Analysis: Raw, angry and aggrieved, President Trump’s inaugural speech does little to heal political wounds
Donald Trump gave his first address as president of the United States at his inauguration Jan. 20, 2017.
There was no pivot. There was no olive branch, no binding of wounds, no lofty summons to the better angels of our nature.
The 16-minute inaugural address that President Trump delivered was Trumpism distilled to its raw essence: angry, blunt-spoken and deeply aggrieved.
He spoke Friday of ending the “American carnage” under President Obama, who sat poker-faced behind him on the stage in front of the Capitol as a light drizzle shrouded the scene. He spoke of a corrupt and self-dealing Washington, enriching itself while the rest of the country has gone to rot.
He thundered against foreign countries growing fat by playing Uncle Sam as a sucker.
“We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power,” Trump railed in his now familiar rat-a-tat style. “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.”
More colloquially, he fell back on the extravagant promise repeated throughout his improbable, insurgent campaign. “America will start winning again,” he said, “winning like never before.”
It was the type of speech — pugnacious in tone, pitch black in color — reminiscent of the apocalyptic portrait he painted in accepting the Republican nomination in July. Surely it offered echoes to anyone who attended a Trump rally, or tuned into his three rancorous debates with Democrat Hillary Clinton.
In short, it was a speech that extended the angry, acrid 2016 campaign rather than look ahead to the job of governing a deeply polarized country.
The dark mood — there was much to fear, he suggested, beyond fear itself — may not jibe with how much of the country feels. The economy is growing, unemployment is at its lowest level in years, the stock market has soared, crime is down, salaries are up.
By many measures, these are very good times; certainly better than when Obama took office amid the steepest economic downturn since the Great Depression.
But the wealth has not spread equally and that, to a large extent, accounted for Trump’s election. His margin of victory in the Electoral College came, not insignificantly, from upset wins in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Democratic-leaning industrial states that have found themselves on the short end of an increasingly globalized economy.
Throughout his campaign he gave voice to the fears and anxieties of those Americans displaced or dispossessed by the dramatic change of recent decades, especially those older, blue-collar white males made to feel obsolete and, often, overlooked.
Trump spoke directly to those sentiments, and a shared contempt for the country’s elites, in his muscular, brook-no-nonsense style.
“The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country,” he said. “Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumph. And while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.
“That all changes starting right here and right now,” he declared, “because this moment is your moment. It belongs to you.”
Moments later, the president was blunter still. “The forgotten men and women of our country,” he promised, “will be forgotten no longer.”
Largely ignored, however, were the majority of Americans who voted for someone else.
“The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.”
— President Donald Trump
Perhaps it should not have been surprising; the fists-up approach was very much consistent with the way Trump conducted his transition to being president, which was long on angry tweeting and personal score-settling and notably sparse in the way of reaching across the partisan aisle or placating enemies.
He lost the popular vote to Clinton by nearly 3 million votes. After that, in a rare feat, Trump’s approval rating significantly declined, hitting a record low.
The transition between presidencies, typically, is a rare period of political grace; even George W. Bush gained in the public’s esteem after the prolonged agony of a deadlocked election ended by a partisan vote in the U.S. Supreme Court.
By contrast, Trump’s popularity now stands significantly below the 46% of Americans who voted for him on election day; even as he delivered his first presidential remarks, tear gas and pepper spray wafted just a few miles away as protesters rampaged through the office canyons of downtown Washington.
The president might have used the opportunity afforded by his inaugural address and its national audience to offer soothing words, the way he did in his hastily drafted victory speech on election night, when Trump generously praised Clinton and spoke of a need for political harmony.
“To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people,” he said in that blur of a moment in midtown Manhattan. “It’s time. I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans, and this is so important to me.”
There were few such passages in his first speech as the nation’s new leader.
He praised Obama and the former first lady “for their gracious aid throughout this transition.”
“They have been magnificent,” he said.
He invoked “that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget, that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots. We all enjoy the same glorious freedoms and we all salute the same great American flag.”
But such big-hearted sentiments were notable chiefly for their scarcity; uplift was clearly not on this president’s to-do list.
A more conventional politician might have turned to fancy rhetorical flights, sweetened phrases and conciliatory gestures — however insincere — toward the Democratic opposition and the millions who opposed Trump on Nov. 8 and vow to do so every day between now and the next election.
But Trump has never been a conventional, by-the-book politician. Had he been, he probably would not have been standing on the front porch of the Capitol, facing the Lincoln Monument, swearing an oath as the nation’s 45th president.
5:05 p.m.: This analysis was updated with additional quotes from President Trump.
This analysis was originally published at 11:35 a.m.
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