Saturday, January 21, 2017

Darkness at noon: Trump assumes the presidency

UNDER LEADEN SKIES in Washington, a kind of future for the United States began on Friday at noon. With an inaugural speech that dressed nationalism in the robes of patriotism, rage in the robes of strength and protectionism in no robes at all, Donald John Trump — sociopathic attention addict, billionaire supergrifter, real-estate mogul, labia grabber, Moscow marionette and the greatest carnival barker in history — assumed the office of President of the United States of America. So help me God.

The event expected for about ten weeks was sparsely attended, certainly by the standards of either the 2009 and 2013 inaugurals for President Obama. Those who braved the weather were treated to the fashion show that an American inauguration is. New first lady Melania Trump channeled Jacqueline Kennedy in a powder-blue number designed by Ralph Lauren. Outgoing first lady Michelle Obama (whom we miss already) wore Jason Wu.

President Obama (whom we also miss already) came correct, in the last suit and tie he's likely to wear for a good, long, deserved while. Obama smiled warmly as he greeted The Donald, who came wearing what looked to be his usual campaign attire: dark suit, blinding white shirt and Pantone Republican-red tie. He came dressed for business. When Trump spoke, in his first POTUS address, it was pretty clear he was ready to give America the business.

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Simply put, any hope that Inauguration Day might usher in a Kinder Gentler™ Donald Trump were dashed from the start. There was just more opportunity to induce the same rhetorical blunt-force trauma that characterized his speeches on the campaign trail for a year and a half. Factories shuttered! Jobs fleeing to foreign lands! Criminals loose and crazy in the streets a la “The Purge”! Trump doubled down Friday on the same hellscape vision he painted from the start of his White House bid in June 2015 — a vision that only he can rescue us from.

“For too long,” he said, “a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. The Establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.

“Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs. And while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.

“That all changes starting right here and right now, because this moment is your moment; it belongs to you.”

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AT OTHER TIMES, Trump seemed to be talking about another country altogether. At one point in his catalog of travail — “mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” — he declares with plenary fire that “[t]his American carnage stop[s right here and stops right now.”

“American carnage”? Great title for a slasher movie. It’s a phrase whose heat and power seemed designed to provoke an emotional response, rather than an intellectual one. Trump in campaign mode. Still.

Then he said that “[F]or many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry,” overlooking the more recent rise of U.S. corporate profits to record levels (during the Obama administration, inconveniently enough). He lamented “the very sad depletion of our military,” in a statement that’s almost a slander of what has been and remains the world’s pre-eminent military force.

Read NPR’s annotated version of Trump’s speech

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And in a disconcerting misappropriation of a freighted historical phrase, Trump said: “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. It’s going to be only America first. America first.”

In this regrettable call to American nationalism — almost certainly written by Trump White House chief strategist/media prince of darkness Stephen Bannon — Trump invoked the name of the America First Committee, an American movement with a history of isolationism and anti-Semitism in the run-up to America’s entrance into World War II; the aviator Charles Lindbergh was a supporter of the group and its non-interventionist policy.

Whether Trump grasped the deeper implications of the antiquated phrase he used on Friday is anyone’s guess.

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I’VE BEEN watching and listening to inaugural addresses since John F. Kennedy’s, in 1960,” wrote Ed Kilgore, a New York Magazine reporter and a veteran of previous presidential orations. “I’ve never heard anything like this one in terms of its divisive content and complete lack of uplift.”

“Even its call for the blessings of the Almighty was to a nationalist God Trump seemed to be charging with protecting the country — if and only if our military and police forces failed. And absent any admission of his own fallibility, his appeal to unity sounded more like a threat of repression than a call for mutual understanding and bipartisanship.

“By the time Trump got to the climax of the address, a secular doxology of the national greatness he would achieve (wealthy! strong! safe!), the hope of so many people, especially those who fear him, that the 45th president would rise to the moment and make a graceful, civic-minded speech, had long been dashed.”

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A low high point of Inauguration Day got even lower. You can see it in any number of still shots and videos of the inaugural parade: vast swathes of empty bleachers all along the parade route. Secret Service agents walking the presidential limousine down streets and next to sidewalks as empty as they’d be first thing on a Sunday morning.

Even for the billionaire mogul known for faith in the power of positive thinking (Norman Vincent Peale’s book was an early influence), the sight of empty bleachers couldn’t help but be dispiriting.

As much for us as for him. By definition, inaugurations are all about beginnings. By most of our longstanding civic metrics, Friday’s was not a good one for a new leader of the nation that, naysayers of American exceptionalism notwithstanding, still says something singular around the world.

An American president is a direct reflection of the people who elected him to office. That we chose an arrogant, racist, insecure, transactional, bullying billionaire hotelier to represent this nation to the world says more about us — our vision, our pride, our judgment, our sense of ourselves — than it says about the man himself.

Image credits: Trump top: Andrew Harnik/Associated Press. Trump 2: Patrick Semansky/Associated Press. Trump 3: Getty Images via Politico. Motorcade walk: Soledad O'Brien.

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