Donald Trump could have used his inaugural address to reach out to the majority of Americans who aren’t yet sold on his presidency. He could have reached out to Democrats who opposed him, Republicans who are deeply skeptical of him, or the many other people or groups worried about what his administration could bring.
He did none of those things. Instead, Trump reaffirmed the uniqueness of his presidential campaign and the political movement he intends to keep leading — a movement his chief strategist Steve Bannon has called “nationalist.”
Despite occasional rhetorical gestures affirming to his “allegiance to all Americans,” he also made clear that he owed that allegiance foremost to “the forgotten men and women” — which he defined as, naturally, the people who voted for him.
“Everyone is listening to you now. You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before,” Trump said.
Translation: He’s not going to forget just who it is who got him here. And indeed, Trump’s speech seemed aimed at those superfans who have been with him all along, rather than those who were skeptical or nervous about what his presidency could bring.
What Trump could have, but didn’t, say
When you think about what Trump left out of his speech, his decision to reaffirm his commitment to the people and ideas that got him this far becomes clearer.
For instance, Trump didn’t really bother to reach out to conservatives in the Republican Party who have been uneasy about his commitment to GOP principles. He said nothing about shrinking the size of government — a bedrock conservative rhetorical theme for decades — and instead reaffirmed his pledge to “build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation.”
(Bear in mind that Trump’s policy plans have often been far more conservative than his rhetoric. That could well continue in office, particularly since Republicans hold both houses of Congress and will push him in that direction, and since many Trump appointees have been traditional conservatives.)
But the new president also failed to reach out to left-leaning demographics and groups. He said nothing to assuage the concerns of, say, young unauthorized immigrants who’ve grown up here and are now fearful of deportation.
He also said nothing to reassure Muslim Americans fearful that a Trump administration may discriminate against them. (Instead, his only mention of Islam was to pledge to “eradicate” what he called “radical Islamic terrorism.”) And he said nothing to reassure people of all ideological stripes who have doubted his lack of commitment to the rule of law or to the norms of US democracy.
Trump only discussed racism in terms of how patriotism can solve it
Trump did nod toward racial issues, the source of so many controversies related to his campaign — but only to argue that the way to solve racial divisions was for everyone to love America more.
“At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country we will rediscover our loyalty to each other,” he said. “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.”
In the context of everything Trump has said and done throughout the campaign, one could read here an implicit rebuke of protesters like Colin Kaepernick, who are deemed insufficiently patriotic. As long as you love America enough, Trump seemed to be saying, you’re welcome in my movement.
It’s not hard to understand why Trump chose to approach his inaugural address this way — it’s the exact approach that made him president of the United States against all odds, after all.
But Trump’s in a different environment now, one in which he no longer has Hillary Clinton or his GOP primary rivals as a foil, one in which he’ll quickly develop a record he will be judged on — and one in which holding on to his base may not be enough for success.