If you were expecting a conciliatory, unifying message from Donald Trump’s inaugural address, delivered Friday afternoon in Washington, DC, then: who are you and where is the rock you have been hiding under?
But despite low expectations – turnout on the Mall for the speech was embarrassingly small compared to that which came for Obama’s first inaugural address in 2009, as this CNN comparison shows – Trump delivered a deeply alarming, divisive speech which set a dark tone for the next four years.
Washington DC had spent the previous few days in a daze. People spoke in hushed tones. The tension in the air could be cut with a butter-knife. For the inauguration, this town is full to bursting with Trump supporters and protesters. Teenagers shouted “fuck Trump” at a group of white college-age students in slogan hats on the metro. People walk with thousand-yard stares; few could believe, on Thursday, that this was really happening.
As rain began to drizzle from a cool grey sky, Trump opened by saying that he was going to take power from the Washington elites and return it to the American people, following up on themes he developed during his rollercoaster campaign.
“For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost … The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country,” Trump said.
The difference between the oratory of hope which was the mark of Obama’s speaking style, Trump maintained his strategy of listing threats, engaging in a politics of fear. He talked of crime; of “carnage in the streets”, of gangs.
He lamented the money spent helping defend nations overseas and pledged that “From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.” That slogan, which he used during the campaign, has chilling echoes; it was the name and rallying cry of a group of prominent anti-Semites in the US in the 1930s. He promised “a new national pride.” One of his first acts as president was to announce a “national day of patriotism.”
The crowd reflected Trump’s sentiments back at him from the mall. They cheered his slogans; they booed Democratic party figures on the dais, including Hillary Clinton. They chanted “lock her up” every time she appeared on the giant screens which abutted the Capital building. When Senator Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, called for unity, the crowd booed when he said the word “immigrant”.
Afterwards, protests turned violent. Police deployed pepper-spray and concussion grenades on the street outside the Washington Post building. Trump memorabilia was burned.
Meanwhile, the policy fightback has also already begun. The first two new petitions on whitehouse.gov are for the release of Trump’s tax returns, and for his businesses to be put in a blind trust. Congressional Democrats, as well as state representatives from liberal states like California are already planning their fightback. A plane circled New York City towing the message “we outnumber him! resist!”
Obama, too, though gracious during the transition period, has hinted that if Trump rides roughshod over civil liberties he will not stay quiet.
Trump is unlikely to enjoy being president as much as running for president. His supporters expect the earth from him – he promised them it, over and over again. Those in the crowd who chanted “lock her up” at Clinton expect Trump literally to do so. “Drain the swamp” – another campaign slogan favourite – will ring hollow to his supporters when they watch his billionaire cabinet demolish healthcare and slash funding for federal programs.
In the end when the curtain is pulled back to reveal the true charlatan behind the short-fingered demagogue of Oz, the forces of rage and dissatisfaction he harnessed to drive his campaign which may prove his undoing.