There were many moments when I found the imagery and words of the inauguration inspiring, and they were all the same moment: the views of the sparse crowds. The Pence family walking by empty grandstands. The aerial comparisons of the jam-packed mall in 2009 and the deserted mall of 2017. The news that groups rented more buses to bring people to the Saturday anti-Trump march—the Women’s March—than to the inauguration itself. Nationwide more people will take to the streets in Washington, D.C. and nationwide to protest the policies of the new administration than to celebrate it.
These images warm my heart because they prove that the United States is still a free country.
If we were living in a dictatorship, the streets would have been crowded with cheering admirers. Censorship would have suppressed the reporting of the comparison photographs and factoids. The surveys that show Trump’s unprecedented unpopularity would have been rigged to pretend the man is universally beloved.
The mass revulsion and renewed activism motivated by the Electoral College’s decision to elect this unqualified no-nothing gives me cause for optimism, although I can’t help but wonder how many of the marchers voted for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson or stayed home on Election Day.
Both a friend of mine and I noticed that in most of the video streams and photographs (but not the one gracing the front page of the New York Times), the Trump family looks grim and unhappy. I shrugged it off as the typical awe and trembling that the nouveau riche feel when confronted by century-old traditions which fill them with the anxiety of those who believe in their hearts that they are unworthy. They focus on playing their role to perfection, which gives them a certain stiffness and seriousness of purpose. Contrast with the smiles, kidding and other grace notes that have brightened the inaugural performance of every other president in my lifetime. Of course all of them, even Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, were long-time insiders who participated in transfer of power ceremonies before and knew how government worked.
My friend, a practicing psychotherapist, saw an unhappy family in strife. For unhappy families, milestones and public events often provide a battlefield for playing out their problems. Mentally stable people, no matter how pissed off or disappointed they are at their spouse, child or parent, will hide behind a public mask. We know Hillary Clinton learned to do that during the 1990’s. But the more troubled a family or an individual, the less they can control themselves in public settings. Does family unhappiness explain the first family frowns? Before their grand entrance, did Trumpty-Dumpty berate everyone with commands, chides and insults?
As to Trump’s speech, I think MSNBC’s Chris Matthews put it best. It was Hitlerian.
Not so much specifically Hitlerian, but with many attributes of speeches given by fascists and totalitarians since human history began, including:
· References to the people as an organic unity that feels, moves, suffers and exults together. “We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny” sent a shudder down my spine because it fit right into a speech by Mussolini or Hitler. Or the ancient Greek tyrant Pisistratus, for that matter.
· Explicit and implicit linking of the people to the ruler, as if the ruler is the people and the people are the ruler.
· The big lies, which in the inauguration speech focused on the current state of the country. To the degree that there ever was “American Carnage,” it has ended over the past 25 years, as crime rates, shooting of police by others and terrorism have gone way down. The education system is not flush with cash, as Trump averred. As the unemployment rate and income equality suggest, the problem is not a lack of jobs, but the low wages paid for most jobs nowadays. We have not, as Trump claims, depleted the military.
· The cry to put the country first, unlike what the old regime did, at least according to the incoming fascist dictator. “America First,” the rallying cry of the virulently anti-Semitic American fascists in the 1930’s and 1940’s, sounds no different from the Nazi proclamation to put “Deutschland űber alles.”
· The evocation of a special destiny for the country, the idea that the country is better, purer, more advanced. Both times that Trump declared American exceptionalism he implied or stated that it’s god’s will: the first time when he called us a “righteous public,” and more explicitly when he said that “we will be protected by God.”
· Glorification of a past that never existed. The past to which Trump refers is industrialized America during the twentieth century. Yes, we were an industrial nation, but always because we exported. As Sven Beckert’s magisterial Empire of Cotton demonstrates, the United States built its economy on trade from its very origins. Our manufacturing flourished in the 20th century because we were able to sell our goods everywhere. The other major inaccuracy in discussing our past was the idea that everything was wonderful back then—it was only wonderful for workers once they unionized, and then only for whites.
Embedded in the fascist rhetoric that both tore down the current state of the country and glorified the national ideal, were a mere three policy recommendations. Let’s pretend that we’re living in a logical world and consider those three initiatives the cornerstones of the Trump Administration:
1. Protectionist trade policies
2. War against “radical Islamic terrorism”
3. Investment in rebuilding our infrastructure of roads, bridges and highways
That’s a paltry program compared to what Regan, both Bushes, Clinton and Obama laid out in their inaugurations. Paltry, and mostly wrong-headed. Protectionist trade policies have been a contributing factor to most depressions in American history, as trade wars close off markets. Singling out Islam suggests a religious war, not a fight against terrorism. Rebuilding our infrastructure is something I and other left-wingers have been advocating for at least a decade. Too bad Trump didn’t say that he would pay for it by raising taxes on the wealthy, nor note that a national building program gives the country the opportunity to create the infrastructure needed for a post-fossil fuel economy.
But unlike other inaugural addresses, Trump’s remarks seemed less about describing a program and more about reminding people how lousy their lives were and how great they will be now that the big man is in charge.
While Trump channeled fascism in his inaugural address, his Administration got started with two symbolic acts that reminded me of Hemingway’s dictum not to confuse motion with action. Trump signed an executive order that allows agencies to dismantle those parts of the Affordable Care Act it is legal for the president to dismantle. No specifics, no commands, no timetables. Thus no real action.
All references to global warming suddenly disappeared from the White House website the moment the transfer of power occurred. But again, the act was symbolic at best, since the White House did not countermand any single regulation or rule.
I recently wondered if the Trump Administration would engage only in symbolic acts of branding and rebranding. I speculated that the kind of gridlock that this approach to running the country both reflects and initiates would be the best-case scenario for a Trump Administration. So far, so good.