shouldn’t have come into the country” (“Interview”). That he associated the phrase with these ideas so late in the campaign suggests a continuity of meaning over time as he used it. Nor did this change after he won the election.

During his first speech as president-elect—his victory speech—he presented similar ideas including fixing the inner cities, taking care of veterans, and fixing America’s economy.6 As president-elect, Trump continued his focus on a unified effort by using “we” instead of “I” when he stated, “Working together, we will begin the urgent task of rebuilding our nation and renewing the American dream” (“Transcript”).  And in a post-victory rally in Youngstown, Ohio, the word “we”rhetorically acted to unite “the people” (Trump supporters and willing moderates) and to stand against the current government state. Trump in that speech asserted, “In America, we don’t worship government” (qtd in Abramson), emphasizing his camp’s belief of why America is different from other nations. He also stated in this same speech, “We are keeping our promises to the people, and yes, we are putting finally, finally we are putting America first.” Also during this rally he focused on asserting how his policies would bring jobs back, allow the rule of the law to be enforced, and restore military readiness.  All of these themes had been central to Trump’s campaign. The continuation of language suggesting how to fix and improve the country as a unified “we” was a theme common within Trump’s rhetoric prior to his first official speech as President.

The use of Make America Great Again continued even after being elected as President.  When discussing an open Senate seat in a “Make America Great Again” rally in Pensacola, Florida, on December 8, 2017, Trump stated, “we need someone in the Senate who will vote for our make America great again agenda, which involves tough on crime, strong on borders, strong on immigration. We want great people coming into our country. Building the wall. Strengthening our military. Continuing our great fight for our veterans” (“President Donald Trump”). These concepts and ideas used when describing this phrase had been consistent throughout his entire campaign, in the moments leading up to his first speech as President, and after.  Before turning to see how this phrase manifested itself in the inaugural address, we first explore the Burkeian concepts of terministic screens and cluster analysis.

Terministic Screens and Cluster Analysis

Kenneth Burke emphasized that our grammatical choices can reveal the meaning behind rhetorical artifacts, and that terministic screens can be used to understand how “what we say we know is filtered through our terms” (Blakesley 95). It is the “capacity  of language (terminology) to encourage us to understand the world in some ways, while filtering (screening) other interpretations out” (McGeough and King 148). The idea behind a terministic screen can be used with the analogy of a photograph, just as the lens of a camera is responsible for creating new perspectives with the same object, a terministic screen filters a view based on the specific terms used. Since terministic screens have that filtering affect, “our attempts to describe or interpret reality are limited initially by the terms available to us, and then further, by which ones we choose” (Blakesley 96).

How we use our language, the choices we make concerning specific words and phrases, shed light on the underlying assumptions that inform our understanding of the world.  When critics examine the choices made by communicators, they can see how key terms coalesce, interact, to form terministic screens.  According to Kenneth Burke, “even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology, it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality” (Burke, Language 45).  There is nothing inherently special about this process; the everyday words we use can show how communicators make some aspects of their reality more salient than others.  Thinking of terministic screens, “whatever terms we use … constitute a … kind of screen [and this screen] directs [our] attention to one field rather than another” (Burke, Language 49).  This directing action is an inducement of sorts, strong or weak, to see the world in a particular fashion.  These screens are also “indicative of the internal thinking of the communicator [for the nature] of our terms affects the nature of our observations, in the sense that the terms direct the attention to one field rather than to another. Also, many of the ‘observations’ are but implications of the particular terminology in terms of which the observations are made” (Burke, Language 46).  

From a dramatistic point of view, such screens work in the service of either continuity or discontinuity, depending upon the person uttering them and the audience receiving them.  For Burke, there are “terms that put things together, and terms that take things apart” (Burke, Language 49).  In other words, terministic screens can also act toward composition and division, since all “terminologies must implicitly or explicitly embody choices between the principle of continuity and the principle of discontinuity”(Burke, Language 50).

