The flamethrower has been passed to a new generation, an older generation, bristling with resentments yet faithful to themes of the 2016 campaign.
Donald J. Trump’s inaugural address was one for the ages. For decades to come — no matter how his presidency is remembered — the bluntness of his words on a grey and rainy Friday afternoon will be recalled as a turning point, a fork in the winding road of American democracy.
After offering his appreciation to the Obamas for their help during the transition, Trump didn’t even pause for a grace note before switching to pitchfork populism. Other politicians, especially Al Gore in 2000, have run for president as a tribune of “the people versus the powerful.” But never before has a new president stood on the Capitol steps to declare, “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.”
Trump never defined who that “small group” is. Did it just refer to the Democrats in the audience, including three former presidents, counting Barack Obama? Or was it a broader-brush attack on Washington elitism — including House Speaker Paul Ryan, who appeared especially pleased when Mike Pence, a traditional conservative, was sworn in as vice president?
Headline writers may define the Trump inaugural address by his apocalyptic promise that “this American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
But the more thematic passage was when Trump returned to a line that he used in his Republican convention speech in Cleveland: “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.” Franklin Roosevelt popularized “the forgotten man” during the 1932 campaign, whom he depicted as the unheralded worker at “the bottom of the economic pyramid.”
Trump may well be a president who, like automaker Henry Ford, believes that “history is bunk.” But it was striking how much borrowed 1930s imagery was embedded in the 16-minute speech.
Even though the slogan “America First” harks back to Charles Lindbergh and his isolationist (and sometimes anti-Semitic) movement against U.S. entry into World War II, Trump has continued to embrace it with a passion.
There was also an echo of FDR’s 1937 inaugural address as Trump portrayed the America he was inheriting. Roosevelt declared, “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” For President Trump, it was “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones” and “the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives.”
Of course, there is overwhelming evidence that the crime rate has plunged (especially in Trump’s hometown of New York) over the past two decades. And economists will eagerly point out that changing technology (like robotics) have done far more than trade treaties like NAFTA to hollow out America’s 1950s industrial core.
But that’s not the view that the new president saw from the campaign trail and from his fortress of solitude atop Trump Tower. Much about Trump may reflect the cynicism of the eternal huckster, but his portrayal of a dying America calling out for rescue by a superhero seems sincere.
More important, this was probably the portion of the inaugural address that prompted Trump’s supporters to nod in enthusiastic agreement. Throughout the campaign, Trump played up the idea of America as Uncle Sucker. And he returned to that theme Friday as he declared, “We’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own.”
Those are words that are likely to be parsed from the Baltic States to South Korea. Foreign policy specialists around the globe are probably writing briefing memos right now, struggling to explain precisely what Trump meant when he said, “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones.”
Of course, there is a danger in constructing elaborate theories around a single speech from a new president — especially a president who decried “politicians who are all talk and no action.” Far wiser to follow the advice offered to reporters by Attorney General John Mitchell in 1969 at the beginning of the Nixon presidency: “Watch what we do, not what we say.”
Historians may struggle to explain the violent lurch in the American presidency from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. But Trump’s speech was a reminder that psychological wounds, as well as the economic ones, from the 2008 financial collapse have yet to fully heal.
Maybe that partly explains why America has elected back-to-back the two most unlikely presidents in our history.
Not only is Obama African-American, not only was he partly raised in Indonesia, but he also began running for president in 2007 after holding major office for just two years. Trump’s political arc actually makes Obama’s history almost seem conventional. Who, other than Trump staring into the shaving mirror, could have imagined that failed casinos and a reality TV show would offer a path to the Oval Office?
It is a cliche that every election offers a choice between change and the status quo. The American people — or, at least, the Electoral College — have embraced change with a vengeance. And Trump, as the 45th president, promises to bring with him “the hour of action.”
The hope on this historic Friday is that — after a career filled with disputed deals — President Donald J. Trump understood exactly what he was agreeing to when he pledged to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.