The presidential inauguration of Donald J. Trump mirrored the traditions of inaugurations past—the giant flags in front of the soaring Capitol Dome, the bipartisan pageant of shivering politicians, the rhetorical tributes to America’s peaceful transfers of power. Republican Senator Roy Blunt quoted Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln about national unity, reminding the crowd the event was “not a celebration of victory, but a celebration of democracy.” And the Trump supporters who had been so raucous during his rallies generally respected these ceremonial norms of civility, mostly refraining from booing Barack Obama and even Hillary Clinton.
But Trump was Trump, even though he had just become President Trump. He is no ordinary politician, and his inaugural address—a pugilistic, nationalistic, campaign-style screed that made America sound like an unbearable dystopia—was a harsh reminder, if one were needed, that this was no ordinary transfer of power.
Historical hinge points are not always discernible in real time, but America’s dizzying leap from Obama to Trump—from the first black president to the leader of the movement that questioned his citizenship, from a globalist who pushed an opening with Asia to a populist who echoes the angry rhetoric of ethno-nationalists in Europe—is an obvious one. It’s an abrupt shift not only from a Democratic technocrat who pursued progressive policies to a Republican billionaire who has vowed to undo them, but from no-drama to melodrama, from cerebral and methodical to impulsive and chaotic, from the pedantic intellectual who loathes cable news and quoted V.S. Naipaul in an exit interview with the New York Times book critic to the brand-savvy entrepreneur and reality-TV host who incessantly watches cable news and does not seem to read books at all. It’s also a shift from the optimistic hope of “Yes We Can!” to the bombastic darkness of “I Alone Can Fix It.” And while recent U.S. presidential politics has tended to lurch across the ideological spectrum every eight years—from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to Obama—this inauguration did not feel like an ordinary lurch.
From the moment Trump began to speak—and a cold drizzle began to leak from the sky—he provided reminders that he and Obama do not just have different philosophies, temperaments and bases of support. Their differences go beyond Trump’s desire to repeal Obama’s health care and Wall Street reforms. and climate actions, or his efforts to replace Obama’s diverse and progressive Cabinet with an almost all-white Cabinet dominated by billionaires and movement conservatives. Trump and Obama may both be alpha males and change agents with daddy issues and a love of golf, but really, they inhabit different realities.
Trump did mouth a few of the traditional pieties expected of new presidents, thanking Obama for his “magnificent” assistance during the transition, calling his oath of office “an oath of allegiance to all Americans.” But he went on to describe America as a hellscape where the Washington establishment has declared war on the public, creating a land of lost jobs, struggling families, “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 that is flush with cash but leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.”
“And the crime!” he continued. “And the gangs! And the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
Obama has gone to great lengths to point out that in fact, by just about every statistical measure, America is much better off than it was eight years ago. Jobs were being lost in droves when he took office, nearly 800,000 a month, but nearly 16 million have been gained since the end of the Great Recession, cutting the jobless rate in half. Trump’s complaint that “we’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated” is backward; the U.S. recovery has far outpaced Europe and most of the world. Some factories are indeed rusting, but U.S. manufacturing output is at an all-time high. So is the high school graduation rate of our young and beautiful students. Home values are soaring in inner cities. And the American carnage that Trump vowed to stop has been declining since the end of the crack epidemic in the early 1990s; overall, crime is near a 45-year low. Obama may not have succeeded in publicizing these facts, but they’re still facts.
One thing to remember about Trump’s flagrant defiance of institutional norms is that it has worked for him. Whether or not he’s correct that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing any votes, it’s certainly true that his supporters on the Mall today saw his political incorrectness as a feature rather than a bug. “He’s not the most polished guy we’ve ever had, but he says it like it is, and for a lot of us that’s a breath of fresh air,” says Gerald Turner, who owns an asphalt business in Knoxville. Turner suggested that Trump’s unorthodox style could even help him unite the country in a way that Bush and Obama couldn’t: “I know the press doesn’t think that, but the press has been wrong a few times, hasn’t it?”
Obama in many ways defined himself in opposition to his predecessors. He campaigned as an ideological anti-Bush, attacking upper-end tax cuts and the Iraq war, and he tried to avoid what he saw as Bush’s recklessness, incuriosity and messianic streak in the White House. He had much more in common with Clinton politically, but as president he also tried to avoid what he saw as Clinton’s unprincipled and undisciplined approach to policy. But now he has turned over the Oval Office to a man he believes shares all those faults, just worse, without any of the redeeming qualities of Clinton and Bush.
One of those qualities was a genuine belief in political norms and institutions, a belief that animates the pageantry of American inaugurations. Obama, Clinton and Bush all had chummy smiles plastered across their faces today, even though they all had to be experiencing various degrees of pain. But Trump simply doesn’t share that faith in norms; he rose to power by shattering norms, and he did it again today. For example, the phrase “America First” has been verboten in U.S. politics ever since it was co-opted by anti-Semitic isolationists during World War II. But Trump has revived it, defying the critics, and he emphatically deployed it again today, calling for a new American patriotism grounded in a shared distaste for American elites.
It’s hard to square his rhetoric about finally paying attention to ordinary Americans who have been ignored with his hires of Goldman Sachs alumni or his calls for more high-end tax cuts, but there has always been a Rorschach quality to his speeches. People hear what they want to hear. Trump’s critics hear a demagogue, a strongman, a con artist, while many of his supporters hear a cultural warrior who will take on disloyal Muslims, illegal Mexicans, rabble-rousing Black Lives Matter activists, and restore law and order to a country that has lost its values. One byproduct of Trump’s slippery relationship with even insignificant facts—he claimed yesterday that no president had ever held an inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial, when Obama and Bush both did—is that some Americans continue to believe he means well no matter what he says.
Travis Oliger, a Republican county chairman in Durango, Colorado, says he understands why many Democrats are frightened about the future under Trump. “I felt the same feelings eight years ago—the uncertainty, the fear for the country,” Oliger said. But he’s confident that everything will turn out OK. “I don’t think he’s going to keep talking like this to foreign leaders,” Oliger said. “He’s a businessman, and I’m pretty sure he knows what he’s doing.” Oliger even believes that Trump can unite the country; at heart, he said, people have more in common than they realize.
“You know, things turned out better than I thought they would under Obama,” Oliger said. “What I’d say to the left is: It might not be as bad you expect.”
Inaugurations, after all, are about hope, even when the new president appeals to fear. They’re about unity and continuity—not of policy, but of democracy. But the policy starts now; in fact, it started this afternoon, when Trump canceled an Obama move that would have cut mortgage fees for low-income homeowners. Inaugurations, like campaigns, are about talk, but governing gets judged by results.