Donald J. Trump used his inaugural address to do what no other American president has ever done before: he described America as a dystopian post-apocalyptic hellscape right out of Escape from New York.
Trump delivered a dark inaugural address in which he pledged fealty to all Americans. But he made little overt attempt to soothe a nation still wounded from arguably the ugliest election season of modern times and signaled that he intends to govern as if waging a permanent political campaign.
Trump reprised the central arguments of his candidacy and harshly condemned the condition of the country he now commands. He said communities had fallen into disrepair with rampant crime, chronic poverty, broken schools, stolen wealth and “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones.”
“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” Trump declared in his 16-minute address.
Trump has spent his entire life living in the toney gated communities of wealth and privilege only made possible by his living in America, where this grifter and con artist can take advantage of the vulnerable and the gullible.
The “American carnage” he describes exists only in the fetid imagination of Donald J. Trump (and the fever swamps of the conservative media entertainment complex from which he emerged). Fact-checking President Trump’s inaugural address. As the New York Times editorializes, America was already pretty great, despite its flaws, before Trump took office on Friday. What President Trump Doesn’t Get About America.
Trump knows nothing of the economic hardship and despair of which he speaks. Americans living in economically depressed areas do so because of the GOP economic policies we have lived under since the era of “Reaganomics” in 1981. Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were never able to reverse “trickle down” GOP economics because they were thwarted by a GOP Congress. In a disheatening case of Stockholm syndrome, Americans keep displaying sympathetic sentiments towards their tormentors and rewarding them with favor.
Trump then turned to one of his campaign themes, “America First.” I explained the historical origins of the 1930’s “America First” movement in a post earlier this year. What Trump means when he says ‘America First’ (excerpt):
Eric Rauchway, professor of history at the University of California at Davis, explains at the Washington Post, Donald Trump’s new favorite slogan was invented for Nazi sympathizers:
Donald Trump greeted Twitter on Flag Day with two words in all caps: “AMERICA FIRST!”
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He wasn’t quite promising “America über alles,” but it comes close. “America First” was the motto of Nazi-friendly Americans in the 1930s, and Trump has more than just a catchphrase in common with them.
Trump defines the “America” he wants to put “first” by saying who does not properly belong in it. That definition does not include certain people of foreign descent born in the United States, who are to him still foreigners and whom he labels accordingly (in the past few weeks, Trump has referred to native-born Americans as “Mexican” or “Afghan”). It does not include Muslim residents, whom he would “certainly” and “absolutely” force to register their presence with the U.S. government (asked how this proposed policy differs from Nazi laws regarding Jews, Trump replied, “You tell me“).
Trump wants his exclusionary America to cower behind walls. He would erect metaphorical barriers against immigrants (excluding Muslims from entry to the United States until they can be “properly and perfectly” screened) and trade. And of course, he would build a literal wall along the Mexican border. None of which is to say Trump’s isolated America would decline to fight wars: Trump would increase bombing of the Middle East and fight “fast and … furious for a short period of time” against the terrorist enemy.
This is what Trump’s “America First” means: a white America (committed, to be sure, to “take care of our African American people”), living behind higher walls and screens, lashing out to prove its strength and then retreating again — not a government suspiciously tolerant of foreign threats.
And this is also largely what “America First” has historically meant.
A few analysts dared to point this out yesterday during the televised inaugural coverage, but television news anchors seeking to curry favor and access to the new Trump administration shut it down: “let’s not go there.” No, let’s just pretend that Donald J. Trump did not just use his inaugural address to revive a discredited pro-fascist movement from the 1930s. We don’t want to rain on “The Donald’s” parade.
Trump’s nationalistic paean repeated the refrain “from this day forward,” but as Anne Applebaum of the Post correctly points out, in his inaugural speech the president made a powerful, but impossible, promise to turn back the clock in America. Trump’s dark promise to return to a mythical past:
A green lawn, a white picket fence, a shining sun. Small children walk home from school; their mother, clad in an apron, waves to greet them. Father comes home in the evening from his well-paid job, the same one he has had all of his life. He greets the neighbors cheerfully — they are all men and women who look and talk like he does — and sits down to watch the 6 o’clock news while his wife makes dinner. The sun sets. Everyone sleeps well, knowing that the next day will bring no surprises.
In the back of their minds, all Americans know this picture. We’ve seen this halcyon vision in movies, we’ve heard it evoked in speeches and songs. We also know, at some level, what it conceals. There are no black people in the picture — they didn’t live in those kinds of neighborhoods in the 1940s or 1950s — and the Mexican migrants who picked the tomatoes for the family dinner are invisible, too. We don’t see the wife popping Valium in the powder room. We don’t see the postwar devastation in Europe and Asia that made U.S. industry so dominant, and U.S. power so central. We don’t see half the world is dominated by totalitarian regimes. We don’t see the technological changes that are about to arrive and transform the picture.
We also know, at some level, that this vision of a simpler America — before civil rights, feminism, the rise of other nations, the Internet, globalization, free trade — can never be recovered, not least because it never really existed. But even if we know this, that doesn’t mean that the vision has no power.
We live in a culture that celebrates disruption, innovation, entrepreneurship, risk, diversity and change. Yet many people dream of stability, security and homogeneity, even racial purity, as well as a world in which the United States is always and forever unchallenged. Indeed, the desire to turn the clock back is so powerful, so persuasive and so appealing to the “real Americans” who support it, the “forgotten men and women” of the inaugural address, that it has brought us the presidency of Donald Trump.
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Of course this vision will not appeal to everybody: It is not designed to do so. On the contrary, this appeal to the so-called real America, a tribe that exists within the United States of America, deliberately excludes anyone black or brown, anyone who does not live in a nuclear family and anyone who cannot or will not aspire to a house with a white picket fence. Nor can it succeed: The “jobs” and the “borders” that Trump promised to “bring back” do not exist anymore, in a world of air travel and artificial intelligence and automation. But Trump is not the first demagogue to succeed by offering an impossible, idealized national vision. Anybody who reads history knows that people have argued with one another, competed with one another and even murdered one another in the name of countless national and tribal utopias, religious and secular, right wing and left wing, over many centuries.
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Still others will reject his utopian American nationalism, his “America First” rhetoric and his brutal calls for protectionism and selfish tribalism. Indeed, it is likely the Trump administration will be remembered around the world as the tipping point, the moment when U.S. influence, which always had a base in ideas and morality as well as economic and military power, finally went into steep and irreversible decline. But the people who believe in Trump’s vision will not see that decline, they will not understand it and they will not have their hearts changed by it. The promise of the mythical past, now to be recovered, is far, far too strong.
May God save America from ourselves.