The Threat Embedded in Trump's Angry Address

Amid the pomp and circumstance that belied an extraordinary reality, the U.S. government transferred the power of the presidency to Donald Trump, a swindler, reality TV star and serial liar whose living predecessors in attendance are all on record saying he is unfit for the office he now holds.

The ritual invocations of the peaceful transfer of power were moving, not the least because the recipient is beloved by many, and seen as dangerous by many others. A celebration of American democracy that buoyed Trump's supporters was laced with fear for its future, and with good reason. Before the ceremony Trump received a briefing on how he can launch a nuclear attack in 30 minutes. 

The crowd of hundreds of thousands gathered on the National Mall was smaller and more racially homogenous than the throng that greeted Barack Obama eight years ago, though no less excited about witnessing history. Security and crowd control measures were tighter than 2008, with National Guard troops stationed on street corners a mile away from the site where Chief Justice John Paul Roberts administered the oath of office.

As protesters clashed with police outside the security perimeter, Trump began his presidency with a variation on his campaign stump speech. He was vehement to the point of angry as he depicted the United States as a country ravaged, cheated and impoverished.

"For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost," he declared.

With the exception of a couple of tacked-on grace notes—a thank you to the Obamas and an aside about the common dreams of children born in Chicago and Nebraska—Trump’s oration was most notable for its focus on jobs and war, along with a characteristic hint of intimidation. If the speech indicates anything about Trump's policy priorities, the president wants a big public infrastructure program, and a war of annihilation on Islamic radicals.  

Trump used the word “rebuild” in the second sentence of the speech. Later, he did what presidents Obama and Bush, as well as most the U.S. military commanders, have chosen not to do: cast the fight against terrorists as a war on “radical Islamic terrorism.” He said nothing of traditional Republican priorities such as smaller government, tax cuts or fiscal restraint. Without mentioning Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump hinted that a U.S.-Russia alliance may be in the offing.

"We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones, and unite the civilized world against radical islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth," he said.

The conflict between Trump’s visceral desire to wage a war of annihilation on Islamic radicals and the futiilty of waging war on a tactic and a religion is likely to define U.S. foreign policy for as long as the Trump era lasts.

Trump’s vision for rebuilding America was the most attractive part of the speech, playing to his reputation as a builder and expressing his sympathy for the common man.

"We will build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation,” he declared. “We will get our people off of welfare and back to work—rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor. We will follow two simple rules: Buy American and hire American."

Trump’s ambition to launch a public works jobs program, guided by protectionist rules, harkens back to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. It also puts him at odds with all of the Republican Party leaders who sat on the dais with him, and generations of GOP doctrine. The conflict between Trump’s domestic ambitions and Republican fiscal policy is likely to be central to the future of his administration.

But the most revealing—and disturbing—part of Trump’s speech came in his appeal for unity in a nation where he is remarkably unpopular. The rhetorical strategy is classicly authoritarian; as he was invested with power, he invested that power not in the people generally, but in his supporters.

“We are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another,” he said at the outset, “but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American people.”

Thus the "people" are distinguished from the political parties and from the people who disagree with him, and even the institutions of government. The will of the democracy is claimed by the chief of state. At the Republican convention last summer, Trump said of the American condition, “I alone can fix it.” Now he takes his second-place finish in the national vote as a mandate to rule in the name of his supporters.

Mostly chillingly, he went on to invoke the traditions of democracy with language that throbs with the double meanings favored by autocrats.

“At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other," he said.

The suggestion that Americans should aspire to unity—a defensible proposition—carries with it the implication that those who do not share Trump’s conception of patriotism are disloyal, not only to their country, but to their fellow citizens. Those who dissent betray their neighors.

“When you open your heart to patriotism,” he went on, “there is no room for prejudice."

True patriots, he suggested, are not prejudiced, again a worthy sentiment containing a retracted blade: if you are not patriotic, you are prejudiced. Those who see racism are unpatriotic racists.

“The Bible tells us," he went on, "‘how good and pleasant it is when god’s people live together in unity.”

So those who do not choose to unify behind Trump are cast as bad and unpleasant people. Those who do not unite with Trump are ungodly.

And finally this: “We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity."

Fifty-six years before, on this same ground, President John F. Kennedy offered an utterly different vision of American citizenship: "Ask not what your country can do for you," JFK said, "Ask what you can do for your country."

Instead of JFK's open call to public service, Trump asks us to close ranks behind his crusade to "make American great again." He insists that a nation, divided in no small part by the lies and hateful rhetoric of his campaign, must now pursue solidarity. Those who speak too openly or disagree too long are somehow disrupting the work of the nation.

“The time for empty talk is over,” he said. “Now arrives the hour of action.”

For an inaugural address some hoped would be forgettable, it was actually kind of frightening.


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