With this in mind, we can examine Trump’s inaugural address to see how his language choices “open up possibilities for unity, for consubstantial co-existence even while representing different political views . . . or, alternatively, we see how [his] terms diminish the strength of a consubstantial moment by stressing division” (Kuypers, “January 1832”).  Lawrence Prelli and Terri S. Winters made a cogent observation on this point, that the “notion of terministic screens enables us to scrutinize how efforts to come to terms with problematic situations often involve similarities and differences about what meanings to reveal and conceal, disclose and foreclose.  At stake in efforts to ‘screen’ meanings terminologically is the adequacy of underlying perspectives in depicting a situation’s reality” (226).  Of course, Burke noted that “much that we take as observations about ‘reality’ may be but the spinning out of possibilities implicit in our particular choice of terms” (Burke, Language 46), and it is here that Paul Stob observed that terministic screens “speak to the point at which language and experience move together.  They emphasize the way that terms push us into various channels and fields, which continually shape and reshape our vision and expression” (146).  As Jim A. Kuypers wrote, terministic screens allow

us to infer the various means whereby identification occurs, so we can see how they open up or close down possibilities for consubstantiality.  Burke ascribed a strong influence to terminological screens; not so much in the sense of once uttered that they impose or compel a particular way of viewing the world, but rather they are indicative of the internal thinking of the communicator.  These screens potentially have an influence upon those hearing the discourse. . . .  (Kuypers, “January 1832”)

The practical implication for such an understanding is highlighted by Sarah N. Heiss: “Rhetors’ word choices reflect, select, and deflect particular understandings of the world. In sharing that understanding, they create the communicative possibility for an audience to develop, alter, or extinguish their understanding of that same topic. In turn, rhetoric serves to influence how audiences will then experience and share their world with others” (538).

It is important to note that there are different methods though which we can examine terministic screens to look for worldviews and new meanings. According to David Blakesley, “Burke suggests that we develop methods for choosing terminologies, for elaborating their scope and circumference, and for complementing our choice of terminologies with others that might encourage alternative perspectives or express new relationships” (97). One way critics can discover this range of meanings is through the use of a cluster analysis. Using cluster analysis, a critic can develop an idea about the rhetor’s thoughts and intentions by looking at keywords located throughout the discourse. Blakesley described this type of analysis as “a much-practiced form of dramatistic analysis that reveals the repetitive nature of a writer’s associational (and terminological) logic” (103).

Cluster Analysis

It is well-known that Kenneth Burke viewed rhetoric dramatistically, and that fruitful analysis can be had “via a methodical inquiry into cycles or clusters of terms and their functions” (Burke, “Dramatism” 445).  According to Adriana Angel and Benjamin Bates, “terministic screens are vocabularies or lenses that speakers use to define and understand the world, [and] the method of cluster analysis allows researchers to study the way in which those terms group, relate, and distinguish from others.” The process of cluster analysis often involves examining common themes associated with keywords found within a rhetorical artifact, and figuring out how each cluster compares to another in order to “understand in what ways a writer’s work is an answer to his or her situation, and importantly, whether it is an answer with which we might identify” (Blakesley 104). Once the keywords are identified, a critic can map the language surrounding these keywords to form an interpretation about what is meant and how terms form the overall theme of the rhetor’s work. Doing this can map common themes among certain keywords that form relationships with others and how “these formal relationships express a logic rooted in the writer’s psychology” (Blakesley 104).

Cluster criticism is amenable to different forms of analysis. For instance, it may be used to examine one specific word and meanings behind that one word. Angel and Bates used this type of analysis in their critique of Columbian radio conversations surrounding the word “corruption.” Their analysis consisted of four steps. First, they focused on the terms that “guided the consecutive search for other terms” (Angel and Bates), meaning they found main terms that radio hosts used when they defined or described the term corruption. Second, they examined the radio talk surrounding corruption by identifying terms used by the speakers when referring to corruption. Third, they identified clusters of terms that showed patterns of meaning, which were based on similar ideas that speakers use when referring to corruption. Finally, they determined the rhetor’s motives behind the meanings associated with key terms.

Although cluster criticism can be used to look at one word and meanings associated with that one word, it can also be used to examine meaning behind multiple key words and their role in various contexts by examining multiple artifacts. Robert S. Littlefield and Andrea M. Quenette used this method in looking at media portrayals of authority figures within two different news outlets. They specifically compared different media outlets and their interpretations of authority, specifically in natural disasters to evaluate how media outlets interpret authority figures during a time of crisis.  They sought to understand whether or not the personality or actions of those authority figures were perceived positively or negatively within each newspaper based on the clusters surrounding the key words they were examining, and whether or not this  helped explain media framing of events in society. They identified mentions of authority figures in the two publications they examined and found five common authority-related key words to examine. Once they found these words they looked to the two outlets to determine how the newspapers portrayed these authority figures, based on clusters of words surrounding them, in either a positive or a negative light.

