Trump's rhetoric bears little relation to American reality

Hussein Ibish analyses the inauguration speech, highlighting the gaps between rhetoric and reality

Donald Trump takes the oath of office as he is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, in Washington, DC.  Alex Wong / Getty Images / AFP
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I was determined to write something positive about Donald Trump's inauguration. After a year of relentless negativity about him, I sincerely yearned to express some hope in the new administration.

But Mr Trump never fails. The only positive thing about his speech is that it was mercifully brief. Claims he wrote most of it himself are distressingly credible. It sounded much more like one of his bilious rallies or livid tweets than a presidential inaugural address.

It was all “us versus them” – divisive domestically, hostile internationally, and never reaching beyond his minority base of support. Listeners might never suspect that the United States is deeply divided politically, or that Hillary Clinton received almost 3 million more votes than he. Instead, he spoke as if, as he keeps delusionally claiming, he won in a landslide.

Mr Trump’s calculated divisiveness centred on the idea that his inauguration, in contrast to all previous ones, wasn't merely the orderly and peaceful transfer of power between parties. “Today,” he declared, “we are transferring power from Washington, DC and giving it back to you, the American people.”

He did not explain when or how power was usurped from “the American people”, but he clearly blamed an otherwise unidentified “small group in our nation's capital”. Listeners were invited to fill in the blanks as they please. The whole speech was constructed around this conspiracy theory and his paranoid campaign themes.

By declaring that “the people became the rulers of this nation again”, Mr Trump conflated himself with an anonymous mass (“the people”), and cast both in united opposition to a malevolent elite into whose ranks all other identifiable individuals can be instantly dispatched. Indeed, all noteworthy political figures except Mr Trump are implicitly framed as part of this conspiracy to betray the American people, unless, and always provisionally, he exonerates them.

Mr Trump painted a dystopian, virtually post-apocalyptic, landscape of “American carnage” and free fall decay wrought by this sinister cabal. He suggested that a huge percentage of, if not most, Americans are “trapped in poverty” amid “rusted-out factories”, menaced by “crime and gangs and drugs”, with their schoolchildren “deprived of all knowledge”, borders undefended, and military depleted.

Despite some significant and undisputed American economic and social problems, that’s an unrecognisable, indeed bizarre, caricature of the present-day United States. Apparently, though, it’s the view from the bulletproof glass windows of the Trump Towers penthouse in Manhattan.

But don’t worry, he assured his (by now presumably either panicked or incredulous) listeners, this catastrophe decisively ended with his inauguration, which, apparently magically, initiated a virtually instantaneous transformation from wretched to thriving. His government, he suggested, will now ensure Americans have all the essentials, including “good jobs”. Conservatism this is not.

Even apparent gestures towards unity and reconciliation barely concealed grandiose claims. When he said that it doesn't “matter which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people”, he wasn’t actually embracing Democrats as well as Republicans. He was really contrasting himself with both parties, in the spirit of his jaw-dropping campaign declaration that “I, alone, can fix” any given national problem.

“I”, he was saying, “am you”. Such crude demagoguery was virtually unknown in modern American politics. Until now.

For the rest of the world, he had barely a positive word, primarily condemning “other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs”. America has simply “made other countries rich”. That’s it.

He identified the slogan “America first” as his policy lodestar, despite its incontestable pro-fascist and anti-Semitic provenance. And, he insisted, “Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength”, even though the last experiment in global protectionism produced the Great Depression of the 1930s (which in turn set the stage for the Second World War).

The ironies, and the gaps between Mr Trump’s rhetoric and reality, are overwhelming.

He devoted his life to participating in, and celebrating, the very elites he now castigates, and climbing ever-higher up that greasy pole. He’s never shown the slightest concern for the middle class.

He’s assembling the wealthiest cabinet in US history – drawing mainly on political insiders, retired generals and, especially, billionaires – and appointing top jobs to no fewer than six of the very Goldman Sachs bankers he lambasted during the campaign.

His business dealings – still largely secret, and from which he still hasn’t meaningfully distanced himself despite becoming president – participate fully in the very globalisation he demonises.

Trump-branded products are almost never also labelled “made in America”. But the increasingly likely, although still only potential, forthcoming fiascos starkly forecast by Mr Trump’s inaugural address unfortunately were.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington

On Twitter: @ibishblog