"This speech was a call for a form of collectivism somewhat at odds with America’s traditional, if not entirely accurate, idea of itself"by Andrew Stuttaford / January 23, 2017 / Leave a comment
In his first inaugural address Ronald Reagan described how “idle industries” had “cast workers into unemployment, human misery, and personal indignity,” and in his Barack Obama lamented “[h]omes…lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered.” With the US in the grip of the Great Depression, Franklin D Roosevelt lamented the “dark realities of the moment” and lashed out at “unscrupulous money changers.” Donald Trump’s talk of “American carnage” may have been startling—if less so to many of those who had voted for him—but there is no rule that a new president’s debut has to be sweetness, light and harmony.
Nor is there any convention that, in his first speech, a new president should shy away from signaling radical change—both Reagan and Obama promised nothing less—or even proposing a shift in the country’s underlying order. FDR “hoped” that the existing balance between “the executive and the legislative authority” would be enough to deal with the crisis (one, it must be noted, infinitely greater than anything the United States currently faces, at least for now). But if it was not, he was prepared to ask for “broad Executive power” to do what was needed. “Essential”—interesting adjective—democracy would be fine, but the American people “have asked for discipline and direction under leadership,” and Roosevelt was ready to provide it.
As incoming presidents also tend to do, Trump sketched out his own vision of (to borrow from Churchill and Brexit) the sunlit uplands, in his case, a united land where nationality transcends ethnicity and the “forgotten men”—a phrase Americans associate with the Depression—“and forgotten women of our country will be forgotten no longer.” The route to this happy destination would owe little to existing party dogma: “What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.” Populist language certainly, populist blather maybe, but with powerful resonance in a nation that takes pride, if not always legitimately, in its rejection of hierarchy. But it contains at least the germ of an unsettling question: who is it who then decides what the people really want?
Take a guess.
Like many inaugural addresses, Trump’s—shorter than most, but, to be fair, far longer than a tweet—was more…