Donald John Trump was sworn in Friday as the 45th president of the United States of America, but in his angry, graceless inauguration speech he described this as a country that I do not recognize.
He described a small and petty nation closed off and fearful of being victimized by the rest of the world, an idea that other countries would find astonishing. He described us not as “the shining city on the hill,” the biblical phrase borrowed by Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy, but as a fortress city, hemmed in by enemies, surrounded by a wall, and a moat, and minefields.
To hear him tell it, our schools are a disaster, “leav(ing) our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.” The economy is in collapse, with “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” Violence and mayhem are the order of the day. Government of the people, by the people and for the people had been lost, and the country itself had been stolen from those who by right ought to own it.
But fear not, he told us. Fear not, for “from this day forward, a new vision will govern our land.” Fear not, because “January 20th, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”
As of this day, “we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people.”
As of this day, “this American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
Listening to our new president, you would never know that the percentage of Americans with high school degrees and college degrees has never been higher, that we have created more than 15 million jobs in the last six years, that the rate of violent crime has fallen by almost half in the past 25 years, that “help wanted” signs are everywhere you look, that wages are rising.
Do we have problems? Of course we do. As a whole we are wealthier today than we have ever been in our history, but that wealth has not been distributed equitably. Substantial pockets of our nation, both demographic and geographic, have been left behind while others have benefited enormously.
During the campaign, one of Trump’s key themes was the promise to correct that inequity. He railed often against the economic elite, Goldman Sachs, Wall Street bankers and corporate CEOs — “big business,” he called it in his GOP acceptance speech — “that have rigged our political and economic system for their own benefit.”
In an inaugural speech that basically rehashed his campaign rhetoric, that talk of a rigged economy was notably absent. This time, when he talked of the establishment enriching itself, it was pointedly and precisely the political establishment that he targeted. “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have bore the cost,” he said. “Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered but the jobs left and the factories closed.”
Having installed billionaire after billionaire in his Cabinet, having turned control of the nation’s treasury, economy and foreign policy to Goldman Sachs and Exxon-Mobil executives, having fully embraced tax cuts that will overwhelmingly benefit the overwhelmingly wealthy, I guess it was time to quietly retire such talk and hope no one noticed.
People are going to notice.
In his speech, Trump presented himself as the avatar of “a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before,” but the world has seen such movements many times. Many many times we’ve seen people sell themselves as the champion of the forgotten man, to use Trump’s term, and many, many times it is the forgotten man who is forgotten. I see no sign this time is going to turn out differently.