Cluster analysis can be applied in other ways in addition to the two we have provided here, such as using the method in conjunction with others, to analyze political rhetoric from prominent leaders. Daniel S. Brown and Matthew A. Morrow, for example, used a variety of rhetorical strategies including Burke’s cluster analysis, Weaver’s concept of ultimate terms, and the examination of Biblical metaphors to analyze Margaret Thatcher’s “Sermon on the Mound” speech. They conducted this analysis after discovering the criticisms behind the speech which referred to it as “a failed attempt to garner support and move her listeners toward her viewpoint” (Brown and Morrow 45). Brown and Morrow analyzed the work of Thatcher first through her use of “Ultimate Terms,” or more specifically, “god terms” and “devil terms” to determine how combining her perspective on both religion and politics may have affected her intended audience. Once they established the “god” and “devil” terms to examine, they examined ideas clustering around the god term of “Christianity” and the devil term of “politics” to analyze the speech to determine its meaning. This cluster analysis was then followed by an analysis of a Biblical metaphor Thatcher used in her speech. Through conducting this analysis, they discovered that “the effect of her sermon was considerably less than a resounding success because of her misuse of Ultimate Terms and unfortunate choice of biblical metaphor” (Brown and Morrow 52). As evident through this example, cluster analysis can be used with other rhetorical strategies to examine and provide an explanation for why certain ideals expressed by a rhetor of an artifact may not always be effective or appropriate in reaching the intended audience, and how expressing certain worldviews through word choice can affect how others perceive the meaning of the artifact.

Now that we have discussed the perspective of cluster analysis and the basic themes surrounding the Make America Great Again phrase used by Trump prior to being sworn in as president, we analyze through a cluster analysis how key words presented in his inaugural address act to constitute the phrase Make America Great Again.  We seek to discover how he used specific terms to reflect on past administrations, describe the condition of the country, and invent the future under a new Trump administration.  Additionally, we seek to understand what potential such screens held for helping or hindering the creation of a uniting vision for the country and shifting power from the politicians in Washington and returning it to “the people.”

Analysis of the Keywords

Trump’s inaugural address lasted approximately 15 minutes and contained 1433 words, which made it the second shortest inaugural address in presidential history (Rossman).


During the campaign, Trump was dissimilar both to most of the other 16 potential Republican nominees and to his eventual presidential opponent, Hilary Clinton. He had not served any terms in local, state, or national government prior to his current role as president. Instead, his world was that of business. During his campaign he stressed the phrase Make America Great Again, and our concern here is to discover how this term appears in his inaugural address.  Although Make America Great Again appears only at the end of his speech, clusters of terms exist throughout the speech that suggests a strong rhetorical presence of the term.  To investigate its terminological presence, we engage in an inductive cluster analysis of the phrase Make America Great Again, looking for terms that surround and inform its presence in the speech.

After reviewing the speech in both text and video form, we discovered keywords that, taking both frequency and emphasis into account, appeared to point to Make America Great Again: “we,” “Washington, D.C.,” “people,” “you/your,” and “America.” We analyzed and evaluated the  cluster of words surrounding these keywords; in doing so, we were able to demonstrate how the groupings surrounding those key terms lended themselves to reveal the inner workings of the Make America Great Again phrase. To begin, we examine the use of the word “we.”


“We” was among the most prevalent terms used in the address.  Trump used this word to share his vision of unity among Americans to create an “our” shared vision instead of a “my” (Trump’s) vision for the country. His first line of the inaugural address begins with the common theme expressed in his other rhetoric: a group effort is necessary to fix the country. He stated, “We, the citizens of America, are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country and to restore its promise for all of our people.” The first cluster of words surrounding the first use of we, (rebuild and restore), are those of promise and unity, and he used these words to exhibit potential change in America. In that first line, he continues to emphasize the group effort that will take place under his administration to change Washington, D.C. instead of emphasizing how his individual administration will enact the change. Seemingly, all actions that will be taken under a Trump administration are constructed as a “we” not “I.”

