Web Only / Features » January 20, 2017
Trump’s Speech Shows His Dark But Compelling Vision of America. We Need To Offer Something Better.
His potent blend of populist rhetoric and right-wing nationalism is effective among his base—and terrifying.
If the resistance becomes a project of elites, to hold on to how things were, the resistance is dead.
If you needed another reason to think of Donald Trump’s newly christened administration an authoritarian regime, his inaugural address just gave you one. It’s not enough to just call it an authoritarian regime either. As he made clear today, we have to treat it like one, too.
Now officially sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, Trump’s faux populism was on full display in his inaugural speech, deriding how “the establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.” Trump, of course, is the establishment embodied: “The forgotten men and women of our country” he claims to represent have never had the good fortune of a million-dollar loan from their father, let alone generous tax breaks or a personal empire built on stolen wealth. They also likely wouldn’t choose a cabinet of oil and banking executives.
But the issue with Trump’s speech isn’t that it was hypocritical, regarding his claim to speak for the downtrodden or the asymmetry with his actual policy proposals. The Hillary Clinton campaign spent months pointing out inconsistencies between Trump’s words and his actions, fact-checking horrific things he’d done and said on the campaign trail and in years past. It didn’t work.
For progressives, then, the uncomfortable thing about Trump’s speech today—the most horrifying thing about it, in fact—is that it was effective and engaging, brimming with appeals to universal values and a straightforward story about where the country is now and where it could go. “Washington flourished,” he declared, “but the people did not share in its wealth. … We will bring back our wealth, and we will bring back our dreams.” Trump won because he speaks to what both Clinton and a generation of Davos Democrats could not, whatever investigations into Russian interference manage to surface.
The speech was also a cruel lie, and a several minutes-long dog whistle to white nationalism. A bright future reserved for men like Trump is a dark future for the rest of us. Almost as a threat, Trump promised to “get our people off of welfare and back to work.”
As has been the case all along, this vision for America Trump spelled out today calls to mind some of the ugliest parts of this country’s history and others’, when anyone without the benefit of white skin and a penis was considered a second-class citizens—or not human at all. “This day forward a new vision will govern our land. It’s going to be only America First. America First,” Trump told the crowd, repeating a slogan he used throughout the campaign. In the 1940s, America First was an anti-semitic group that called on the U.S. government to appease Adolf Hitler in World War II. Today, it’s become the de facto tagline of American policy.
“This is your day,” he thundered. “This is your celebration.” That’s a bold statement for a president without the backing of popular vote or—consequently—a mandate. And if Republican-controlled state governments are any indication, the GOP will move at blinding pace to strip away even basic democratic and economic rights. In short order, everything from reproductive rights to voting rights could be under assault. Already, the White House has removed any mention of climate change from its website.
Fighting the onslaught to come will mean getting beyond a focus on Trump alone, or his hypocrisy or his kinks or his tweets. It’ll also mean spelling out another and more compelling vision for what America can be, and not ceding either patriotism or the mantle of the anti-establishment to Trump and his paranoid, autocratic nationalism. If the resistance becomes a project of elites, to hold on to how things were, the resistance is dead.
For many, this country has never been great, and Trump’s swearing in today might seem like a sign that it never will be. Without a doubt, today marks the beginning of a disturbing new era in American politics, where barely coded dog whistles will be backed up by regressive and destructive policy: to borrow a phrase from today’s speech, this is the real “American Carnage.”
Underestimating just how bad things could get could prove deadly, as could leaning back onto the smug righteousness of broken beltway politics. But thousands in the streets—and hundreds of thousands more tomorrow—are inaugurating something else today: A new era of resistance. If you want something to celebrate this afternoon, it’s the people who’ll fight Trump’s agenda every step of the way, and go back home after this weekend to keep up that work in their own backyards.
In rejecting Donald Trump’s patriotism over the next four years, let’s take up that of Langston Hughes, as described his 1935 poem “Let America Be America Again”:
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
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Kate Aronoff is a Brooklyn-based journalist covering climate and U.S. politics, and a contributing writer at The Intercept. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff.
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