Today, Donald J. Trump became the 45th president of the United States and in his inaugural address offered little hope that his presidency will be something other than ugly, dark, and divisive.
Trump’s speech did not offer America a unifying, optimistic, or even honest message. It described an America of broken-down factories “scattered like tombstones,” crime-ravaged inner cities that have robbed the country of potential and of an overall poverty of national spirit. “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” Trump bizarrely decreed to a country with more than six consecutive years of job growth, nearly full unemployment, a strengthening economy, and falling crime rates.
What was perhaps most striking is that Trump made no mention of traditional American values like freedom and equality. The Constitution, which he swore to uphold, went unmentioned. There was no sense that Trump even understands or appreciates the basic elements of the American creed. Rather than an invocation of unifying ideals and principles, Americans were assaulted by Trump’s mindless sloganeering, his chauvinistic nationalism, and the troubling invocation of the fascist slogan “America First” as the new president’s governing refrain.
In perhaps the only well-crafted sentence in what was an otherwise pedestrian and cliché-ridden speech, Trump said, “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” And yet, this statement runs completely counter not only to Trump’s racist, xenophobic, nationalist campaign for the White House, but also to centuries of past nationalist movements that have used patriotism as a tool for increasing prejudice.
It was perhaps the darkest inaugural address ever uttered in this nation’s history, but also the one most clearly divorced from any kind of discernible reality.
This was no more evident than when Trump decried a Washington establishment that “celebrated in our nation’s capital” . . . while “there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.” How does one possibly square such comments with his clear support for a conservative Republican legislative agenda that wants to take away health insurance from 20 million people, cut taxes for the wealthy, and slash the social safety net? The abundant disconnect between Trump’s language and reality is unnerving.
Of course, the fact that during the campaign Trump’s description of America was largely a figment of his imagination — and clearly still is today — never seemed to matter to his supporters. Indeed, they were clearly the intended audience for his remarks. Trump’s speech was less of an inaugural address and more a repurposed campaign diatribe that played on the same raw, divisive and populist rhetoric that he used with such regularity on the campaign trail. Rather than rise to the moment, Trump’s rhetoric mired America in the same one-dimensional patriotism that spurred his rise. Others have noted that Trump alone did not divide America. That began long before he took office. But today he gave no indication that he has any interest in binding up the nation’s wounds. If anything, the opposite seems to be true.
As ugly as Trump’s domestic rhetoric was, his foreign policy rhetoric was far worse. He decried “defend[ing] other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own”; complained about “trillions and trillions of dollars” spent overseas to make “other countries rich” while problems at home went unaddressed.
Above all, he put the world on notice that America is no longer concerned about being a global leader. “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families,” said Trump. “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.”
These are ugly words and they portend a future of American indifference to the issues happening outside its shores and to the potential decline of the international system.
One wants to feel a sense of hope for the future about any new president. And for most of American history — no matter our partisan affiliation — that has been the case. But today’s ceremony and Trump’s inaugural address make one think not of a new beginning, but of a desultory end to that which has long made America great.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.