WASHINGTON – After every major Trump speech or event, the person I was before it seems desperately naive. I have been a consistent Trump critic, but my expectations are never quite low enough.
Some of us approach Inauguration Day with a kind of democratic reverence. Its customs encourage the love of country. The best inaugural addresses offer historical context, emphasize shared values, encourage engaged citizenship, express goals worthy of a great nation, and at least attempt to wrap it all up in a neat package of rhetorical ambition.
For Donald Trump, who lives in an eternal now, Inaugural Day was Friday, offering another opportunity to deliver a less raucous version of his stump speech – a chance to slam the establishment and make Peronist promises to reverse globalization. Apart from a few nice phrases undoubtedly borrowed from other, superior drafts, the “American Carnage” speech was blunt, flat and devoid of craft. Also devoid of generosity, humility and grace. Making it perfectly credible as the work of Trump’s own hand.
Trump’s inaugural was instructive in this way: America has chosen a man for whom traditions and norms mean nothing. (Less than nothing when he finds them constraining.) He used the center stage of American public life to belittle nearly everyone seated around him. They have “reaped the rewards of government,” prospered at the expense of the people, celebrated while families struggled, and are “all talk and no action.”
These, of course, are the only people who can take action – legislative action – after the Obama-era executive orders get rescinded. Trump certainly did not appeal to members of Congress for help. So he must be counting on “the people” to intimidate their representatives into supporting the Trump agenda. I wonder, for example, how Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might respond to this pressure tactic, particularly after being treated to Trump’s rhetorical version of the Red Wedding on the West Front of the Capitol. (Non-”Game of Thrones” fans will need to look this up).
Though I doubt the inspiration is conscious, Trump’s inaugural address owes a great deal to philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (or at least one interpretation of him). Rousseau wrote of leaders who incarnate “the general will.” Trump argues that the American people have been betrayed by the venal people they elect and re-elect. Since the normal processes of democracy have been corrupted, bringing America to the brink of ruin, a strong hand is required.
In Trump’s speech, there are just two uncorrupted actors: the people and the president. The only thing that Trump asks of citizens is to support him. So this really leaves only one actor who actually acts – a leader who claims to embody the general will. When Trump asserts, “We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth,” who is the “we”? It is the “forgotten men and women” and the single leader who has not forgotten them.
In this light, Trump’s announcement of “the hour of action” has an ominous ring. He demonstrates no respect for norms of presidential magnanimity and self-restraint. He has declared that his “oath of allegiance” was taken “to all Americans” rather than to the Constitution. He is impatient with a corrupt and paralyzed legislature. And he has claimed a general mandate to interpret and pursue his vision of the people’s interests. In the past, we have, I have, been mistaken to discount and downplay the plain meaning of Trump’s words. The oath of office has turned a laughable Putin imitation into a very real concern.
This view of presidential leadership involves an almost unlimited faith in government. Never shying from contradiction, the “American Carnage” speech starts out, “We are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people.” But by Trump’s argument, only the president truly represents the people and acts on their behalf. And so it is the state that will bring back jobs, borders and wealth. It is the state that will build new roads and railways. It is the state that will get people off of welfare to rebuild the country. It is the state that will “bring back our dreams.” Trump’s inaugural speech is a funeral oration at the death of Reaganism, and of conservatism more broadly. In his first inaugural, Ronald Reagan declared government to be “the problem.” When Trump says that government is the problem, he means all government but himself.
The rest of the American government – both Congress and the courts – has been given fair warning.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.