WASHINGTON – The word popped up in the opening sentence of Barack Obama’s first inaugural address and in the opening paragraphs of George W. Bush’s.
“Humbled,” each man said of himself, and while it was pure cliché, it was also what we wanted and needed: a sign, no matter how rote, that even someone self-assured enough to pursue the presidency was taking the measure of that responsibility and asking if he was worthy of it.
Does that question cross Donald Trump’s mind?
I don’t think so. I certainly didn’t get that sense from his inaugural remarks, and not just because “humbled” went missing. As he stood just feet from four of the last six presidents, he trashed them, talking about a Washington establishment blind and deaf to the struggles of less fortunate Americans.
He characterized his election as part of “a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen.” Forget about his loss of the popular vote. Or his 40 percent favorability rating. Or the puny crowd at his inauguration in comparison with the throngs at Obama’s eight years ago. Trump remained a singular man on a singular mission – a legend in his own mind.
We’ve already become so accustomed to his egomania that we sometimes forget how remarkable it is. He’s a braggart beyond his predecessors in the Oval Office, and that says something sad and scary about the country that elected him and the kind of leader he’s likely to be. With Trump we enter a new age of arrogance. He’s the cock crowing at its dawn.
His first stop after arriving here Thursday afternoon for the inaugural festivities was his recently opened hotel, a transformation of the Old Post Office. He pronounced its principal ballroom “gorgeous” and declared that “a total genius must have built this place.” He was referring to himself.
Then, talking about his nominees for top administration jobs, he said: “We have, by far, the highest IQ of any Cabinet ever assembled.” That’s obviously unknowable. But it’s entirely in keeping with his nonstop insistence that everything about him is magical, epochal, amazing.
As he went through the traditional inaugural paces, he toggled between the dignified bearing expected of a man in his role and the coarse bravado that he prefers.
His remarks to his supporters at the Lincoln Memorial early Thursday evening included the assertion that his victory was really theirs. “You had much more to do with it than I did,” he told them. “I’m just the messenger.”
But then he recited, for perhaps the thousandth time, how emphatically he defied so many pundits’ predictions and how huge his rallies were. He has indulged this tangent so repeatedly that Politico recently published a story with the headline “Trump Can’t Stop Talking About How He Won.”
And while he kept his remarks at the inauguration brief and said “you” and “we” much more often than “I,” that’s exactly why they were so flaccid. To find his full voice, he must be singing his own praises.
It was a dark speech, bemoaning “this American carnage” of gangs and drugs. It was a mean speech, insulting every one of his new colleagues by describing politicians as “all talk and no action – constantly complaining but never doing anything about it.”
But mostly it was a flat speech, bereft of the poetry that this tense juncture called for. He used pared-down language, simple sentences and a sluggish delivery, as if he were reading to children. Call it the “Goodnight Moon” of inaugural addresses.
He does as he pleases, expectations be damned, and indeed the most striking aspect of Trump’s transition was an absence of humility. Although he owed his Electoral College win to just 77,000 votes in three states, and it was clouded by questions about James Comey and the Russians, he didn’t bother much with outreach to adversaries or appeals for unity.
He put together that high-IQ team of his with few of the usual courtesies and considerations. None of his Cabinet nominees are Democrats. None is Latino. Only one, Ben Carson, his choice for housing secretary, is black.
Many are billionaires or bigmouths whose outsize vanity mirrors Trump’s. Rick Perry came to his assignment as energy secretary from a stint on “Dancing With the Stars.” Carson’s palatial Maryland home has been described as a gaudy shrine to … Ben Carson, with plaques that honor him and photographs that glamorize him on prominent display.
Every president in my lifetime has been conceited. It’s more or less a job requirement. Bush had a bloated faith in his gut and his charm, while Obama fancied himself the smartest, most soulful person in almost any room.
But they were nothing like Trump, who’s a preening cartoon. He brags like he breathes. It’s autonomic. And he gloats the way our parents and teachers always told us not to.
But that admonition predated Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. Social media have blurred the line between sharing and showing off, and they’ve turned self-promotion into a tic. In our private and our professional lives, we’re prodded to burnish our images, to advertise our assets, to sell, sell, sell. Is it any wonder, then, that we looked up Friday to see, in front of the Capitol, taking the oath of office, a gaudy confidence man who’s all about the sale? Is it any accident?
His campaign was an unprecedented orgy of self-congratulation. At the start of almost every rally, he trumpeted his poll numbers, and I don’t mean a few quick bleats – I mean a vulgar music that could go on for minutes. At the conclusion of almost every debate, he announced how brilliantly he’d done.
When he stepped up to a microphone to introduce Mike Pence as his running mate, he seemed to forget all about him, and instead paid tribute to himself in a rambling soliloquy more than 20 minutes long. He didn’t stick around onstage for Pence’s remarks.
At the Republican National Convention, warning of national decline, he thundered, “I alone can fix it.” And in the months before and after, he complimented himself out loud and lavishly on everything from the magnitude of his wealth to the majesty of his phallus. That might have disqualified him in another era, but Americans stomached it. More than that, they rewarded it, proving that ours is a different moment, with different mores.
Trump took credit for a drop in the television viewership for pro football: He was providing a superior spectacle. When the ratings for “The New Celebrity Apprentice” with Arnold Schwarzenegger were revealed, he tweeted that they paled next to those for the original “Apprentice,” which starred “the ratings machine, DJT.”
Presidential? Hah! But neither was the tweet that wished a “Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do. Love!”
It’s staggering, and it’s endless. During his only real news conference as president-elect, he mused that he could master the management of the country and of his business simultaneously, noting that while the law bars other government officials from such double duty, there’s no such formal restriction on the president.
“I would be the only one that would be able to do that,” he said. “I could run the Trump Organization – great, great company – and I could run the country. I’d do a very good job.” It was like a Russian nesting doll of self-infatuation: boast within boast within boast.
If Trump and his tribe were humble or humbled, they wouldn’t have been caught trying to monetize his political currency, as when one of his sons peddled coffee with Ivanka or when her company hawked copies of the dress she wore at the convention and the jewelry she flashed on “60 Minutes.”
The Trumps are extreme, but they’re also emblematic of a creeping crassness and lack of restraint in public life. I think of the North Carolina Republicans who gallingly moved to dilute the governorship’s power before it could change hands from someone in their party to a Democrat.
I think of an interview that Harry Reid, the former Democratic leader, recently gave to New York magazine’s Jason Zengerle as he prepared to retire from the Senate. “I’ve done stuff no one else will do,” Reid volunteered, and then recalled – proudly, it seemed – the time during the 2012 presidential campaign when he falsely accused Mitt Romney of not having paid taxes. There was no modesty in that lie, and there’s no modesty in his apparent peace with it.
Still, he’s no Trump. Who is? Maybe Howard Roark, the protagonist of “The Fountainhead,” by Ayn Rand. Roark must defend his creative genius against the meddling of lesser mortals. Trump once described the novel as profound.
He has other Rand fans around him. Last month, The Washington Post’s James Hohmann identified a batch of Cabinet nominees, including Rex Tillerson, who are taken with her philosophy and work.
What does that bode for the coming months? We’ve seen hints in the past ones. Under fire, Trump rages, rails and frequently doubles down on his convictions and even his fictions. He rearranges reality to suit his self-regard, flinging accusations of “rigged” surveys and “fake news.”
A humbler man would doubt himself, extend an olive branch to his enemies, contemplate a middle ground. But then a humbler man wouldn’t have come down that escalator at Trump Tower and proceed to say what Trump said and do what he did. As I watched him flourish, I watched humility die. On Friday, our 45th president said its last rites.