Donald Trump will take the oath of office today amid historically low approval ratings and a deeply divided country. According to some polls released this week, his approval rating now sits at just 40 percent—lower than it was during the presidential campaign.
Incoming presidents have traditionally enjoyed a boost in public opinion. Even George W. Bush, who in 2000 lost the popular vote and was only declared the winner after a protracted recount in Florida and a ruling by the Supreme Court, came into office with a 62 percent approval rating.
In the weeks since the election, Trump has continued in his divisive ways, lashing out at his critics and the media, from Rep. John Lewis to Meryl Streep to the recent polls. “The same people who did the phony election polls, and were so wrong, are now doing approval rating polls,” he wrote on Twitter. “They are rigged just like before.”
But if he wants to be a successful president, Trump needs to change his tune. He can start with a conciliatory and inclusive inaugural address. In so doing, he would be following the precedent of past presidents-elect who came into office during times of national crisis but used their inaugural address to reach out to the country as a whole, not just the Americans who voted for them. The two most obvious historical examples are Abraham Lincoln and Richard Nixon.
‘We Are Not Enemies, But Friends’
For Lincoln, the stakes could not have been higher. At the time of his inauguration on March 4, 1861, seven states had seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. Lincoln had a delicate task at his first inauguration. In the months since his election, the entire country—and Europe’s major powers—had been waiting for him to announce a policy on secession. Would there be war? Would the North strike first? His predecessor, James Buchanan, had adopted a policy of helplessness: the federal government could do nothing to stop secession except denounce it as illegal.
Lincoln kept silent on the question until he took office. He knew he had to address the question of secession, but believed it was just as important to reach out to his “dissatisfied fellow-countrymen” in the South. Lincoln didn’t want war. He thought ignoring the secession issue, as Buchanan had done, would guarantee it.
After framing secession in defensive terms, saying that the federal government would not use force on the South except to “hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government,” he appealed to his countrymen, closing with these iconic lines:
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Despite his efforts, Lincoln could not avoid the war that came. But he rightly saw his first inaugural address as the proper time to make his case to the South and appeal for peace.
Nixon Criticized ‘Bombastic Rhetoric’
Nixon wasn’t facing a looming civil war, but he was facing an escalating Vietnam War, anti-war protests, and growing racial tension and violence across the country. He won the 1968 election with only 43 percent of the popular vote—less than a percentage point more than his Democratic opponent, incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey. It was a three-way race, with former Alabama Gov. George Wallace winning five southern states and 13.5 percent of the vote.
That didn’t give Nixon much of a mandate coming into office. Yet at his inauguration he appealed to his fellow Americans for unity, invoking Lincoln’s first inaugural. Much of what Nixon said on Inauguration Day in 1969 could be said about America today.
When we listen to the better angels of our nature, we find that they celebrate the simple things, the basic things, such as goodness, decency, love, kindness. To lower our voices would be a simple thing. In these difficult years, America has suffered from a fever of words; from inflated rhetoric that promises more than it can deliver; from angry rhetoric that fans discontents into hatreds; from bombastic rhetoric that postures instead of persuading. We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another.
This was unusual for Nixon, who, like Trump, built up his political base by stoking grievances and appealing to working-class Americans. To some extent, his calls for unity worked. Nixon would go on to win a second term in a landslide.
Trump Needs to Stop Tweeting If He Wants to Govern
This is the template Trump should follow. He might have won an election by dividing and conquering—first the Republicans and then the Democrats—but he’s not going to be able to govern that way. The country is deeply divided. A Pew poll this week found an overwhelming majority of Americans—86 percent—think the country is more politically divided today than it has been in the past.
But none of it will do any good if on Saturday Trump gets on Twitter and lambasts the protestors in Washington. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are expected to participate in the Women’s March on Washington, in addition to other, smaller protests. If Trump is serious about governing, he’ll keep his mouth shut.
In our current political climate, Trump’s duty is to foster national unity. Even if he doesn’t want to, it’s in his own best interest. Sixty-three million Americans voted for Trump because they wanted change. They now expect him to govern, and to govern effectively he’ll need to build a broad base of support among lawmakers and ordinary Americans alike. His inaugural address is a good place to start.