This will be the presidency of the raised fist, not the outstretched hand.
Inaugural addresses are traditionally occasions of inclusion and healing. In that transformative moment, the new president sheds a partisan identity and assumes the mantle of national leader, president of and for all the people. If any new president should have sounded that soothing note, it was President Trump. If any nation needed to hear it, it was America today.
The state of our union is dangerously frayed. The country is in a volatile and fragile condition that requires attending to, not ignoring. More citizens voted against the new president than for him, and the reports since Election Day about Russian efforts to install Trump in the presidency have only served to deepen those anxieties.
Americans want instinctively to rally around their president, no matter how hard-fought the preceding campaign. Trump squandered that reflexive national goodwill with his peevish, provocative transition. He similarly squandered the inaugural with a speech singularly lacking in grace, one that will be widely noted and long remembered for its darkness, for words such as “ravages” and “tombstones” and “decay.” That he bracketed the address with clenched-fist salutes perfectly signaled the pugnacious presidency to come.
In the early morning hours following his victory, Trump, echoing Lincoln, vowed to “bind the wounds of division.” That was a welcome, hopeful sign, but a fleeting one, erased by angry tweets and extreme appointments.
On Friday, Trump placed his hand on the 16th president’s bible, but there was no Lincoln to be found in his message — not the Lincoln of the first inaugural striving to keep together a country on the verge of civil war, nor the Lincoln at the second, with malice toward none.
Instead, Trump sank to the occasion. Rising above is not in his skill set, as badly as the nation needs it. Trump looks at the United States and sees carnage, not better angels. He stokes the worst in us, with his offensive invocation of America First and his dark vision of America in ruins.
Not that anyone, if Trump had recited words of unity and calls for civility, should have taken him at face value. His long and still-unfolding history of divisive actions speaks louder than his only rarely salving rhetoric. Indeed, he may be uniquely unequipped for that task. A man incapable of confessing error and constantly compelled to counterpunch is ill-suited to the role of presidential uniter, not divider.
Yet the absence even of ritual incantation was both telling and alarming. Presidential invocations to unity have been a staple of inaugurals for centuries. “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists,” Thomas Jefferson said after the bitter election of 1800. “Civility is not a tactic or a sentiment. It is the determined choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos,” George W. Bush, taking office after a bruising recount, told the nation in 2001.
Such healing language from Trump was necessary but would not have been sufficient. Now Trump has served notice: He will not even make the rhetorical feint.
No doubt we should have seen it coming. “It wasn’t Donald Trump that divided this country, this country has been divided for a long time!” Trump felt compelled to tweet the morning before his inauguration, quoting evangelist Franklin Graham.
Certainly, partisan division predated the emergence of Trump; it would exist in his absence. Yet the worry, the dread, that so many Americans feel in contemplating Trump’s presidency, the ugly feelings stirred up by his us-vs.-them campaign, the degree to which Trump has continued to provoke and incite even after his victory — all of these counseled some recognition of the reality of the national rift.
This is Trump’s greatest test and his most glaring blind spot. He does not want to accept his role in helping create this era of bad feelings, nor his responsibility for trying to cure it.
Trump’s pivot — to maturity, to behaving like a normal politician/candidate/president — is doomed to be eternally elusive. Republicans awaited this transformation after he became the party’s nominee; the country craved it during the transition. In the course of the campaign, Trump repeatedly assured us that he knows how to be presidential. But there has been no evidence that he can pull it off, and little hope, after this least gracious of beginnings, that he even intends to try.
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