When you practice the same speech over and over again you get pretty good at delivering it.
Since Donald Trump announced on June 16, 2015 that he was running for President of the United States he has been giving the same stump speech around the country. Yesterday that speech became his inauguration address. In terms of delivery, force, and its appeal to his base, it was the best speech I have ever heard Donald Trump deliver.
Barack Obama called us to hope. Donald Trump basically said that there is no hope apart from his presidency. Trump made no reference to American ideals. There were few references to our better angels. There were no references to taking care of each other or working for the common good. Trump painted a picture of a nation defined by “carnage” and “decay.” The only hope of rising above it all, he seemed to suggest, is to put one’s faith in the strongman. Trump represents the worst form of populism. At times he sounded like the leader of a religious cult. At other times he reminded me of the Twilight Zone character Major French riding around in an old jeep and carrying a machine gun as he tried to solidify his power in a post-apocalyptic America.
Trump won the election because he understood the plight of white working people. Indeed, these folks have been left behind. Factories are closed. Jobs have gone overseas. Globalization is destroying local communities. People want better trade deals. The national infrastructure is in a state of decay. Trump has become their champion.
Others voted for Trump primarily because he promised to deliver the Supreme Court. These Americans worry about things like abortion and gay marriage and religious liberty. Their political decisions are often informed by nostalgia for the good old days–a time when the country was less diverse. Rather than drawing upon the resources of their faith to shape their political witness, they have turned to the political strongman for support in helping to reclaim America and make it “great” again. Trump discerned their fears and won them over in massive numbers much in the same way, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has suggested, Syrians turn to Assad for protection.
Let’s face it–Trump proved to be a brilliant politician. He heard the people and responded. In the process he got into the gutter with the rest of the politicians and showed them he could play politics better than they could. As Trump played fast and lose with the truth, demonized and dehumanized everyone who got in his way, and generally took the immoral nature of politics to its logical conclusion, the GOP and many evangelical Christians compromised their consciences for a big mess of political pottage. I could hardly watch Trump speak at a luncheon for GOP leadership on Thursday without thinking about the compromises that each one of those politicians had to make in order to be there.
Some might say that I am being unfair to Trump. After all, he did use his inaugural speech to appeal to national unity. “When you open your heart to patriotism,” Trump said, “there is no room for prejudice.” This is a nice turn of phrase, but what does it mean? I have no idea. I am guessing it is some kind of a call to unity since the phrase was written in the same paragraph as Trump’s reference to Psalm 133:1: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” (A verse calling Israel to unity in their worship of God in Jerusalem).
All of the lip service he paid to national unity in his speech rings hollow in the context of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and his divisive period of transition. Future historians, as long as they are still around and remain concerned with reading documents in context , will interpret the speech this way. Trump wants unity on his terms and on the terms of the minority of Americans who voted for him. If we wants to be an effective president he will need to offer Americans a vision that everyone can embrace. I doubt it will happen.