Trump’s inaugural address was dark and scary

President Donald Trump’s inaugural address managed an impressive rhetorical feat. It was both a less reassuring picture of America than Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural — delivered on the eve of the Civil War — and more optimistic than JFK’s offer of a “grand global alliance … that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind.”

Here’s how he managed that: President Trump simultaneously overstated the problems America is facing and understated the difficulty of fixing them.

Phrases like “American carnage” aren’t what we expect to hear from American presidents

The speech is likely to be remembered for Trump’s most dystopian turns of phrase. “American carnage” sounds like nothing in American rhetoric so much as British politician Enoch Powell’s 1968 speech warning of “rivers of blood” (a speech, incidentally, warning that Britain was being invaded by immigrants). When Trump said, “We are transferring power from Washington, DC, and giving it back to you, the people,” he might have been channeling Ronald Reagan’s “we are a nation that has a government, not the other way round” — but it sounded much more reminiscent of Bane’s address to the people of Gotham in The Dark Knight Returns

To a certain extent, Trump’s dystopia is comfort — of a different sort. Like all of Trump’s most memorable rhetoric, the inaugural address succeeded because it resonated with a very specific slice of Americans. This is the slice that feels unsteady and threatened, that regards facts about broad prosperity and general progress as a callous dismissal of those who are suffering. Trump’s form of comfort is validation: to claim he remembers “the forgotten men and women” and that all their fears are well-founded.

When people say Trump’s supporters take him “seriously but not literally,” they’re wrong: Many supporters do take Trump’s promise to build a wall literally, for example, and they’re right to do so. But this is the truth that “seriously not literally” gestures to: Identifying a problem in American life — whether it is real, imaginary, or exaggerated — became synonymous with caring about the people worrying about those things.

He proudly proclaims the state of the country is now his responsibility. But the parts of his speech that resonate with his followers — the tales of “American carnage” — reflect things he is already, as president, trying to consign to the past.

If he suddenly pivots, and declares everything Already Great, he’ll be asking his followers to dismiss their own anxieties, the ones he spent years validating. If he continues to harp on the problems, he’ll ultimately have to come up with a good reason why he hasn’t solved them.

Either way, he’s going to have to ask something of his followers, instead of simply validating their fears.

 

 

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