Never in modern times has our transition of power, marvelous in itself, instilled quite the same awe — or foreboding. For in perhaps a minute, the bubble of inconsequence which is reality TV became the world’s reality.
Compared to the sobering impact of Donald Trump’s first words as president, the peevish protests on inaugural day — a boycott by congressional Democrats; the call to change channels to deny Trump an audience — evoked a thwarted kid who locks himself in the bathroom. The better response is action informed by vigilance. For, if nothing else, Trump proved there will be much to watch.
Did one only imagine that, listening, our new First Lady appeared troubled, perhaps feeling the frisson given wings by her husband’s rhetoric? For his speech was quite literally dreadful, not in its delivery, but in the unease it provoked.
While its tropes were familiar, the knowledge that he was now president made their sameness eerie. It contained the ominous fictions of his darker campaign speeches, invoking a dystopian America which would be transformed only by the instant miracles which exist in the mind of a television performer who exults in playing Superman. Our cities are awash in carnage, none of which, it seems, is attributable to the gun lobby. Our schools are awash in cash but too sclerotic and self-serving to educate our kids. The heart of America is littered with shuttered factories, the tombstones of once-vibrant industries ravaged by the predatory foreigners who dominate the global economy.
Our military is starved for the tax dollars we send to support our allies. We guarantee the borders of other countries — conveniently unnamed — while neglecting our own. Despite the recovery under President Obama, our economy is in tatters, our citizens betrayed by the self- aggrandizing denizens of the swamp which is Washington. Like Gulliver amid the Lilliputians, America is a helpless giant tied down by tormentors at home and abroad. And, like Gulliver, Trump’s America is a fiction — worse, a cartoon of a complex America which, in its simplicity, repels serious discussion of actual solutions.
So how does a superhero propose to rescue a cartoon country? With miraculous deeds impossible save in cartoons. The supposed carnage, he said, “will stop right here, and stop right now” — by simple virtue of his inauguration, one assumes. He will revive the economy by invoking time-tested weapons of the 19th century, tariffs. By these means, of course, “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no more,’’ apparently because a superhero can reverse automation, globalization, and the decline of the coal industry. “We will eradicate radical Islamic terrorism from the face of the earth” — a solution, apparently, which his predecessors had never considered.
As a unifying theme for these dangerously empty promises, this uniquely ahistoric president invoked a particularly gamy historic phrase: “America First.” While long forgotten, that phrase described a pre-World War II movement which espoused isolation in the face of the threat posed by Hitler’s Germany, marbled with anti-Semitism. In Trump’s formulation, it means informing the world that, whatever the demands of morality or reality, we come first — whether the issue be trade, foreign assistance, humanitarian aid, or the use of military power. One can but imagine the dismay abroad — whether among Eastern European countries living in Putin’s shadow, or Syrians threatened with slaughter by the Assad regime and Russia, or billions of others for whom America serves as either refuge or example.
But the America which Trump described is curiously self-alienated and amoral. His call to patriotism paid no heed to our democratic traditions, the strength of our institutions, or the value of our diversity. He spoke only to his base, and his America was not exceptional in any way that mattered. Trump’s America is tribal, and that is hardly exceptional in history — or reassuring, either.
Richard North Patterson is the author of 22 books. His latest is “Fever Swamp,’’ a narrative of the 2016 presidential campaign.