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Analysis Inauguration

In his first speech as president, Trump's vision of America remains dark

To the question of which Donald Trump would speak to America on Friday — the dark Trump who spoke angrily at his party’s convention or the more conciliatory Trump heard in the hours after his surprise election — the answer was clear.

Trump used his inaugural speech to present the same vision of a devastated America that he presented when he accepted his nomination last summer — the nation as a place of “carnage,” as the new president put it.

There was very little in the way of reaching out to Americans who had not supported him, or who did but were wary of his dystopian views or his temperament.

The speech displayed Trump as he almost always has been: unfettered as he replaced a “hope and change” presidency with one that emphasized problems over uplift.

His was an inaugural speech that played to the hearts and emotions of the voters who had sided with Trump all along and who filled the expanse of the National Mall before him, people who despite many indicators showing vast improvements in the country during the Obama presidency have felt stiffed by Washington and politicians of all stripes.

Trump defined the world as Washington versus the people. And he placed himself — firmly, pointedly, angrily — with the people.

“Today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another — but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the American people,” Trump said. “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.”

Thematically, Trump seemed to be reaching for the same argument put forward with more elegant and welcoming rhetoric by Ronald Reagan 36 years earlier.

Reagan, as Trump did Friday, used his first inaugural speech to distance himself from the politicians from both parties who surrounded him on the stage at the Capitol; his signature line: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

But Reagan had continued with a more inclusive argument, reaching out after the divisive contest with Jimmy Carter to  embrace Americans who thought ill of him.

According to Reagan, the coming years would require “our best effort and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds, to believe that together with God’s help, we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us.”

And, he sunnily added: “After all, why shouldn’t we believe that? We are Americans.”

Little like that came forth Friday.

Trump did not deviate significantly from the themes of his campaign speeches. He talked of the ills of gangs and drugs and a leaky border in the darkest of tones.

“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” he said.

Trump did not single out President Obama as the cause of the nation’s ills; he clearly was aiming at the entire political class, including his fellow Republicans, who wholly control Capitol Hill. That sort of bipartisan scorn marked his campaign and fueled his support.

But Trump comes into his presidency needing some allies. His popularity ratings have slumped below the 46% who voted for him. He will have the partisan loyalty of many on Capitol Hill, but key Republicans there have very different ideas about how to deal with many of the issues on which Trump campaigned. Including them in the list of those who abandoned their fellow citizens would not seem to engender good will.

Trump spent his campaign telling America exactly what he believed. Much of the nation’s political establishment imagined that if he was elected — a possibility they thought was minimal — Trump would pivot, that he would soften the harsh tones and speak to a nation larger than that occupied by his most avid followers.

The Trump who spoke to the nation Friday was precisely the Trump who won the presidency. Now he will find out if that is enough.

Rewind: Watch the Reagan and Trump speeches >>

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