The financial markets thought Donald Trump’s conciliatory victory speech early Wednesday morning meant something. That interpretation seems plausible.
If nothing else, Trump’s tone suggested that he realized the markets were getting volatile and that he wanted to calm the waters by giving the most conventional speech he’s ever delivered.
Although Hillary Clinton supporters (even those who were awake) were probably too exhausted and upset to hear it very clearly, the speech mattered because of the way it intentionally referred to history. Echoing Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy, the man who once threatened to break the tradition of concession gave a victory speech that was entirely oriented toward confirming tradition.
Trump has typically avoided giving prepared speeches, probably in recognition of the death of rhetoric as a form of communication calculated to reach Americans who aren’t steeped in the tradition of the black church. This time was different, at least in part.
After thanking Clinton for her long years of service, Trump launched himself into history with this striking sentence:
“Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division; have to get together.”
The first half is pure Lincoln, from the peroration of his second inaugural address: “Let us strive to bind up the nation’s wounds.” The second half — “have to get together” – is pure Trump. He’s explaining the meaning of a historical reference in his own distinctive, telegraphic style. It’s as if he wants to tell his voters that although he’s capable of going high, he hasn’t forgotten how to talk to them. I wouldn’t be surprised if “have to get together” was a pure riff, one that didn’t appear in his prepared text.
Then came Jefferson. Trump said, “To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people.” Here, consciously or not, he was referring to Jefferson’s first inaugural address in which, after an intensely partisan election, the third president declared that “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
Trump wasn’t quoting the precise language as he did with Lincoln’s words. But the now-conventional idea drawn from Jefferson’s speech is that of an invitation to move beyond political party.
Last was Kennedy. Trump’s references were more subtle this time, more a matter of phrases and phrasing than content. He spoke of the “urgent task of rebuilding our nation.” The words “urgent task” call to mind Kennedy’s American University commencement speech in which he said there was “no more urgent task” than peace. In the same paragraph Trump spoke of what “I want to do for our country.” That referred to Kennedy’s best known line, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” from his inaugural address.
There was even a low-level attempt to echo Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen’s famous inside-out formulations of which “ask not” is the most prominent. (Sorensen called them “reversible raincoats” but the rhetorical term is “antimetabole,” which means repetition of roughly the same words in reverse order in the same sentence.)
Trump said that the people in his movement “want and expect our government to serve the people, and serve the people it will.” The self-echoing last phrase is a kind of faint echo of that rhetorical technique.
The significance of all this isn’t that Trump is being reborn as a new Pericles.
Not gonna happen, as Trump himself would probably say.
Rather, the conciliatory speech, typically an inaugural address, is a familiar linguistic form in American political life. It’s a tradition, one we recognize whether we know it or not.
It’s impossible to say how Trump will govern, of course.
But by giving a speech that managed to appeal to what a conciliatory speech sounds like, Trump was telling whoever was listening that he understands what the conventions are, and is willing to deal with them.
At nearly 3 a.m., the main audience was surely the markets. More than almost any other human institution, markets crave predictability.
Trump ran as the candidate who broke all the rules. That’s why it’s significant that he gave a speech that was designed to follow the rules of rhetoric.
Noah Feldman is a law professor at Harvard and columnist for Bloomberg.