I know that if Hillary had won the election, and Republicans were going around grumbling that "she's not my President," I'd be telling them to man up (correct phrase, too) and reminding them of the structural majesty of the transition of power in our American democracy. And if it had been, say, Marco Rubio being sworn in yesterday, I believe I’d have succeeded in thinking along those lines.
But not with President Trump. I can’t get there, can’t get over my alarm and disbelief.
The speech itself was noteworthy for its refusal to conform to conventional expectations and protocols. It was rude, bellicose, and totally true to form. Basically he stood up there and said that the whole crew of people assembled around him – congresspeople and presidents, of both parties – had created a disaster, visiting “carnage” upon the country, and that everything from now on would be different.
Trump said the same things on the campaign trail, and in the same way. But whatever happened to the promise of being “presidential” once he got elected? There was little that was unifying, little attempt to play beyond his own voters. That sea of white faces. Very sad!
I also note the indiscriminate nature of a blast aimed at all of Washington; pretty much everyone caught the spray of his buckshot. I wonder what it was like to be Obama, George W Bush, and Bill Clinton, and to have to sit there and hear this newcomer diss you as self-aggrandizing, unpatriotic and corrupt. And that’s not hyperbole on my part; it’s what he said.
The worst part of it (though again, unsurprising) was the insistence on the absolute novelty -- and limitless efficacy -- of his own presence and abilities. As if he can simply waltz into the capital... and change everything. “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” “The time of empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action.” “From this moment on, it’s going to be America first.”
His exaggerated characterization of our society as devastated and bleeding -- the "carnage" of America -- is adolescent and self-serving. Are there problems? Sure. But if you look at the long stretch of our country's history, can you say we’ve arrived at a direly apocalyptic moment, where things are far worse than they have ever been? Not even close. It's all designed to highlight his own personal heroism as the Powerful Leader who can rescue the nation. The idea that he and he alone can guarantee that “you will never be ignored again.”
Um, things don't work that way. Nor would we want them to. If one strong man can come in and change everything, well, we're in trouble. Conservatism used to understand that.
But is Trump really even conservative? One couldn’t help being struck, listening to his speech, by a blurring of ideological lines. Some of his remarks would have fit into a Bernie Sanders inaugural address. What do Republicans make of his arrant anti-free-trade position and job protectionism? And are they up for a massive infrastructure investment? Most howl when Democrats propose this kind of thing.
Ross Douthat, conservative Times columnist, took up the ideological murkiness of Trump's address. Despite its Jacksonian tone of combative anti-elitism, the speech was “not remotely anti-government,” Douthat writes, with its readiness to “eschew the rhetoric of liberty in favor of expansive promises of ‘protection’ and rhapsodic paeans to infrastructure spending.” Douthat continues:
At its darkest, this sort of protective politics veers toward fascism; at its best (and the new president’s rhetoric did try to reach in that direction) it points toward a pan-ethnic nationalism, a right-wing politics of solidarity. But in neither case is it compatible with the limited-government catechism and the Republican politics that pushes for free trade deals and fights against Medicaid expansions.
Thus, the great ideological questions of the Trump era: Will his rhetoric actually define the policy that gets made in the halls of Congress, where a more Reaganite conservatism still theoretically holds sway? Or will his words be a Buchananite patina on an agenda mostly written by supply-siders and Goldman Sachs appointees? Or will the conflict between the two tendencies simply make his administration less epochal than incoherent, less transformative than simply ineffective?
Along these lines, Charles Krauthammer – not a pundit I go around quoting – made an interesting comment on Fox News right after the speech. He recalled the Republican primary debate where Trump refused to rule out running as a third-party candidate if he lost the primary. Krauthammer said, “Actually, I think that speech shows that he did in fact run as a third-party candidate, under cover of the Republican Party.” I agree. And it opens up some pretty fascinating perspectives on the future of the Republican Party.
As for how Trump’s presidency will play out for the country as a whole, my guess is that his "forgotten" people are likely to be disappointed. Already the crass disparity between his bruising antiestablishment rhetoric and the plutocratic nature of his Cabinet appointments reveals that rhetoric as the pseudopopulist bluster that it is. The question remains, however, whether, in our fake-news, post-reality era, those who have been duped will recognize it. He is a master showman, after all.
All through the campaign I vainly tried to convince conservative friends of mine that Trump presents a range of personal qualities impossible to accept in a president. I believe that more than ever. As David Brooks wrote yesterday,
We’ve never had a major national leader as professionally unprepared, intellectually ill informed, morally compromised and temperamentally unfit as the man taking the oath on Friday. So let’s not lessen the shock factor that should reverberate across this extraordinary moment.
I honestly believe, as I’ve said before, that if Ted Cruz were being sworn in, I'd be watching and disliking him, but I'd welcome the political set-to of the next four years. I'd know exactly who and what we were opposing. But instead we have elected Narcissus from Planet Crapshoot. Which is why, like many others, I'm fairly beside myself, in unaccustomed ways. That’s the shock factor Brooks is talking about.
We have chosen a strange, reckless, and in many ways odious man to be our President. While I fervently hope I am wrong, my gloomy fear is that Trump’s inaugural address will prove dead wrong in one big way. The real carnage is only beginning.