Donald Trump is now the 45th president of the United States of America, duly sworn in before a crowd of well-wishers, rivals, and desperately curious others. Now, while he is installing himself in the White House, the words of his inaugural address are filtering through the world.
His remarks made significant, but not huge, departures from the “stump speech” we have heard from him many times already. As with his victory speech, Trump was conspicuously magnanimous towards the individuals he was elected to oppose:
We are grateful to President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition. They have been magnificent. Thank you.
This time, perhaps disappointing many, it was not the bling – the “You’re gonna love our speeches … we’ve got some of the best words, and some of the best people writing our words”, as Alec Baldwin might satirise it.
Still, for the first five minutes or so, it was sounding more like a speech of opposition than of government:
For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left. And the factories closed.
Many have noted it was a speech that addressed Trump’s support base most directly, as the transcript’s next paragraph revealed. These are the people whose opposition to the way things are has brought Trump to power. Shifting from oppositional behaviour to constructive government without estranging that base may just prove too hard to achieve in public:
The establishment protected itself but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs. 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. Because this is your moment. It belongs to you.
A sense of agenda for Trump the president only seemed to click into gear after he caricatured the lives of those “forgotten men and women” (echoes of a phrase we have heard before?) he claims to champion:
Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.
And the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealised potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
And what is that agenda? What is this “new decree, to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power” that Trump proclaims?
The clear word from his speech was protection, meaning protection from the rest of the world. It is a note against multilateral free trade, but it goes further. Not many of the political leaders who are fighting to maintain post-1945 institutions of global co-operation, including those in the US, are going to enjoy these sentiments:
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.
Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and great strength.
In the terrific NPR annotated transcript of Trump’s speech (other news services, take note), Ron Elving draws attention to the difficult connotations of that phrase “America First”.
It was particularly associated with Charles Lindbergh, a right-wing figure who in the 1930s had expressed sympathy and fascination for the German government of Adolf Hitler, especially his air force (Lindbergh made his fame as an aviator). Lindbergh’s doctrine of “America First” meant an isolationist refusal to join the second world war, accompanied by a protectionist economic stance.
Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America, published in 2004, explores the hypothetical scenario in which Lindbergh becomes the president in 1940 and New Jersey’s Jewish population shifts to a climate of high fear. There have been many echoes of that fiction in all the fevered speculation about Trump’s motives lately, especially for his links to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
This is not the place to fuel or debunk such speculation, but its prevalence in public discussion is a very clear pointer to the prevalence of fear and distrust. It seems that more Americans fear and distrust this president on his inauguration day than any other in the history of such opinion polls.
Countering that negativity is the big challenge for Trump, which is why his speech was hard-pressed to avoid talking about it:
The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity. We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity. When America is unites, America is totally unstoppable.
There should be no fear. We are protected, and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement. And most importantly, we will be protected by God.
As his own opposing and condemning of the previous government makes clear, it will be very hard for Trump to bring his country together in biblical pleasantry. This speech offers no reason to believe he will try.
Meanwhile, a significant problem with focusing on transcripts and their annotations is that we tend to notice the logic of the words more than their delivery. Victor Klemperer wrote in 1947:
What a man says may be a pack of lies – but his true self is laid bare for all to see in the style of his utterances.
Trump’s tone and body language offered a rather subdued version of the personality we have grown used to: less rude, less ribald, even less bombastic than the campaign-trail Donald. There is clearly some measure of self-discipline involved here – and that at least suggests a seriousness of intent.
If you are interested, that same NPR page links to a video recording of the speech. It is well worth watching.