The word “we” was used to serve as an exhibition of what the American people will be doing during a Trump administration. He used this word to recognize the transfer of power from the past administration to a present, unified we, and how this we would be changing the course of America: “We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power.” Other words Trump used within the context of  we throughout the address were positive words such as: citizens, restore, rebuild, grateful, one nation, share, friendship, goodwill, rediscover, stand, one heart, one home, one destiny, and protect. These words were used by Trump to attempt inclusivity and deliver his promises about transferring power from the government back to the people, and focusing on returning America to a strong and safe state. In this manner, the slogan Make America Great Again entails a group effort, because “we share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny” according to Trump.

Washington, D.C.

Toward the beginning of his inaugural address, Trump focused on the negativity in the country caused by actions of those running the Federal Government. Words that surrounded and that were associated with “Washington, D.C.” included politicians, small group, prospered, power, reaped rewards, flourished, protected, victorious, and celebrated. These words framed Washington, D.C. under past administrations—Democrat and Republican—negatively by demonstrating how the Capitol region and those who worked the system benefited in the past; this is the “establishment,” the problem to be corrected.

Trump stated: “For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished – but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered – but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s Capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.” By discussing the Capitol and those politicians associated with running Washington, D.C., Trump painted a picture in which Washington, D.C. ruled the people, and that the small group associated with it benefitted and thrived, while the people did not. Instead, they suffered while the Washington, D.C. establishment benefitted, which shows evidence of the presence of negative aspects of this terminological screen. His word choice surrounding the keyword of “people” further extends this negative view of the suffering that took place in a corrupt Washington; the people suffered under old administrations, but will succeed and be protected under Trump’s new vision of America.


As mentioned above, “the people” are closely linked with Washington, D.C.  There is a clear shift in the speech regarding the people of America; this takes place right after Trump’s shift from America’s past into the present. The people have been hurt by Washington, D.C.:

Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.  For many decades, [Washington, D.C.] has enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry….  [It has] Subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military; defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own; and spent trillions of dollars overseas while America's infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. [It has] made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon….

There are both negative and positive keywords associated with the term “people.” The negative words surrounding “people” are associated with the negative actions of the establishment politicians associated with the politicians in the capitol of Washington, D.C.  The people here are associated with a negative experience, emphasizing the people suffered and did not share in the “wealth” and “bore the cost” of the establishment politicians and their actions.  Trump’s rhetoric then shifts from a focus on past administrations to a future embracing the changes that would be made under his administration; here we see the beginnings of a shift between negative words surrounding the keyword people into more positive clusters of words, which is evident when Trump stated, “January 20th, 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”

This arrangement between negative clusters being in close proximity to positive clusters surrounding the words referring to Washington, D.C. makes this a pivotal cluster term, one that is both past and future cause for the American scene.  The past/present Washington, D.C. acting upon the people is now to be replaced with a positive future: “That all changes right here, and right now, because this moment belongs to you.” Those positive words surrounding “people” throughout this speech include: rulers again, government controlled by, off of welfare, back to work, live together, good, and pleasant.


Not only did President Trump repeatedly refer to those watching and those who voted as the people, but made it more personal by using the second person, using the words “you” and “your,” and by referring to January 20th as “your day,” and stating that “This is your celebration. And this the United States of America is your country.” Once again, there were clusters of both negative and positive words surrounding the use of you/your. The majority of the words surrounding “you” emphasized the power of individuals to make changes under the new administration. Positive words that clustered around the keywords in second person include: moment, belongs, define, day, celebration, country, part of movement, ignored, voice hopes, dreams, courage, goodness, and love. Negative clusters surrounding you/your include: ignored, not victories, not triumphs. Just like the other negative clusters surrounding the key words, the majority of the negative words surrounding you/your are found in the beginning of his speech following his discussion of establishment politicians and the Capitol. In the past, “you” suffered, but this will no longer be the case under the new administration.

