President Trump’s inaugural address eschewed the literary finesse that most presidents strived for, and instead drove home one of the most confrontational, populist speeches ever uttered in this setting. It could have been Huey Long up there.
“While they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for people across our land. That all changes right here and right now. This moment belongs to you.”
Trump made no separation from populist rhetoric of the past, instead seeming to embrace a mix of the economic populism once owned by Democrats, and the skepticism of foreign powers once owned by isolationists.
“From this day forward it’s only going to be America First. America First,” repeated Trump.
Nearly all of the “greatest hits” from Trump’s campaign rhetoric found their way into the speech. But Trump also paid new attention to the prospect of massive infrastructure projects across the country. No one has seen the specifics yet, but Trump held nothing back in description of near every kind of modern wonderment to be built. All of which will put Americans to work, he said.
Trump also finally reached out to a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural America, parts of which see Trump’s presidency as a threatening regression to racial and religious discrimination.
“Whether we are black, or brown, or white, we all bleed the red blood of patriots,” said Trump.
Many people out there don’t like Trump or some of the specifics he’s proposed. They have good reasons. Trump stood as one of the most divisive candidates in history, seemingly by strategic design. Many of his vague proposals — such as the Muslim travel ban or Mexican border wall — seem rooted in xenophobic, racist ideology. He railed against elitists from an apartment that has golden bathroom fixtures.
Nevertheless, Trump’s speech this morning was an effective populist introduction to Trump’s first weeks in office. I expect it will be well regarded by most Americans. Had he used more of this approach during the transition he wouldn’t be going into office underwater in popularity. It won’t go down as a rhetorical masterpiece, but that’s not Trump’s brand. It was probably the most effective speech I’ve seen him give, grim though it may be.
Trump’s advantage going into the messy arena of legislation and negotiation is that he has claimed, almost without resistance, the mantle of populism. Even though he failed to gain a majority of America’s votes (or even a plurality!) he now signals a coalition that will be difficult to defeat over the next few years. For instance, if Congressional Republicans, labor unions, and newspaper editorial pages all start touting Trump’s projects, what argument will Democrats be left with?
As I’ve written, these are times of pathos. And that was a pathos speech.
Logos and ethos may have their day. That day was not today. And the people cheered, as they have so many times before.