For a minute there, we thought President Donald Trump was still on the campaign trail.
In his inaugural speech on Friday, Trump flogged the nation’s challenges — violence, joblessness, illegal immigration — and made them the centerpiece of his address. And his vow to vanquish these very real plagues in the United States sounded more like dark threats, without the ringing tones of an uplifting message of hope in his voice ala John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan. We got “American carnage” instead of that “shining city on a hill.”
As a candidate who positioned himself as a populist man of the people, that phrase was jarring to the Americans who successfully work, and volunteer, on behalf of fellow citizens who need a hand up.
Trump has always been a plain-spoken, straight-shooter, and this speech was no different.
We knew it would be short — about 17 minutes — as he prefers. And it’s no crime to lack the lyrical oratory of inaugurations past. But the lack of any acknowledgement of existing American greatness that he could build upon, the missing nod to American history and those who came before were disappointments, though not, necessarily, a surprise.
He was absolutely right that Americans of all political stripes are sick of business as usual in Washington, D.C. And he delivered an open-handed slap to the four former presidents sitting behind him when he accused the political elite with benefiting themselves and forgetting about the people. We’ll see how this member of the business elite measures up.
Trump’s exhortation of “America first” can mean different things to different people. A resilient Mexico, a neighbor made stronger with U.S. aid, can indeed make our own nation stronger. A wall between the two can needlessly make a foe out of a friend.
Trump gamely focused on “the people,” returning power to them, putting Americans back in control. For true-blue Trump believers, the president used the images yet again that convinced them he was their man long before he stood on the steps of the Capitol. And those supporters, left behind by globalization and outsourcing, needed to hear that they have a champion, that they “will never be ignored again.”
Yet so many other Americans — the skeptical, the resigned, even the open-minded — were left wondering if they are included in that vague vision of American greatness that Trump continues to put forth.
And unity? No, not on his radar, not when a divided America propelled him into the White House.
After all, Trump himself jammed a wedge into the fissures that already existed and made them wider.
He paid lip service to “black or brown or white” Americans who “all bleed the same red blood of patriots” and how patriotic hearts cannot hold prejudice within them. But even the audience standing before him applauded tepidly, as if they knew he was simply checking a box. “Racism? Done!”
Trump now has to ensure that his populist, inward-looking approach doesn’t drag America back. He is inheriting a country that is on the rebound economically, but still in first gear. But the jobless rate is low, millions more citizens have health insurance and we’re not at war. All solid foundations upon which Trump should build — but seems determined not to even acknowledge.