Yes, Donald Trump’s inaugural speech was disturbing and dystopian and dark, served up with a large dose of populism and warmed over by a frightening dose of nationalism.
It was an inaugural speech, we keep hearing, like no other. And while that is true, it’s (very nearly) beside the point.
Trump promised everything — radical Islamic terrorism gone; American jobs and wealth back — and yet he said little to nothing about how he would accomplish any of this. He has secret plans which apparently won’t be revealed by simply resting his hand on the Bible.
Because the truth — the only true thing — in Trump’s speech is that it gives us no idea how he will govern. It gives us no comfort, either, but it shouldn’t. It wasn’t meant to. It was meant to set terms by an non-ideological president whose one ideology is that he comes out ahead in the end. Oh, and that he vanquishes his enemies, or maybe you missed the all-too-obvious multiple snubs of the Clintons.
He knows the short con, and he knows the long con. The campaign, for those keeping score, we can now remember as the short one.
As Trump said, there are many, many years ahead. And much of a nation — more than half of a nation — must wonder what we have done.
And so, America today, as seen by our new president: The establishment has been enriching itself while robbing you, the people, who are now in charge. (Trump has dumped the “I, alone, can fix it” wording as a little too, well, Mussolinian.) Washington politicians have cheated you, the people, who are now in charge. Porous borders have threatened you, the people, who are now in charge. And foreign aid. And foreign alliances. And trade deals. And everyone, it seems, but the billionaires with whom Trump has papered his cabinet and entrusted the future of you, the people. Populists all, presumably.
This is Trump’s America today, in his words: “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 all knowledge. And the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.”
And the prescription: “This American carnage stops right here and right now.”
Stopped by you, the people. And, I guess, Trump, your leader.
If you think he’s conflating the two —Trump and the people — you’re exactly right. And if Trump’s Carnage Speech, as it will doubtless be remembered, frightens you, the non-Trump people, it was meant to. He has set the baseline. And if you accept it — despite all the evidence to the contrary, which points to a nation, yes, of income and wealth inequality, of inequality of opportunity, of division, of blame, but not of the apocalypse — Trump will ask for the credit when it’s much the same a year from now, but with our new credit-claiming leader.
The speech didn’t soar, of course. Trump’s claim that he wrote it is, after the fact, perfectly believable, even if it is untrue. The speech was not meant to inspire. For a man who says he wants to make America great again, he evoked little greatness. He reminded us not of our founders, nor of Lincoln, of Roosevelts, of Kennedy. There is no history here from the man who doesn’t read books. There’s nothing to suggest what a great America looks like, except one sealed off from the world in which the Trumpian bywords are, again in his words, to “follow two simple rules: Buy American and hire American.” His take on history was to evoke, again and again, “America First” with its own sad origins.
Read Obama’s speech from eight years ago, when the country was, in fact, rocked by a profound recession, and see where we were then and where we are now. It is no small irony that Obama leaves office with a 60 percent approval rating, far above any such ratings since early in his presidency. It’s a statement presumably on the Obama years in total, but I suspect it’s more a statement of a lack of faith in Trump, who, in his speech, seemed unperturbed by that.
He didn’t reach out to those who voted against him. He didn’t acknowledge the person they voted for in greater numbers. He said instead that his movement — sorry, the people’s movement — was the greatest movement the world had ever seen. And now the world wonders, too.
We don’t know what happens next. Trump has, in many ways, nominated an extremely conservative cabinet. But we don’t know if we’ll see Paul Ryan conservatism or any kind of conservatism at all except Trumpism. The speech, as I said, gave no hint of that, but if you look at his website, you can already see the Obama years being dislodged before our eyes. In his speech, what Trump did say was that he’d bring back the jobs, bring back the wealth, bring back the borders, and everything else, he might as well have said, that crooked Hillary or Obama or the Bushes or the Clintons have stolen from the people.
The speech was scary. But I’m guessing that the Trump presidency will be far, far worse. It will be a time of great division, of course, but we’ve been divided for a while. The difference is that now we have for president a race-baiting demagogue who, as things go wrong (as they inevitably do) will govern as one, too. Someone must always be to blame, but can be Obama for only so long — and it can never be Trump.
As Trump said, “The time for empty talk is over. The hour of action begins.”
And so it does. So it does.
Photo credit: The National Guard, Creative Commons, Flickr