The positive clusters associated with you/your, just like other positive clusters from other keywords, come once the president began talking about the future state of the nation. Trump used the first positive cluster to detail who made the Make America Great Again movement to the White House possible. The first use after the transition of the word your from past to future, focused on positive words such as, “celebration, day, country, everyone listening.” He used the second person to illustrate changes that “you” will see how the power takes a shift from “them” (the establishment) back to “you,” in this case, the American people. The repetition of the word “your” seemed to be used to create a personal connection to voters, attempting to assure both supporters and non-supporters alike that a Trump White House would benefit them, just as promised: “Your voice, your hopes, and your dreams, will define our American destiny. Your courage and goodness and love will forever guide us along the way.” The fight to restore power from Washington, D.C. back to the people to which Trump alluded would not be won by him alone, but with the help of “you,” the people watching and the people who elected him.  We see at the end of the speech the clear switch from the initial clusters of negative terms to positive associations with Make American Great Again: “We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action—constantly complaining but never doing anything about it.  The time for empty talk is over.  Now arrives the hour of action.  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.”


Throughout his campaign, Trump attempted to create an image of a “greater America,” where illegal immigration would be minimized, where jobs would be recreated, and where “the people,” and not the establishment, would be the first priority. In his speech these policies emerged, most clustering around the word “America.” Except in a few areas, this word was expressed mainly in positive terms throughout the speech: united, unstoppable, wealthy, proud, safe, heart, fight, spirit, your country, oath of allegiance, first, great, and winning. There were, however, a few negative words surrounding “America”: carnage, left behind, fallen infrastructure, and expense. Once again, the negative connotations are associated with the actions by the Washington, D.C. establishment the President discussed early in his speech (and throughout the entirety of his campaign). We also see those themes involving bringing back jobs to America and Trump’s claim to make America safe again by fixing immigration policies, which were two items he referred to when using the Make America Great Again slogan in prior speeches and interviews (“Donald Trump”).

Although initially the term America had a few negative clusters of terms associated with it, once Trump shifted from the “they” of D.C. establishment to the “we” of the people, the cluster of terms surrounding America became positive and more pronounced.  The positive connotations focused on what would occur if “the people” became united, on how the country would achieve greatness again. Under his administration, Trump promised that “we will make America strong again, we will make America wealthy again, we will make America proud again, we will make America safe again and yes, together, we will Make America Great Again.”


Although stated explicitly once only, the terminological resources of Make America Great Again run strong throughout Trump’s address. Certainly cluster analysis can be used to find a rhetor’s thoughts and intentions, and can be used also to show a pattern of continuation of prior rhetorical elements in later works by the same rhetor.7 Through our analysis of key words and phrases emphasized by Trump during both the delivery of the speech and in the speech’s transcript we discovered the presence of Make America Great Again through the identification and examination of clusters surrounding the five key terms: We, Washington, D.C., People, You/Your, and America.

In doing this, we discovered how Trump used his inaugural address as an opportunity to highlight his plans for change to the United States through the comparison of his view of past/present America with a future of the country under his presidency, one he stressed in his speech to be created by all citizens. Through the comparison between clusters around the key words we identified, and the shifts between Trump’s language when referring to the past and future of America, we were able to identify in particular why it was important for Trump to reform Washington, D.C. and how he relayed he would act with all people to create a better America. In his address, he first identified those actions that contributed to the tainted condition of Washington, D.C. and why it needed to be changed, using the speech as an opportunity to foreshadow future policy changes. We found here that the key terms pointing to his phrase of Make America Great Again were used in both a negative and positive manner. Negativity appeared when Trump referred to actions in the past, while key terms were used more positively when describing the future of America. For example, one of the key terms, “we,” acts as a pivot term, one that demonstrates both the people as hurt by Washington, D.C. (for instance, “We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon”) and the people that can come together now to “make America great again” (for example, “We will bring back our jobs.  We will bring back our borders.  We will bring back our wealth.  And we will bring back our dreams”). This repetitive use of we acted to demonstrate Trump’s belief that in both the past and in the present, Americans were suffering as a result of the current state of Washington; that Americans were being negatively impacted by the actions of establishment political figures, and were losing jobs to other countries. However, the use of we also made evident that for Trump, under his new administration, Americans would benefit, and all would have a part and a voice in a better America. This use of we showed at a minimum Trump verbalizing a potentially inclusive element, and that the promises he made in his campaign were to be achieved through a group effort, showing to those who voted and those who were skeptical that he intended keep his campaign promises and address the flaws he identified in the system.8

