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The American President’s American Carnage

Donald Trump’s inaugural address was a rehash of the stump speech we’ve seen before, a reflection of an angry country and a battle cry for isolationism

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer said at 11:31 a.m. ET, “the president-elect of the United States, Donald John Trump.”

At that moment, Trump emerged from a doorway and walked down the red-and-blue-carpeted stairs of the Capitol. He shook a few hands. Gave an air kiss to Melania. Kissed Michelle Obama on the cheek. Shook Barack Obama’s hand as if they’d been friends for years. And then Trump gave a flat-palmed wave to the red-hat-wearing attendees on the National Mall that had just been chanting “U-S-A!”

A presidential inauguration is the most high-minded occasion in American life. For a few seconds, it was amazing to see how easily a political irregular could be absorbed into its ceremony. Trump might have been any Republican, any president.

A half hour later, he began to talk.

“The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes …”

“Rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape …”

“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now …”

Oh, right, Trump’s fans and enemies said in unison. Trump isn’t any Republican. He won’t be any president. He will be unique and bizarre and utterly uninterested in politesse even when he’s victorious. Trump’s most loaded words were these: “Together, we will determine the course of America and the world for many, many years to come.”

On a day when Washington repeats the phrase “peaceful transfer of power” like a mantra, the only way to figure out what anyone was really thinking was to study their body language. There were Trump’s teary eyes at the morning service at St. John’s Church adjacent to Lafayette Square. The order in which the Obamas and the Trumps stood when they met and posed for photos at the White House. And, not least, the white suit Hillary Clinton wore to the inauguration (“the color of the suffragette,” CNN’s Dana Bash said).

Clinton was at the Capitol, flashing her remarkable, situational political smile. Her only official words today came in a tweet saying she was attending the inauguration (despite massive Democratic boycotts) to “honor our democracy & its enduring values.”

As it happened, she and Bill Clinton walked in front of TV cameras at the Capitol just as Trump and Obama emerged from the White House to make their way there. CNN gave us loser’s theater: As Trump was on the way to the greatest hour of his life, Clinton was facing an hour of misery and humiliation. During the ceremony, Clinton sat in the second row. She chatted with her husband and George W. Bush. By the time Trump arrived, the CNN cameras had lost interest. This is how Hillary Clinton’s remarkable political career ended: as a prop for democracy and as a photo-bomb.

As Politico recently noted, Trump spent the 10 weeks since being elected napalming his enemies — and, indeed, the Washington society he would soon be joining. Thursday night, Trump took the mic at a donor’s event. He was wearing a tuxedo, but his mood was loose and braggy. This might have been a charity gala in Manhattan, if Trump gave a damn about charity.

“That was some big victory,” Trump said. He tweaked James “Mad Dog” Mattis for his nickname and Reince Priebus for his Christian name. Phyllis Schlafly — a religious-right activist — “went through hell” for supporting him, he said. Pointing out his son-in-law and political confidante Jared Kushner, Trump said that Ivanka “married very well … I sorta stole her husband. … If you can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can.” It was a remarkable boast, even by Trump’s standards.

In 2001, George W. Bush was seen by many as an illegitimate president. I remember the rainy nerviness of his Inauguration Day. His limo was egged; the parade route seemed tense. Yet Bush — as Michelle Obama would say — went high, speaking of “an angel [that] rides in the whirlwind.” (We would later realize how strong the whirlwind was, and how inadequate the angel.)

The question of whether Trump would similarly rise to the occasion was pointless. Of course he wouldn’t. Trump’s greatest political gift is to know the gloomy key in which to speak to his base. The only question was which Trump we would see: the loose, jokey Trump of the trail or the fire-and-brimstone Trump of the RNC?

It was the latter, it turned out. After placing his hand on the Lincoln Bible (here he followed Obama’s lead) and his mother’s family Bible, Trump stood before the Mall, his overcoat streaked with rain. (The pastor Franklin Graham would later point out that rain is a sign of God’s blessing.) Then Trump delivered a speech that was a filet mignon of populist red meat — a Steve Bannon joint.

“We are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people,” he said. “For too long,” a small cabal of Washington insiders, “has reaped the rewards of government.” He added: “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.”

And so went a repetitious drone: It’s not about me; it’s about you. At one point, the cameras caught Barack Obama listening with eyes nearly shut, as if he had decided at that very second to take up Transcendental Meditation.

Trump played a lot of his jukebox hits from the stump. We have been busy securing other nations’ borders but not our own; we have worried over the maquiladora while neglecting the factory in Ohio. The “inner cities” — a loaded Trumpian phrase — are war zones scarred by “the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives.”

What remains mysterious is when Trump will pivot — when he’ll stop blaming Obama for the conflagration he alleges the 44th president left behind and start owning the state of the country. As he did with the Carrier air conditioner caper, I’m guessing these instances will be strategic and rare — Trump flourishes in an imagined state of emergency.

Trying to impute any actual policy to Trump is a dangerous game. (A few days ago, he was saying all Americans would be covered by his alternative to Obamacare.) But in his speech, he seemed to advocate not only economic protectionism but foreign-policy discretion: “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example … for everyone to follow.”

This is isolationism, pure and simple. On the one hand, Trump gets (some) points for consistency. On the other, such ideology sounds more terrifying when it’s delivered not at a rally in Cincinnati but from the Capitol: “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.”

Trump never acknowledged Hillary Clinton nor the closeness of the election nor his own growing unpopularity. There were only a few trademark phrases of political speechmaking: “the Bible tells us … We stand … ready to unlock the mysteries of space.” If Trump tried to walk back his disgusting racial rhetoric from the campaign, it was during a short riff about two children — one from Nebraska, another from the “urban sprawl” of Detroit — “infused with the breath of life by the same almighty Creator.” It wasn’t much.

“Together, we will make America great again,” Trump said finally, his fingers forming into dueling pistols. As expected, the speech was short — less than 20 minutes. Speeches are shorter when you leave out the grace notes.

As president, Richard Nixon delivered a “new” Nixon to the public whenever it suited him. Trump will be polyamorous with ideology, but there will be no “new” Trump — just the remorseless, unforgiving man who stood before the Mall on Friday. As the politicians filed out of Capitol, their ritual complete, I thought of a comment that Trumpite Jeffrey Lord made on CNN the night before: “I think what you’re seeing here is how the next four years are going to go.” Yes, yes, yes.