I am appalled by Donald J. Trump, particularly his willingness to elicit and exploit destructive social prejudices, including sexism, racism, and nativism. I see his ascension to power as a threat to the best features of American life. I applaud those who have committed themselves to resistance to Trumpism. Here I think especially of those, like Representatives Katherine Clark and Mike Capuano, who, at some risk, defied tradition and refused to attend the inauguration as a protest against the incoming president.
Still, I must confess a certain grudging admiration for Trump’s performance of his inaugural address even as I loathe the baleful politics that his words simultaneously obscure and announce. Trump’s address was succinct, only 17 minutes, and benefited from the channeling of attention that brevity facilitates. Although President Obama is often lauded for his oratory, his speeches, like his farewell address in Chicago last week, tend to be a bit baggy. Excessive length undercut their punch. Trump’s inaugural by contrast, was lean and pointed.
Trump bragged beforehand that he himself was going to write his inaugural. Perhaps he did. The speech echoes the extemporaneous stump speeches of his campaign and thus exudes a confident authenticity. There is little eloquence in the address. But the language, sentiments, and themes are Trump’s in an undiluted form. He did not talk one way when he was desperately seeking votes in unglamorous venues in Michigan and Wisconsin and then talk a very different way with the whole world watching the pageantry of his swearing-in as president.
If I were a fervent Trump supporter I would feel encouraged, energized, and uplifted by the new president’s rhetorical fidelity to the platform on which he won the White House: “The forgotten men and women ... will be forgotten no longer;” “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now;” “We will ... unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism;” “[W]e will make America great again.”
Alas, the rhetoric is interlaced with decisions that imperil Trump supporters along with everyone else: a cabinet filled with plutocrats, reactionaries, and neophytes; evident attraction to enemies of science (e.g. climate change denialists and anti-vaccination cranks); a reluctance to abjure Trump-supporting bigots alongside a hyper-active tendency to deride anyone who challenges Trump; policies that will further enrich the wealthy (tax cuts) while further immiserating the poor (repealing the Affordable Care Act in the absence of a better substitute).
But Trump’s irrefutable talents as a performer, showcased again at his inauguration, should bury the comforting delusion that he is merely a malevolent buffoon who fell into the White House by besting a long list of hapless foes. Trump’s inaugural address shows him to be a formidable figure with inclinations that both reflect and reinforce the far-right populist ethos that has emerged so consequentially in Britain, France, and other Western democracies. The opening speech of the Trump presidency should put everyone on notice that restraining — much less overcoming — him will be a daunting task.
Randall L. Kennedy is a professor at Harvard Law School.