“L’état, c’est moi.”
In my blog a couple weeks ago I alluded to writing a post exploring Trump’s use of the Royal “We” in his inauguration speech. And even though we’re all exhausted from the non-stop flurry of news over his every tweet, phone call, and administrative faux-pas, I’ve finally rallied myself to do this post.
Now before we begin, a caveat: it is impossible for me to write this with 100% objectivity. It would be impossible for anyone to do so. Our interpretations are always informed by our biases and context. That being said, I’m going to be pulling directly from the transcripts of Trump’s speech to give as much support as possible regarding the use of the Royal We.
First, some context and definition. There are two ways that the Royal We was and is used:
- The Inclusive “we”: The Royal We was used by monarchs to indicate themselves acting as in consort with God (remember, monarchs are God’s anointed!), or used to indicate the ruler acting in consort with their administration or government. This use of Royal We is inclusive, and it’s used by politicians and us common folk alike, such as when a politician speaks on behalf of their cabinet, or a senior executive speaks on behalf of their organization.
- The Exclusive “we”: This “we” embodies the Latin term for The Royal We: pluralis majestatis – plural majesty. There’s a layer of meaning in the Latin term that is important: it’s the majesty that matters. This is when “We” is used to bolster the aura of the majesty of a single individual. That use of Royal We is exclusive. It turns the speaker into a grandiose narrator. The exclusive Royal We is pluralis majestatis in full effect.
From here on out, when I use the term “Royal We”, I’m referring to that exclusive, majestic ‘we.’
The inclusive ‘we’ is still commonly in use. When a politician uses inclusive ‘we’ to clearly indicate themselves and their party members, or their administrative team, or their supporters or electorate, then all is well. It’s when they bust out the pluralis majestatis for grandiose effect that it all goes wrong. Like when Margaret Thatcher declared “We have become a grandmother.” Or as Constance Hale points out in Sin and Syntax, when Newt Gingrich said “Philosophically, I am very different from normal politicians. We have big ideas.”
The difference between an inclusive ‘we’ and a Royal We is one of tone and intent, and users can slip in and out of it within a single sentence. Usually people “feel” when it’s being used, as though they’re getting a vibe of narcissism off the speaker rather than directly recognizing the We.
What gives the Royal We that icky feeling that distinguishes it from its inclusive counterpart? It’ when using that plural pronoun:
- doesn’t make grammatical sense (such as in Thatcher’s “we have become a grandmother,”
- conflicts with a single, personal referral made previously or creates ambiguity as to who is the subject of the statement (Gingrich’s statement “I am very different from normal politicians. We have big ideas.” Who is ‘we?’ Technically, it would refer to ‘normal politicians’, as Gingrich previously referred to himself in the singular, yes he was clearly speaking about himself in that second sentence.)
- doesn’t make contextual sense – where the use of a singular pronoun would create more or clearer meaning with the rest of the sentence.
Those Royal We distinctions all show up in Trump’s speech at various times. Let’s look at some examples:
“Every four years, we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power, and we are grateful to President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition.“
Here, it’s a context issue. Gratitude is usually expressed as a personal sentiment. Even when someone is giving thanks on behalf of many people, it’s usually more effective if they also express gratitude on their own behalf, along with everyone else. Personal gratitude would have also been more appropriate here, as he is directly addressing two named individuals rather than a more generic group of people. Additionally, the interaction between the outgoing President and President-elect during the transition period is portrayed as very one-on-one – almost mentor like. Saying “I am grateful for President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama…” (or “Meliania and I” ) would have seemed more sincere, polite, and humble. The “we” as Trump used it is grandiose.
“…we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.”
How is this an exclusive Royal We? Because as listeners, we know full well that a big chunk of the people involved in the transfer and up on that platform don’t share Trump’s feelings on this matter. Look at the people up there with him, and the people he just said played a role in the transfer. The audience knows that Trump’s sentiments that power must be “given back” isn’t held by everyone involved in the transfer – not by the “Washington elite,” not by longtime members of his own party, and certainly not by Obama. This ‘we’ can’t be inclusive, so it comes across as Royal.
“I will fight for you with every breath in my body — and I will never, ever let you down.
America will start winning again, winning like never before.
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.
We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation.”
These instances of the ‘we’ conflict with the singular personal pronoun statement “I will fight for you…” He doesn’t say with you, he says for you. This excludes the people from this fight – they’re passive beneficiaries of Trump’s fight, not comrades in it. His ‘we’ in the “we will bring back our jobs” litany is a repetition of many of his campaign speeches, except in those speeches it was always “I”. And the actions he is talking about should be an ‘I’, because they are actions that largely rest in the hands of the President, and not in the people who elected him. As this section of the speech goes on, the ‘We’ shifts from Royal to inclusive, as he begins to describe activities that the American people can take part in – building roads, buying American, and so on. This is one of the hazier parts of the speech when it comes to the Royal We; Trump slips in and out of its use and it’s not always clear if ‘we’ is being used inclusively or exclusively. But burying a Royal We in with several inclusive ‘we’s doesn’t make it any less monarchial.
I’m not claiming that this is the worst Royal We speech out there. Others – like the Thatcher and Gingrich examples – have certainly been more ridiculous or blatant. But to me it was obvious enough that I was struck by in while livestreaming the inauguration. The pluralis magestatis gonged loudly and stuck in my ear. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been quite so obvious if Trump hadn’t chosen to sit on a golden throne during his post-election 60 Minutes interview.
AFTERNOTE: How to use majestic verbiage against someone
Politicians can get the verbal majestic treatment via more than the Royal We. When we’re trying to vilify a government, we increase the gravity of the blame we heap on it’s leader by granting them a form of twisted majesty. We make the person sound bigger and grander than they are by turning compounding their name on a bigger object, turning the entire governmental administrative machine into a puppet of a single person. It paints someone as a dictator without directly saying so. And we’ve all heard this use such as “The Obama Administration” or for my fellow Canadians “The Harper Government” – or even scarier, “The Harper Regime”. These compound names confer more majesty on Obama or Harper or whoever’s name is used, making them seem bigger, more powerful, more royal than they actually are. But in this case, the conferred majesty is the sort that implies gallows rather than gala.
Remember – rhetoric is a double edged sword. Any tool you use can also be used against you!