President Donald Trump’s inaugural address managed an impressive rhetorical feat. It was both a less reassuring picture of America than Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural — delivered on the eve of the Civil War — and more optimistic than JFK’s offer of a “grand global alliance ... that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind.”
Here’s how he managed that: President Trump simultaneously overstated the problems America is facing and understated the difficulty of fixing them.
Phrases like “American carnage” aren’t what we expect to hear from American presidents
The speech is likely to be remembered for Trump’s most dystopian turns of phrase. “American carnage” sounds like nothing in American rhetoric so much as British politician Enoch Powell’s 1968 speech warning of “rivers of blood” (a speech, incidentally, warning that Britain was being invaded by immigrants). When Trump said, “We are transferring power from Washington, DC, and giving it back to you, the people,” he might have been channeling Ronald Reagan’s “we are a nation that has a government, not the other way round” — but it sounded much more reminiscent of Bane’s address to the people of Gotham in The Dark Knight Returns.
This sort of thing doesn’t inspire comparisons within American politics because it isn’t common in American politics. Rhetoric is usually used to inspire and comfort us. (Some say Jimmy Carter was kicked out of office for being honest about America’s problems.)
Even in 1861, with several states already having seceded by the time he took the oath of office, Abraham Lincoln took more care to reach out to his opponents. Even in 1933, in the maw of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (though he did spend some time shaming the financial class for the nation’s problems) managed to throw off an “it could have been worse” line: “We face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things.”
And it goes without saying: America is not in the straits of 1861 or 1933.
Trump’s dark comfort is a way to validate his supporters’ fears
To a certain extent, Trump’s dystopia is comfort — of a different sort. Like all of Trump’s most memorable rhetoric, the inaugural address succeeded because it resonated with a very specific slice of Americans. This is the slice that feels unsteady and threatened, that regards facts about broad prosperity and general progress as a callous dismissal of those who are suffering. Trump’s form of comfort is validation: to claim he remembers “the forgotten men and women” and that all their fears are well-founded.
When people say Trump’s supporters take him “seriously but not literally,” they’re wrong: Many supporters do take Trump’s promise to build a wall literally, for example, and they’re right to do so. But this is the truth that “seriously not literally” gestures to: Identifying a problem in American life — whether it is real, imaginary, or exaggerated — became synonymous with caring about the people worrying about those things.
Trump’s insistence that America is in the midst of a nationwide crime wave (when, in reality, crime has ticked upward slightly but is still half of 1990s levels) resonates with people who have long believed that crime has been rising and who are concerned about disorder in inner cities that they themselves do not see. Trump’s emphasis on reviving US manufacturing resonates with white Americans who, despite having greater wealth and security than most other Americans, are also most likely to worry that that security may go away.
To Trump, this isn’t just a difference of opinion but the product of active malice. The part of his speech that sparked comparisons to Bane all but implied that “Washington” was deliberately hoarding wealth, Hunger Games style, and letting the rest of the nation starve:
For too long a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs, and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.
Trump’s inaugural speech painted a deeply misleading picture: Crime is still relatively low (and extremely unlikely to threaten random Americans), unemployment is falling, the supposedly ignored border is well fortified. But pointing out any of these facts serves only to indict you as one of the people who lives in the bubble of “Washington” and is either ignorant of or deliberately causing the rest of the country’s suffering. It’s a neat epistemological trick.
Trump’s efforts at uplift don’t work because he isn’t asking people to do anything
President Trump’s speech, on the whole, wasn’t as dark as others he’s given. It was nothing compared with the speech he delivered at the Republican National Convention, for example. But his attempts at inspiration failed so completely that they only ended up compounding the dark affect.
This is a problem that Trump has had in the past, and there’s a reason for it: He’s extremely good at validating people’s fears, but he doesn’t offer any suggestions for how they can be ameliorated.
Many presidents have tried to temper expectations by the time they’re in office, so that the president himself will not get blamed if the nation’s high hopes are not met. Often, they’ve done this by asking something of Americans — emphasizing that progress is a partnership. Think JFK’s inaugural: “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”
Trump, however, has continually raised the expectations of his listeners by claiming that everything can be easily fixed — and that he will do it. “I alone can fix it,” he said when he accepted the Republican nomination; the “it” was America.
On Friday, he tried to move beyond “I alone can fix it” — but still hadn’t come up with a plan for who else could. Instead, he suggested that if Americans trust him, if they believe hard enough, all of their problems will be solved.
Trump’s voters are looking forward to him bringing back jobs, securing the border, and deporting people. They think he’s correctly identified all that has made America not great, and they believe he can take those things away.
But he can’t. He can’t singlehandedly fix real problems, like localized crime spikes in certain major cities or the looming threat of automation. And he certainly can’t fix problems that never existed to begin with. He can’t reverse a fictive 25-year high in crime, or find work for an imaginary 96 million job seekers.
Most politicians don’t build their speeches around what’s wrong with America because, once in office, it becomes their responsibility to set it right. Anyone looking ahead not just to this election but the election after that learns not to say things that could come back to haunt them.
Trump eagerly set himself up.
He proudly proclaims the state of the country is now his responsibility. But the parts of his speech that resonate with his followers — the tales of “American carnage” — reflect things he is already, as president, trying to consign to the past.
If he suddenly pivots, and declares everything Already Great, he'll be asking his followers to dismiss their own anxieties, the ones he spent years validating. If he continues to harp on the problems, he’ll ultimately have to come up with a good reason why he hasn’t solved them.
Either way, he’s going to have to ask something of his followers, instead of simply validating their fears.