Donald Trump has been sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. Any hope that Trump as president would “pivot” to some new persona — more gracious, less divisive, less combative — was quashed in his inauguration speech. Instead, Trump issued a call to arms to his followers and a warning to all that he and they believe stand in their way. He promised an unflinching and unalloyed pursuit of the national interest, to always and unapologetically put America first. Trump’s vision and message was challenged the very next day, when millions of Americans, the majority of them women, took to the streets around the country to protest his presidency and demand a more inclusive approach to governance. That division will define the next four years of U.S. politics.
Historically, inaugural addresses are moments of reflection and humility, when presidents acknowledge that their victories, no matter how sweet, are part of a larger democratic pageant and process of which they are the immediate inheritors. They seek to rally the nation, to heal the wounds of the campaign and unite the public and its officials in a shared task and mission. Given that goal, they are optimistic to give even the defeated in the electoral contest a reason to join that fight.
Trump’s speech defied those traditions. Rather than bridge the gaps between his followers and his opponents, he dug them deeper. He mentioned unity once and made no call to come together. Instead, he warned “the establishment” that its time was over and that “the people” would now benefit from the decisions made in Washington. Rather than embrace the bright imagery that typifies inaugural addresses, Trump reiterated the dark vision of the U.S. that dominated his campaign. The country that he now governs is wracked by poverty, crime, gangs and drugs, with “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones,” and an education system that deprives students of knowledge. It is, said Trump in the speech’s most notable phrase, “American carnage.”
Other countries are on notice: U.S. trade, economic and security policies will change. “We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.” Now, however, the Trump administration “will follow two simple rules: Buy American and Hire American.” This is not isolationism, at least not for the new president: “We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world — but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”
This is an unabashedly Jackonsonian vision of the national interest, one that is populist, eschews foreign entanglements, but believes in the fierce and immediate application of hard power to redress all wrongs against it. Steve Bannon, Trump’s strategist during the campaign and now in his administration and one of the authors of the inauguration address, proudly noted that there had not been a speech like that since the presidency of Andrew Jackson, the country’s seventh president who served from 1829 to 1837. In an interview shortly after the election, Bannon explained that Trump sought to “build an entirely new political movement … it’s everything about jobs. … It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”
There are two problems with that vision. First, it lives and dies on economic performance and the president’s influence over the economy has receded as a result of globalization. Second, and most importantly, it is not shared by all voters in the United States or even all members of Trump’s Republican Party. The infrastructure bill that Trump and Bannon have championed as a cornerstone of the new president’s economic agenda — to generate those jobs — is not a priority for GOP legislators.
The rejection of that vision by still more Americans was evident the day after the inauguration when more than a million people took to the streets across the country to protest Trump’s presidency (as many as a million more demonstrated worldwide). While the protest initially focused on women’s rights — it was “The Women’s March on Washington” — its themes broadened to include LGBTQ rights, immigration reform, racial inequities, workers’ and environmental issues.
Trump is paying attention. His press spokesperson devoted his first news conference the day after his swearing-in to denouncing the media for “mis-reporting” crowd numbers at his inauguration. It is apparently galling to the new president that crowds at the march dwarfed those of his inauguration.
The outrage his spokesman demonstrated at that news conference is another worrying indication about how the Trump administration will govern. This administration has little regard for facts if they contradict its preferred narrative. That is a dangerous perspective for a government that takes office with the lowest approval ratings in history. We can only hope that Trump learns that there can be unity in diversity and that greater strength comes from debate and the forging of consensus rather than the imposition of one man’s will.
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