Well, it’s happened. Right up to the moment when Donald John Trump put his weirdly tiny hand on the Bible, and swore the oath, I bet there were still millions who thought that something, anything would stop it short. Watching it live on TV, you tensed for the shot, the Indira Ghandi moment, in which the bodyguard turned as one and shot both Trump and Pence, then the Speaker Paul Ryan, etc.* Didn’t happen, Trump didn’t start riffing on the oath — “I’m going to do really great stuff, the most beautiful stuff you every saw, it’s going to be really so wonderful, so help me God” — and by one minute past noon, Donald Trump was President of the US. There was pleasant surprise when he didn’t call for the nuclear launch briefcase, and launch a strike right from the podium. The whole thing had the air of, as everything Trump does, a talent competition run by a white goods retailer in a Westfield Shoppingtown on a wet Wednesday afternoon, but it looked like proprieties were being observed.
Then we got to that inauguration speech.
Historians might be able to find a presidential inauguration address as fantastical, programmatic, partisan, mean-spirited, divisive as the number Trump did on the country last week, but I doubt it. Some compared it to Reagan’s first inauguration, which had a strong anti-New Deal liberal message — but when you read the whole thing, you’ll see it’s about the policies, which he suggests are misguided, not evil. Trump painted the USA as a post-nuclear wasteland, drained by a government elite, an era which he said had now come to an end. Power had returned to the people, a new era had begun. By exercising this popular power, America would inaugurate a massive infrastructure program and by doing this, make itself great again.
Well, you know, this is where it gets complicated. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with a barn-burning political speech damning the elites. The suggestion that parts of the landscape are blasted victims of decades of liberal globalisation and corporate banditry leveraged by the state, is one that your correspondent has made many times. The platitudes about unity and the better angels of our nature in these sorts of speeches can be a pain, suggesting that no one was serious about their politics in the first place. What made Trump’s speech so sour and distasteful was not its energetic politics, but the fantasy nature of the solutions and the world-picture offered. It’s the sleazy feeling of having to consent to such unreal, self-serving worldviews, the unwillingness to tackle the world as it is.
Some will focus on the number of billionaires stuffed into the cabinet, against the anti-elitist pronouncements of the speech. But, per se, there’s no reason why billionaires couldn’t enact a positive program which got people back into jobs, re-floated stagnated and excluded regions etc. The distaste comes, I think, from knowing this is a fantasy, knowing that at least some of Trump’s circle know that, and not knowing what to hope for — that Trump’s unreal promises be exposed to his gullible followers by failure? Or that his team achieve something of what they are promising, and thus improve people’s lives — which would include not merely low-income white men, but women, Latinos and black people as well?
Trump can’t succeed in the terms he has set for himself in that inauguration speech, of course. He didn’t write it — Steve Bannon of Bretibart did, judging by some of the cadences, and by the strong anti-free market, big spending infrastructure message. This was not a speech directed at liberals — there was very little about political correctness, or being allowed to speak freely , etc, which Trump had campaigned on. This was a programmatic speech aimed against free-marketeers and small-government, spending-reduction types on the right. The stage is now set for a knock-down-drag-out fight between two wings of the right. If the speech is taken as a statement of intent, then the fight will be on the right, and within it, far more than it will be with progressives, at least at first.
The main question then becomes: how much success would Donald Trump need to maintain the rust-belt support he currently enjoys (everywhere else, what support he had is fading fast)? How many factories, towns, counties need to be revived, for people to say, “yep something’s happening”? Not terribly much one suspects. Such people were voting for Trump out of, yes, hope, and they may be understanding enough to not blame him terribly, if their own lives don’t improve. If the next county over retained an exhaust-pipe factory, or a new furniture assembly plant opened two towns across, that may well suffice.
But wow, that inaugural address really did, quite unnecessarily, set the bar high. Especially after it was followed by Trump press spokesperson Sean Spicer’s hilarious first press conference — in which he suggested that photos showing the inauguration crowds being nothing like the size of Obama’s 2009 crowds were part of a media plot. On day two! Anyone on the left with the real sads, should remember that, had there been a different result, Hillary Clinton and team would now be working 24/7 on ramming through the Trans Pacific Partnership, with the support of the Republican free-market right. So dry your tears. This is going to be interesting every day, every hour. And what arises from it, in contest and conflict — beautiful, so beautiful.
*sorry, there’s no amount of assassination that gets a Democrat into the job. There are only two sworn-in cabinet members, they’re both Republican. After that, congress elects another speaker, and they become president.