The Trump Inaugural

by John Lawrence

As newly sworn President Donald Trump began his Inaugural speech, the dark rainclouds that had gathered all morning began pelting the new Chief Executive. It was, without a doubt, the brightest moment of the 20 minute tirade that followed, a gloomy diatribe that set an ominous tone for a new Administration.

Presidents have often assumed office in the midst of crisis – wars, depressions, scandals – but the incoming leader has always summoned up rhetoric intended to appeal to what Lincoln, in 1861, called “the better angels of our nature.” Trump missed the opportunity to strike a comparable note in an historic era far less dismal for the Nation, avoiding a message of reconciliation and common ground in favor of summoning the devils of division who dominated his campaign perorations.

Trump displayed none of the graciousness, none of the aspirational imagery, none of the optimism one generally hears at the outset of a new administration. While rattling off references to the men on the platform who had preceded him as President, he noticeably failed to acknowledge the former First Lady, senator and secretary of state who won nearly 3 million more votes from her countrymen than did the victor. A brief recognition of her presence, and her civility in accepting the twisted outcome of the election, would have sent a welcome message.

Instead, Trump chose to resurrect the imagery of a nation in crisis, an economy in shambles and a country at risk that he fatuously promoted throughout the campaign. Where Ronald Reagan spoke of a “shining city on a hill,” Trump referenced “American carnage” in the form of empty factories like tombstones and a landscaped scarred by wanton violence. Of course, Reagan’s inaugural rhetoric was theatrical, like much of his rhetoric; a few months later, the one-time union president fired the Nation’s air traffic controllers who dared to defy his invective, but on January 20th, he understood the importance of sending a message of calm and conciliation.

One can only imagine what foreign leaders will make of Trump’s embrace of the concept of “America First,” a term imbued with nationalism, isolationism and anti-Semitic overtones that politicians have avoided for seven decades even as they promoted their concept of “American exceptionalism.” One can only conclude that neither Trump nor his advisors spent much time consulting historians before preparing a speech that sends worrisome signals to allies and adversaries around the globe.

Trump, the billionaire businessman who salted his Cabinet with a Team of Tycoons committed to undermining the departments they will lead, missed an important – perhaps an irreplaceable – opportunity to send a message of fairness for all Americans and a willingness to consider the opinions and recommendations of those who do not share his own bombastic and distorted portrayal of the nation. From his studiously unbuttoned suit jacket to the thumbs-up signal of self-confidence, he did little to alter the image of the. swaggering, confrontational bully that incredibly persuaded tens of millions of Americans (though far from a plurality) to grant him the enormous power and responsibility he acquired today.

One can only imagine the response had Barack Obama closed his Inaugural eight years ago with campaign style rants and a fist lifted over his head. Instead, in the midst of genuine crisis – an economy in meltdown rather than recovery, unemployment skyrocketing rather than cut in half, two wars growing in intensity instead of radically pared down – Obama sent a very different message. “On this day,” the 44th President declared in 2009, “we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.  On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

If, in the end, Obama’s vision proved more optimistic than events warranted, it was designed to inspire hope and inclusiveness at a time of national crisis. Trump’s imagery painted a barely recognizable, Gotham City-like portrait of the nation that he now leads. Trump promises to “make America great again,” offered only a grim picture of a prostrate and divided nation that ignored the improvements since 2009. From this point onward, however, he will be judged on more than incendiary sloganeering, but little of what he has said since Election Day, including his remarks today on the Capitol steps, indicates a seriousness of purpose or an achievable agenda.