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Trump’s Inaugural Address Leaves Out Liberty

Loyalty, Solidarity, and Unity made the cut. But where was Liberty?

Donald Trump’s inaugural address is getting pretty low marks outside the Trump-can-do-no-wrong crowd. George Will called it “the most dreadful presidential address in history” (tell us how you really feel, George!).

I don’t know all the other inaugural addresses well enough to judge (this roundup by The Atlantic’s Megan Garber suggests that William Henry Harrison’s 1841 speech probably holds the “worst of all times” title, even leaving aside the fact that it cost him a fatal cold), but I will say that Trump’s speech should get some positive points for at least two things.

One: a lot of “you” and “we,” and very little “I.”

Two: an explicit disavowal of racism, at two different points. “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” And later: “Whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American Flag.”

It’s a good passage for several reasons. It states an important civic principle of Americanism. Also, after the way this campaign has unfolded, it helps neutralize the perception — partly created by the opposition, partly by Trump’s own words and actions — that we have sent an unabashed racist to the White House. Sincerely felt or not, this is a good thing — not because it helps Trump, but because it hinders attempts to mainstream and normalize racism.

As a bonus, it really irks (or, as we say these days, “triggers”) the white nationalists.

(h/t @Suppose_Not)

In fact, it probably hurts alt-righters more than Richard Spencer getting sucker-punched. And every time an alt-righter gets triggered, an angel gets new wings.

There are a few other good things to be found in the speech. “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow” is a pretty good approach to democracy promotion, though it offers little clue to whether Trump thinks we have any responsibility to help countries that want to follow our example but find themselves threatened by internal or external enemies. (Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltics come to mind.)

But then there’s the rest.

There’s the Trumpian vision of “American carnage.” Compare his speech to both Barack Obama’s inaugural address in 2009 and Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address in 1981. Both Reagan and Obama were elected amidst widespread discontent with the status quo, on a message of dramatic change. Both inaugural addresses discuss problems, particularly economic affliction. (It’s interesting, incidentally, that Reagan’s address made no mention of crime, despite the fact that the rates of murder, robbery, burglary and theft in 1980 were more than twice the current rates.) But both Reagan and Obama also had positive things to say about the good things millions of ordinary Americans — soldiers, working people, volunteers — were doing even amidst hard times. In Trumpworld, all they seem to be doing is waiting for the President to put them back to work.

No less importantly, both Obama and Reagan spoke of America’s legacy, from the Founding Fathers to the fallen heroes of various wars. Trump’s speech did not contain a single reference to a single historical event. While his slogan is “Make America great again,” it’s not clear when, exactly, he thinks it was great. In his speech, at least, the glory seems to be mainly in the future: America will start “winning like never before.”

Like Reagan, Trump speaks of returning power from Washington to the people. But Reagan’s speech outlines a clear vision of what he means by that: reducing the size of the federal government and the burden of regulations and returning more power to the states. One may agree or disagree with that vision, but it is a specific, clearly defined vision and a program of reform. In Trump’s speech, the answer is a government that will put “America First” and whose allegiance and loyalty is to the American people. (Incidentally, as a number of commentators have pointed out, this is incredibly insulting to every past president and every public servant attending the inauguration.) The only concrete program is to build lots and lots of infrastructure. Also, to “buy American and hire American.”

(As an aside: Can someone explain how the idea that all of America’s troubles stem from “the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs” squares with Trump’s stated intent to “seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world” and unite the “civilized world” against Islamic terrorism? And also as an aside: does Trump, or anyone near him, have any idea of the military commitment it would take to completely eradicate Islamic terrorism, as he promises?)

In Trumpworld, America consists of three elements: “the people,” a virtuous, struggling, undifferentiated mass of “forgotten men and women”; “a small group” of politicians in Washington who have been reaping the rewards of the current order; and the strongman leader, Trump, who will fight for the forgotten men and women. It is not only a ridiculously simplistic vision; it is also a fundamentally illiberal one.

The speech makes repeated mentions of mutual loyalty, solidarity and unity, which is all well and good — aside from the lack of any acknowledgment of how bitterly divided the nation is over Trump and his message. But there is not one mention of the individual (by contrast, Reagan mentioned “individual liberty,” “the energy and individual genius of man,” and “the freedom and dignity of the individual”); not one mention of liberty (mentioned three times by Reagan, twice by Obama); and only one passing reference to our freedoms. (Reagan’s address had ten references to freedom, free men and women, or being free; Obama’s had six.)

Michael Gerson, Washington Post columnist and former George W. Bush speechwriter, called Trump’s address a “funeral oration at the death of Reaganism.” It’s an apt description.

As it happens, about an hour after Trump gave his address, I interviewed the great Russian writer and dissident Vladimir Voinovich (about whom I’ve written before here and here).

He is visiting from Russia, where he has spent most of his life except for about two decades of exile in Germany. Our conversation got around to Trump, and Voinovich expressed the hope that even if Trump has Vladimir Putin-like authoritarian instincts, the American system with its solid institutions and its check and balances will not allow those instincts free rein. He then remarked on Trump’s assertion that “we will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement and, most importantly, we are protected by God.” Said Voinovich, “It still seems to me that America is protected not only by the military and by God, but by its constitution and its political system — the checks and balances.”

It’s a sad day when a Russian writer understands this better than the President of the United States.

Let’s hope those institutions still work.

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Cathy Young

Cathy Young

6.7K Followers

Russian-Jewish-American writer. Associate editor, Arc Digital; contributor, Reason, Newsday, The Forward etc. https://www.patreon.com/CathyYoung