On the Trump Inaugural

I have drawn a cartoon about the Trump inauguration as well. Check it out on CNN.


It was, first and foremost, a very ideological speech. The ideology was not one that’s been heard in Washington in some time, which makes it easy to dismiss as vacuous or irrelevant. Yet his will remain an inaugural of unique dogmatism, an embrace of a particular principle at the expense of convention and cliche.

President Trump laid out the animating philosophy of his government in terms succinct and blunt. “From this moment on, it’s going to be America First,” he said, later fleshing that out into “two simple rules: Buy American and hire American.”

Globalization, outsourcing, open borders, and even trade were framed as enemies. A portrait was painted of a world where nations struggle for spoils, and America had forgotten how to play. He said “it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first,” and vowed that was all he would do.

Like all unapologetically ideological speeches, Trump’s clarity of thought came at the expense of broader appeal. By definition, a democratic politician will be elected by a relatively homogenous community of voters, shared interest and identity being what inspires block voting in the first place. The challenge of a leader is to honor this mandate while recognizing the moral validity of experiences outside it.

Trump’s base of disillusioned white laborers feels economically depressed, politically ignored, and culturally despised. No doubt many of the communities they inhabit resemble the landscape the President described in vivid, gothic terms, with its “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones,” and so on. The villains of this world were the villains of the speech.

Since November, Trump’s electorate has been the subject of studious sociological sympathy, yet their perception of suffering can only exist in the context of another America comparatively better off. The United States is still the best-performing G7 economy, and America remains a global fount of innovation, ideas, and culture the rest of the planet envies and follows.  The country’s rapid clip of technological advancement, social change, and global interconnectedness bring challenges, but also joy and inspiration. No one lives a life entirely on the dark half of an era. Historians will find it curious to read a speech written in the early days of 2017 that focuses exclusively on the anxieties of what is, by any objective standard, still a tremendously exciting and interesting time to be alive.

From a purely political perspective, Trump’s inaugural was also rather high-risk, in the sense the President encouraged the American people to use high, subjective standards to judge his rule. While other presidents lay out specific policy goals, implying their success should be judged by an ability to implement, Trump’s promises were vaguer assurances that Americans would simply experience life differently, and perceive the realities of their country less cynically. “The people” will be in charge of Washington’s agenda. Those who feel forgotten “will be forgotten no longer” and “never be ignored again.” And yes, “every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families.” Every single one.

It’s not impossible for a politician to win re-election on the giddy tides of a changed national spirit, but it is difficult, and could be uniquely difficult for Trump, considering the ills he vowed to undo — greedy corporations, out-of-touch politicians, etc. — are some of the most entrenched tropes of American culture. There’s already been much grumbling over whether Trump’s rather conventional cabinet reflects an appropriately “drained swamp” administration, and should he govern as a boringly conventional Republican, or a figurehead to Congress, it will be easy for a Democrat in 2020 to ask voters, in Reagan-like fashion, if they feel as good as Trump promised they would. My sense is the public can be convinced they feel bad with greater ease than they can be convinced various policy victories didn’t occur. Yet these are the terms Trump has set for his fight.


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