Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, was director of speechwriting for President Bill Clinton. He is the author of “The Fight to Vote.” His Twitter handle is @mawaldman.
Memorable inaugural addresses come during a time of crisis. President Trump brought his own crisis with him. Rather than calm the waters, he decided to stir them further.
Trump delivered the speech forcefully. He displayed less preening narcissism than we have come to expect (though there was no nod to humility, either). It was populist rather than conservative. We heard no rote denunciations of big government. He spoke with passion about building infrastructure, a genuine national goal. The writing was blunt and clean. Mostly it sounded like an amped-up stump speech.
Listeners felt no sense of the sweep of history, the humbling majesty of the moment. He offered no meaningful thank-you to Barack Obama for his years of service. (Contrast that with, say, Bill Clinton’s in 1993 — “On behalf of our Nation, I salute my predecessor, President Bush, for his half-century of service to America” — or Ronald Reagan’s lengthy homage to Jimmy Carter, whom he had just defeated.)
Worryingly, Trump did not evoke the documents, deeds or ideals of the founders — which serve as inspiration and guide for new presidents. “Liberty” and “democracy” did not appear. Nor did “the Constitution.” No “All men are created equal.”
New presidents get to decry the mess they inherit. Reagan did; so did Clinton and Obama. But none did it the way Trump did. The picture he painted was bleak, dystopian, a grimy sci-fi version of the country. The only truly vivid language came in a death-obsessed description of a hellish landscape, beset by gangs, with factories scattered “like tombstones.” “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” Yikes.
Many new presidents chide the insiders and the status quo. Obama quoted Scripture: “let us put aside childish things.” Trump, again, struck a far more denunciatory note. “The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.” He went on at length along these lines. Of course, his own adopted party already controls Congress. Their applause seemed muffled.
Beyond the snarling tone, there were jarring and often radical policy notes.
Most striking: his stance toward the world. Every president since World War II has talked about the nation’s role as the central international force, calling on our fellow citizens to accept the burdens of leadership. John F. Kennedy’s famous address talked only about foreign policy. Reagan’s first speech linked his attacks on big government at home with the fight for freedom abroad.
Trump said, basically, we’ve been played for chumps, everyone is out to get us, and we are only going to watch out for our own from now on. American interests are not bolstered by a stable world order or rising global prosperity. Americans have never gained from our leadership, only lost. He explicitly disavowed the idea of extending American values around the world — a staple of every president of the past century. This is a vertiginous shift. Kennedy said we would “pay any price,” but that led to Vietnam. George W. Bush mentioned “freedom” 27 times in his 2005 speech, but that was in service of the Iraq War. Trump has lurched just as unwisely in the other direction.
He didn’t talk about making American workers winners amid global economic change. “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs,” he declared. “Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.” This was the first inaugural address to call for protectionism since long before the United States became a global economic leader.
His rhetoric embraced dark themes. “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.” This is not just chest-thumping. This is, as he well knows, the name of the isolationist group — based, often, in the very Midwest where he squeaked out his electoral-college win — that fought against U.S. involvement in World War II. America First was discredited by its anti-Semitism and its appeasement of Adolf Hitler.
Trump’s address had the rhetoric of Charles Lindbergh and the economics of Smoot-Hawley. We must assume he did this deliberately. Neither ended well for the country.
Will any of this actually reflect the national agenda? Who knows. He urged infrastructure spending, for example. Democrats like that, but many Republicans recoil. But there was barely a reference to immigration, and none at all to the Republican Congress’s priorities of repealing the Affordable Care Act or enacting tax cuts. He decried “radical Islamic terrorism” and vowed to eliminate it entirely from the face of the earth (whew!), but devoted only half a sentence to the topic. He decried the establishment. Did his Cabinet of billionaires and Wall Street executives (with a few generals sprinkled in) keep a straight face while applauding?
Trump won because he tapped into many voters’ anger. But the job of a president always has been to alchemize public sentiment into something better. You reassure about “fear itself,” you don’t stoke it. The notion that any previous inaugural speaker would howl about “American carnage” is simply unthinkable.
An inaugural address that is hopeful, unifying, thoughtful — that appeals to Americans’ “better angels” and offers our ideals to the world? Perhaps that might just be another tradition Trump has upended.
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