Our 45th president didn’t get the tanks and missile launchers he wanted in his inaugural parade, but the Pentagon did okay five separate military flyovers, from Air Force jets to Army choppers—an unprecedented display of martial hardware at what Americans like to brag is a peaceful transfer of power. Trump’s people reportedly requested the kind of rolling thunder on Pennsylvania Avenue that’s more common in Moscow or Pyongyang, and the Army only wiggled out of obliging them because D.C.’s streets would buckle under the stress. How symbolic can you get?
Of course, it’s anyone’s guess whether Trump’s most gung-ho supporters would have seen anything unseemly about a militarized show of force. (When it comes to people who are eager to Make America Great Again, “That’s something authoritarian regimes do” doesn’t seem like much of a deterrent.) But as the Trump-Obama motorcade rolled toward Capitol Hill for the swearing-in this morning, the visual that dominated was a vivid reminder that he’s the least popular incoming president of modern times. Not only were the onlookers lining the avenue fewer than usual, but at some points along the route, protesters appeared to outnumber fans. (The first street clashes broke out before Trump had finished lunch.)
Naturally, the crowd on the Mall was bigger, although still pretty scattered compared to some past ones. But it was also overwhelmingly white (duh), a far cry from the poly-hued mob at both Obama inaugurals. Speaking of symbolism, it was also wet. Maybe not wet to the point that building an ark seemed like a good idea, but wet enough to bring back memories of a certain Bob Dylan song involving rain.
One big virtue of Trump’s speech was that it wasn’t ad-libbed, a reassuring concession to the occasion’s gravitas from our teleprompter-phobic POTUS. Some people expected the worst after he tweeted a pic of himself ostensibly “writing” it at Mar-a-Lago with a Sharpie on a suspiciously unmarred-looking notepad. But by his standards, his speech was inclusive, albeit in a very Trumpian way; that is, by assuming everyone shares his alarmist view of our national degradation—“American carnage”? Really?—and is equally pumped up to reverse it.
To say the least, it’s unusual for an inaugural address to call out prior administrations as villains like Trump’s did—“their victories were not your victories” and so on—especially when three former presidents are sitting right there. The inflammatory image of Washington elites “celebrating” while regular Americans struggled outdid anything Ronald Reagan ever said about government being the problem.
If he weren’t the most arrogant man alive, Trump might have realized it’s incongruous for a president who lost the popular vote by a wide margin to declare that his election represents a return to popular sovereignty. “We are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American people,” he said, quoting Bane, Batman’s populist-anarchist nemesis in The Dark Knight Rises. Based on his Cabinet picks, that’s certainly true for people who work at Goldman Sachs or in the fossil-fuel industry, but as for the rest of us—ah, really? Anyhow, it’s certainly not what Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have in mind, and their agenda is the one that’s likely to prevail on most domestic issues.
Odds are nobody will remember much of Trump’s inaugural address a year from now, but they won’t need to.
Because Trump knew he had to, he did include a perfunctory nod to respecting diversity and disagreement. But only up to a point, since “total allegiance to the United States of America” comes first in his book. Somehow, we don’t have much doubt about who’s going to get to decide what less than “total allegiance” looks like. For that matter, the Bible quote he used to drive home the point (“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity”) couldn’t have been a huge comfort to the many heathens among us. And remember, these were the conciliatory bits of his speech.
Even his expressions of optimism came out bellicose. It’s one thing to pointedly break with Obama’s avoidance of the term “radical Islamic terrorism,” but to follow it with a promise to “eradicate [it] completely from the face of the earth”? That’s the kind of rhetoric that envisions wholesale slaughter, not suppression. Notably, Trump didn’t have a thing to say either to or about the almost two billion Muslims worldwide who aren’t terrorists, including the American ones he’s spent the past 18 months unnerving. Nor can foreign capitals have been much cheered by his unabashed vow to conduct foreign policy exclusively in terms of what is most to Uncle Sam’s benefit, considering that we’ve at least pretended to have unselfish motives abroad since the end of World War II. Some of the time, it hasn’t even been untrue, and that is one reason our allies have accepted American leadership.
So maybe it’s just as well he didn’t get his tanks and missile launchers. Not only because all those demonstrators would have made ordering up some target practice tempting for the new Commander-in-Chief, but they would have seemed redundant. Odds are nobody will remember much of Trump’s inaugural address a year from now, but they won’t need to. He said it all when he became the first U.S. president in living memory to celebrate his inauguration by raising a clenched fist.