During his 16-minute inauguration speech more than three years ago, President Donald Trump painted a picture of the America he was about to lead.
It was a nation where “forgotten men and women” suffered from widening economic inequality; where crime and ignorance stifled dreams; where unchecked globalism depleted the nation’s wealth and military strength.
His unforgettable summation of all this: American carnage.
"This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” Trump declared. “We are one nation — and their pain is our pain. Their dreams are our dreams; and their success will be our success. We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.”
That harsh phrasing was a stark departure from the bright, ennobling chords a newly elected president normally sounds as he addresses his constituents for the first time. And to many onlookers, it sounded like a grotesquely distorted portrait of America.
Three years later, amid a global pandemic, record unemployment, and violent uprisings against racist police violence, “American carnage” sounds a lot more reality-based. And Trump, often, has only made things worse.
To be fair, the president didn’t create systemic racism or the coronavirus; he didn’t hope to trigger the highest unemployment rates since the Great Depression. But he has, arguably, done little to help, and a great deal to hurt. In less than five months, on Election Day, voters may judge him for it.
Here are three ways Trump has fueled the flames:
The America Trump inherited had a long history of racism extending back to its earliest origins. In the years before Trump took office, police violence against Black Americans became a massive political issue, especially following the Ferguson Uprising and a white supremacist’s shooting of nine people in a South Carolina church. Black Lives Matter took shape as the first Black American president was winding down his second term.
But Trump seemed to give white supremacists comfort time and again, most notably during the protests in Charlottesville in the first year of his presidency. In the past week, though he said he was “sickened and revolted” by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, his tweets have seemed to fan the flames of the most serious racial unrest the country has seen since 1968.
Last week, he tweeted a warning to protesters: “when the looting starts, the shooting starts," prompting Twitter to flag his tweet as violating its rules for glorifying violence. Over the weekend, he called for a “MAGA night” of a counterprotest outside the White House, which could set up clashes with the president’s critics. He also retweeted this incendiary message: “This isn’t going to stop until the good guys are willing to use overwhelming force against the bad guys.”
Leaders from both parties went on television Sunday to urge the president to just stop tweeting. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, spoke at length about his disappointment in Trump on Monday.
“I know I should be surprised when I hear incendiary words like this from him, but I’m not. At so many times during these last several weeks, when the country needed compassion and leadership the most, it simply was nowhere to be found," said Baker. “Instead, we got bitterness, combativeness, and self-interest.”
A few hours later, tear gas and flash grenades were used to disperse protesters outside the White House so Trump could pose for a photo-op at St. John’s church across the street.
Trump’s presidency might be defined by the carnage of the COVID-19 outbreak. By the fall, 150,000 Americans may be dead, according to University of Washington researchers’ latest projections. Unemployment could reach 20 percent. And then, many experts say, a second, and worse, wave could hit.
The coronavirus pandemic — and the lockdown to keep it from spreading — has reordered American life. Nothing has hurt more Americans in their lifetimes than this current pandemic. And all the reporting shows that the Trump administration — with the world-class resources of the American economy, government, and health care system — could have acted quicker. As other nations showed, earlier, more robust national testing and contact tracing programs could have saved tens of thousands of lives and averted economic disaster.
America still has more reported coronavirus cases than anywhere else in the world. (Yes, China could be vastly underreporting its cases.) But nonetheless, the response is entirely on Trump; even Republicans are blaming him.
An economy that is even more unequal
The heart of Trump’s inauguration promise was to address levels of economic inequality. He addressed inner-city poverty as well as what he called “the forgotten man.”
Yet, with Trump has president, inequality has only worsened. This was true even when the economy soared before the coronavirus outbreak. Some analysts suggest his two major economic policies — his 2017 tax cuts and initial COVID stimulus packages — created even more inequality by disproportionately benefiting those with the most wealth.
And now the pandemic is hitting the working poor the hardest, with retail and hospitality sectors seeing wide unemployment.
In 2020, Trump’s campaign slogan is “Keep America Great!” But the likely Democratic nominee, former vice president Joe Biden, might consider reviving Ronald Reagan’s 1980 battle cry: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?