The suffering of which Trump spoke appeared throughout his speech, but especially near the key term of Washington, D.C. and those terms surrounding it. Washington, D.C. was used as the term of comparison between past and present; in a sense, another pivot term.  Through the clusters of words surrounding it, Trump described Washington, D.C. as a cause of a decaying America. This focus on the negative America was experiencing may have been an attempt to reach those who doubted his intentions in taking office.  For Trump, festering issues such as immigration, crime, the economy, and political corruption were harming the American people: “For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidized the armies of other countries while refusing to defend our own; and spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.”  During his campaign he identified flaws in the system and, in his address, he relisted those flaws, thus offering continuity with previous messages.

Part of this effort involved Trump pointing out the reasons why “the people” were weary with the government, emphasizing how “you,” the voters, led the Make America Great Again movement by taking action into “your” own hands.  “You” suffered in the past, Trump asserted, so “you” voted for change. Recognizing this in his address Trump stated, “you came by tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before.” In the physical delivery of his speech, he took special pains to emphasize “our” several times with reference to all Americans and “our” country.  He also emphasized “you” as in “the people.” Throughout his address Trump acknowledged the work of the American people and how they brought change to the country and how the people would take part in “a great national effort to rebuild our country and to restore its promise to for all of our people.”

Addressing “the people” directly was important to Trump as evident in both the written version and in his delivery of the address. Successful or not, he expressed a sentiment to unite all Americans, those who voted for him and those who did not, and again exhibited his intentions to keep the promises he made during his campaign. From the start of the speech until its conclusion, “the people,” as he conceived them, even those who doubted or opposed him, were the heart of the speech. As such, power would be restored to “the people,” policies would be changed, and as a united country, “we,” not Trump alone, would Make America Great Again: “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.  When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” With this emphasis on coming together as one, concluding his speech, Trump asserted: “Together, We Will Make America Strong Again. We Will Make America Wealthy Again. We Will Make America Proud Again. We Will Make America Safe Again. And, Yes, Together, We Will Make America Great Again.”

Clearly we see the presence of Make American Great Again throughout the speech.  Moreover, we see how terminological screens can work, tapping into circumstances, generic expectations, and the prior knowledge of the audience.  Because many in the audience had closely followed Trump during the campaign, they were familiar with the terms and themes generally used when Trump mentioned Make America Great Again, thus even without even saying it, terms were able to form a screen that pointed to its ultimate use in the conclusion of his address.

As expressed by Burke, the word choices made by speakers do select, deflect, and reflect their understandings of the world. Along these lines, Heiss suggested that when speakers shared such understandings that they “create the communicative possibility for an audience to develop, alter, or extinguish their understanding of that same topic” (536). Certainly we see in Trump’s speech a particular reality expressed, one advanced by Trump both in the campaign and in his inaugural address. Importantly, we can see how Trump was able to verbally express a desire to work with the opposition while at the same time maintaining the meaning behind his campaign and thus not alienating his base.  Although Make America Great Again is a contested phrase, we are inclined to believe that Trump’s terministic screens filtering audience perception toward its ultimate use at the end of the speech did allow at least for some possibilities of a more inclusive understanding of the term than that suggested on the campaign trail.

