The sun sets on the Capitol after Trump's inauguration Farragutful

If his inaugural address was supposed to be conciliatory, it was anything but. Rather than ‘pivoting’, as some had hoped, Donald Trump offered us a populist vision.      

Inaugural addresses traditionally contain a rhetorical element, some key characteristic which will form the basis of future American success, “our summons for greatness”, as Nixon once put it. For Kennedy, it was “a celebration of freedom”. For Franklin Roosevelt, it was fearlessness. For Obama, it was “hope and virtue”. Trump offered none of this. Greatness would be established by ‘the people’ – and by him

Trump began his address with a characteristic attack on the wicked Washington establishment.  “For too long”, he claimed, “a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government, while the people have borne the cost”.  This was populism at its best – the rhetoric of a corrupt political elite. Up to now, the powerful had governed at the expense of the people. “The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.” All of this would change.

“Greatness would be established by ‘the people’ – and by him.”  

Trump promised to break with the past and empower the people. In perhaps his most presidential moment Trump thanked the Obamas “for their gracious aid throughout this transition”. To mark a break with the past, though, he emphasised that “today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning”.  (Thanks for everything, Obama – but no thanks). America was to be run by the people once again. “We are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another – but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the American people”.   

To be sure, inaugural addresses in the past have talked about ‘the people’. Look at Reagan’s address from 1981, and you will see him talk of America as “a united people” committed to maintaining “individual liberty”. Recognising the people does not qualify per se as populism – claiming that the country’s problems would be solved simply because the people were governing themselves is. In Trump's view, “What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people”.

Trump spoke the language of unity to buoy up “the people”. “We are one”, he insisted. “We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny”. Ominously, though, unity would only be achieved through patriotism: “We all bleed the same red blood of patriots.”  

It’s curious how Trump gets away with deploying the language of populism, given he is himself a member of the 0.1 per cent. In the past, Trump has boasted that he is so rich that he could not be bought out by lobbyists. “While I’m beating my opponents in the polls”, he tweeted in 2015, “I’m also beating lobbyists, special interests & donors that are supporting them with billions”. And yet Trump was the underdog. He had never held public office, and so was not a member of the political establishment. Nor is he popular within the cultural industry. The lack of any A-list performers at his Freedom Ball is testament to this. Indeed, from The Simpsons to Gilmore Girls, Trump is often the butt of the joke. Trump has remained distant from this establishment, always one step removed.

“It’s curious how Trump gets away with deploying the language of populism, given he is himself a member of the 0.1 per cent.”

Trump’s anti-establishment posturing enables him to claim that the system is rigged, his opponents corrupt – and that he is the solution. He dubbed CNN “fake news”. He called Clinton “Crooked Hillary” who ran “the dishonest media”. Trump constructs a narrative which is easy to follow. The system lies; only he tells the truth. “I will tell you the plain facts that have been edited out of your nightly news”, he declared in his Republican National Convention speech in September, “I will present the facts”.         

Trump wants us to believe that he is the solution to America’s problems. “I alone can fix it”, he claimed in his Convention speech. Underpinning future American greatness would not be some political or moral value, like freedom or fearlessness – how foolish for past presidents to think otherwise. American greatness was to be found in him. It was the Donald himself. “I will fight for you with every breath in my body – and I will never, ever let you down”. 

The Donald promised action. “The time for empty talk is over”, he proclaimed. “Now arrives the hour of action.” There would be more economic protectionism. “Buy American and hire American.” Every government decision, from trade to foreign affairs, would “be made to benefit American workers and American families”. How different this all was from Obama’s internationalism, when he spoke of “a new era of responsibility” for Americans “to the world”. Trump rejects this responsibility. “We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world”, he said. “But we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first”. Reject globalism, and take back control. Then came the infamous mantra, “Make America Great Again”.

“Conciliation?  This was confirmation.”

Trump’s address was no ‘pivot point’, as some had hoped. Rather, it demonstrated his populist vision of an America so self-absorbed that nothing else in the world matters; his vision of an America united in its insatiable love for itself, and in its love for him. Conciliation? This was confirmation. Power to the people, “America first, America first.”

What’s Donald Trump’s solution to America’s problems? The people (and Donald Trump).