Fintan O’Toole: Trump’s inaugural speech was phony and honest

As Donald Trump was sworn in a year ago, few believed he’d be as bad as they feared

Donald Trump wears his air of grievance like the aura of sanctity that surrounds Christ in medieval paintings. But he is surely right to feel aggrieved by the outrage that followed his recent description of Haiti, Africa and El Salvador as s**thole countries.

For this is the president who, in his inaugural address a year ago today, essentially conjured a vision of the United States itself as a s**thole country. His scowling demeanour, more like a teenager sulking in his room than a man ascending to the most powerful office on earth, matched the apocalyptic vision of what he called American carnage.

“Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealised potential.”

The odd thing about this rhetoric is that it had an honesty that this most mendacious of presidents has never approached since.


Trump’s inaugural speech shocked many Americans because it was so bleak. And yet, this infamous passage is not so different from Barack Obama’s inaugural speech in 2009: “Our economy is badly weakened … Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our healthcare is too costly, our schools fail too many … Less measurable, but no less profound, is a sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that the US’s decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights.”

Obama, like Trump, evoked an image of American decline. Both men spoke of the closed-up spaces where people had once worked: shuttered businesses, rusted-out factories.

Trump had been elected, indeed, precisely because he had challenged an optimistic consensus about the exceptionally wonderful state of everything in the US

Trump and Obama were equally explicit about the failures of the US education system. Both (in other passages) referred to the decayed state of the nation’s physical infrastructure.

Obama did not speak of mothers and children trapped in poverty in the way that Trump did – but it would not have been at all surprising had he done so and in precisely the same words. It is a reality, after all, and one that is all too familiar to the African-American community, for whom Obama’s taking of the oath of office was such a historic moment.

Trump could therefore claim, for once in his life, to be speaking the truth. “American carnage” was a ridiculous exaggeration and the overall vision of the US was wildly unbalanced. But the things he described undoubtedly exist and persist. Trump had been elected, indeed, precisely because he had challenged an optimistic consensus about the exceptionally wonderful state of everything in the US.

When Hillary Clinton tried to counter his Make America Great Again by quipping that America was already great, she was drawing confidently on a long rhetorical tradition in which any suggestion that America is not entirely splendid is a form of treason. But it didn't work because it is not true.

The ills Trump was pointing to are chronic and endemic, and most Americans know it.

Surly and monotonous

So why was Obama’s speech in 2009 greeted with rapture while, even to many Republicans, Trump’s seemed brutally, even dementedly, dystopian?

It was partly a matter of delivery. Obama’s speech combined the hypnotic rhythms of the black preacher with the precision of the well-trained lawyer. The dignity of his bearing, his youth and beauty, the colour of his skin, gave him an electrifying presence.

Trump, by contrast, was surly and monotonous. His voice, when he tried to raise it beyond the robotic, became either whiny or blustering. His facial expressions switched between a smirk of self-congratulation and a glower of anger.

The more important difference, though, and the one that would resonate throughout Trump’s first year in office, was not the diagnosis but the proposed cure. Inaugural speeches are not detailed programmes for government, but they do sound the key notes for a term of office.

And while Trump in 2017 may have echoed much of Obama in 2009, the notes they sounded could not have been more discordant. Obama, for all the fervour of hope surrounding his election, was anxious to stress that the ills he evoked would be cured only with time, patience and collective effort. The challenges, he warned, “will not be met easily or in a short span of time”.

Trump’s rhetoric was as starkly different as it could be: “That all changes – starting right here, and right now.”

Trump wasn't going to create change for the downtrodden – he was presenting himself as the change they had already wrought

This is why Trump’s inauguration speech was both so phony and so ominous. Phony because Trump’s promise was not one of hard-won change, of real and difficult policy changes to address inner-city poverty and crime or the economic problems of the Rust Belt or failing public schools.

It summoned up all of these things, but only in order to suggest that somehow they had already been changed – right here, right now, by the election of Trump himself.

Trump wasn’t going to create change for the downtrodden – he was presenting himself as the change that they had already wrought.

This is the difference between a democratic promise and an authoritarian gesture. The democratic leader says: here are the problems, but with a great deal of work we can address them. The authoritarian leader says: here are the problems that have led us into decline and disgrace but with my arrival they are already addressed. I don’t propose an answer to these questions – I am the answer.

This difference creates the other one – the radically opposed ways in which Obama and Trump used the notion of agency. Obama, in his inaugural speech used the word “us” 28 times. Trump’s speech, remarkably, used the word “us” just twice – once in “the Bible tells us”, once in a context where it clearly means “me”.

Obama was positing the presidency as the catalyst for a collective enterprise of change. Trump was unconsciously giving fair warning of the narcissism that would consume his presidency.

Wishful thinking

Arriving in the US a few days after Trump’s inauguration, I was struck in conversations with both liberals and mainstream Republicans by the degree of wishful thinking.

There was still a desperate desire to believe that Trump could not possibly be as bad as he seemed, that the apparatus of governance would absorb and tame him, that the hateful rhetoric of his campaign would be cast off because it had served its purpose.

By no means everyone believed this, of course – the huge Women’s March on the day after the inauguration, the largest one-day protest in US history, was driven by a sense that a line had been crossed, that what was coming was not going to be normal or acceptable. But the wishful thinking was nonetheless common.

Yet Trump’s speech had made it clear that he could not merely be absorbed into American democratic norms. For it contained the contradictions that make far-right politics so disorienting for liberal democracies – their ability to be simultaneously both farcical and deadly serious.

One part of the wishful thinking about Trump was the idea that his preposterousness would make him ultimately harmless, that no creature so self-evidently ludicrous could really do all that much damage in such a highly developed polity.

But the far right is always preposterous. It relies on the narcissism of the charismatic leader, on the pomposity of national and ethnic self-assertion, on being allergic to irony, humour and complexity. It is fundamentally stupid – and this stupidity, far from holding it back, is crucial to its simplistic appeal.

If Trump were intelligent enough to articulate complexities, he would not be president.

The Great Man

Trump’s proposition, as laid out in his inauguration, was always absurd. The authoritarian claim he was making is that all the American carnage stopped the moment he took his oath of office. The Great Man is here and your troubles are over.

Once this claim was made, though, there was no chance that Trump was somehow going to shrink himself to fit the presidency, that he was going to behave as a mere embodiment of American democracy.

For the claim cannot be democratically upheld. It can only be acted out – Trump does not behave as a mere president should; he behaves as he thinks a Great Man must, which is to say with petulance, recklessness and a narcissistic disregard for boundaries and proprieties.

And we have to remember that, for his core supporters – the 40 per cent of Americans who still approve of his conduct in office – this really is enough. It does not fundamentally matter that he has done and will do nothing to solve the dire problems he evoked in his inaugural address. It does not even matter that he will make them worse.

They still buy his proposition that the mere presence of Donald Trump in the Oval Office is itself the change that they desired. From that point of view, the more he differs from previous notions of what a president should be – which is to say the more obnoxious he is to everyone else – the better.

And that is the one thing he has proved to be extraordinarily good at.