Such possibilities are part of inaugural addresses,9 and for Trump, such possibilities take on even greater importance.  His divisiveness as an incoming president is unprecedented in contemporary memory, and he delivered his address with the lowest initial job approval rating since such records were kept.  According to Gallup: “Trump is the first elected president in Gallup's polling history to receive an initial job approval rating below the majority level. He starts his term in office with 45% of Americans approving of the way he is handling his new job, 45% disapproving and 10% yet to form an opinion” (Saad).  Such a handicap for his first major speech as president underscores the potential power of his terministic screens when audience feedback of his speech is examined.  Although we have shown theoretically through our critique ways that Trump’s speech opened up possibilities “for unity, for consubstantial co-existence even while representing different political views” (Kuypers, “January 1832”), discovering its effect in reality is difficult to measure; however, polls taken after the speech do suggest that America was uncertain about how his speech solicited unity or promoted division. Rasmussen, for example, found that a small percentage more of “voters thought President … Trump's inaugural address … more likely to drive Americans further apart (38 percent) than it is to bring them together (36 percent), [with] twenty-one percent saying it would have no impact” (Freeman).  Other polls, however, showed his speech with rather strong approval numbers when comparatively viewed.  For instance, Politico found that “49 percent of those who watched or heard about the speech [said] it was excellent or good, and just 39 percent rat[ed] it as only fair or poor. Fifty-one percent of voters described the speech as 'optimistic,' 46 percent of respondents [said] the speech was 'presidential,' and 44 percent [said] it was 'inspiring…’” (Sherman).  Moreover, sixty-five “percent of those surveyed reacted positively to the ‘America First’ message, the cornerstone of the Trump campaign and governing posture” (Sherman). Rassmussen also found that 52% of likely voters agreed with Trump’s use of America first in his speech, with 37% disagreeing (“Voters Agree”).

Although split concerning the unifying or dividing qualities of the speech, Gallup found that “Americans' reactions to the inaugural ceremonies for Donald Trump were more positive than negative. Thirty-nine percent say they are more hopeful about the next four years based on what they saw, heard or read about Friday's inauguration, 30% are less hopeful, and 30% say what they heard or read made no difference” (Jones). Of note here is that these results are “similar to what Gallup measured for George W. Bush's and Barack Obama's second inaugurations, but much less positive than it was for Obama's first” (Jones).

Certainly Trump’s terministic screens were composed of language accessible to the masses.  Perhaps he could have incorporated more unity symbols, but with polling suggesting that American response to his speech is similar to other inaugural addresses, given by presidents from both parties, and who were viewed as considerably less divisive, something other is operating here.  As Siegelman suggests, inaugural addresses are important because they “commemorate the nation’s past . . . envision its future, and to try to set the tone for the next four years” (81). Trump did meet those generic expectations, and though denounced by political elites and the mainstream American press,10 his Make America Great Again theme resonated with his audience enough to overcome his dismal initial approval rating to produce a speech generally on par with other presidential inaugural addresses.


An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Southern States Communication Association Convention, Montgomery, 2019.


1. Unless otherwise noted, quotations of Donald Trump are taken from “Remarks of President Donald J. Trump-As Prepared for Delivery.”

2. Most of these speeches can be found at the Avalon Project at Yale University:

3. See, too, for generic characteristics, Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, “Inaugurating the Presidency,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 15, no. 2, 1985, p. 396, and Tammy R. Vigil, “George W. Bush’s First Three Inaugural Addresses: Testing the Utility of the Inaugural Genre,” Southern Communication Journal, vol. 78, no. 5, 2013, pp. 427–46.

4. Emma Frances Bloomfield and Gabriela Tscholl have suggested there is an enthymematic dimension to this term’s use.  See, “Analyzing Warrants and Worldviews in the Rhetoric of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton: Burke and Argumentation in the 2016 Presidential Election,” KB Journal, vol. 13, no. 2, 2018.

5. Ultimately, Trump lost 2 and Clinton 5 electoral votes due to faithless electors.

6. This is something noted by other scholars, who also note the lack of this in the Hillary Clinton Campaign.  See, for instance, Stephanie A. Martin and Andrea J. Terry, “Social Media Candidate Attacks and Hillary Clinton’s Failed Narrative in the 2016 Presidential Campaign,” The 2016 American Presidential Campaign and the News Media: Implications for the American Republic and Democracy, edited by Jim A. Kuypers, Lexington Books, 2018.

7. This is not dissimilar to detecting the presence of a “rhetorical signature.”

8. See “Trump-O-Meter: Tracking Trump's Campaign Promises,” to make an assessment of Trump’s promise keeping.  One interesting feature of Politifact’s site is that it assigns “stalled” as a judgmental category, taking into account situations all presidents must face that could impact promise keeping.

9. See Siegelman; Campbell and Jamieson; and Vigil, for examples.

10. See Mediaite for examples: Justin Baragona, “He’s Kidding, Right? Trump Thanks Media For ‘GREAT’ Reviews of Inauguration Speech,” Mediaite, January 21, 2017,

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