'American Carnage': A Close Reading of President Trump's First Speech
The new president has a dark view of America.
Photo by Jason Bergman
Just minutes before Donald John Trump became the president of the United States of America, news cameras followed him as he headed out toward the platform on the west end of the Capitol Building. He was walking with other Republican leaders, but a couple steps behind, by himself, looking like a guy going through some shit. The bluster, the preening, the indomitable self-confidence that enrages his opponents and fires up his supporters—all of that was drained out of him. He was just a man with a haircut and a big tie about to take on the world's most important job.
Then, just as quickly, he returned to what for him is equilibrium. His inaugural address was his first speech to America as its president, but it was also a chance for him to reiterate all the promises he had made throughout the campaign, to tell the story that's given him strength during his surreal run to the White House: America is falling apart, it's failing, and I alone can save it.
This address, unlike his famously discursive, rambling speeches at his rallies, was pre-written (supposedly by Trump himself), meaning we should take this as a more careful articulation of his views than his off-the-cuff statements. This is how Trump wants to present himself to the country and the world, this is the vision of America he will spend the next four years building upon. Unsurprisingly, given the tone of his campaign, Trump's inaugural address was darker and more shaded by fear than those of past presidents—in his view, America is a place where people are killed by crime and drugs, where children are betrayed by bad schools, and the voices of citizens go unheard by a corrupt government.
Here is a line by line breakdown of the speech's most significant moments and the context behind them:
For too long, a small group in our nation's capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have bore the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered but the jobs left and the factories closed.
The Establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs. And while they celebrated in our nation's capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.
This narrative is why Trump won the Republican primaries and carried those Midwestern states that gave him his narrow victory over Hillary Clinton. Barack Obama and the Democrats have been touting the falling unemployment rate and other indicators of an improved economy, along with the millions of people who have health insurance thanks to the Affordable Care Act. But what if your life hasn't gotten better in the Obama era? What if you're still struggling, and those supposed gains are invisible? Then Trump's story starts to make sense. Someone must have been benefitting from those Obama policies. Who was it? Those corrupt politicians in Washington, that's who!
That all changes starting right here and right now, because this moment is your moment.
It belongs to you.
The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now.
Bemoaning the state of the nation is a surefire way to propel yourself to high office, of course—in his own first augural address, Obama said that he was taking the presidential oath "amidst gathering clouds and raging storms." But Obama also made nods to diversity, the importance of the country's "patchwork heritage," and the idea that the country had "chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord."
Trump did not call for unity. He doesn't specify who has been "forgotten," but you can fill in the blanks—he means his supporters, people who tend to live in places that are whiter, older, and less educated than other parts of the US. The notion that drove his candidacy is that he'll be a better president for those Americans than Obama was. The billion-dollar question is how he'll try to achieve that.
Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves.
These are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public.
But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists.
Here is where Trump is about to get specific.
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 all knowledge.
It should be pointed out that the notion that the US education system is "flush with cash" is flat-out wrong, but it helps advance Trump's agenda of privatizing American schools. But it's also worth talking about how Trump wants to combat poverty and create jobs. From the bare-bones plans on the new White House website, it looks like Trump's answer is basically the GOP's traditional answer to everything: Cut taxes and eliminate regulations. Is that going to help inner city poverty? Is that going to reverse the long-term trends that have devastated American manufacturing?
And the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
Trump does not explain how to stop this "American carnage," but his White House website again clarifies: He wants more cops on the street, more deportations, more guns in the hands of citizens, and an end to the country's supposed "anti-police atmosphere." Trump doesn't talk much about the war on drugs, but it's hard to imagine him de-escalating it.
From this day forward, it's going to be only America first, America first. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our product, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.
Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength. I will fight for you with every breath in my body, and I will never ever let you down.
Protectionism is the big issue on which Trump and the Republican Party disagree—Trump wants to impose taxes on foreign-made goods, which would make many products more expensive but also theoretically convince more companies to keep production within America's borders. The markets were a little nervous about this.
We will build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation.
We will get our people off of welfare and back to work, rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor.
Trump talks a lot about the need for more infrastructure, and Democrats also favor spending on infrastructure. But there's no plan on paper right now, and it appears Trump wants to make use of public-private partnerships where companies (for instance) build roads, then collect tolls on them in order to turn a profit—not the sort of thing congressional Democrats are likely to endorse.
We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.
After infrastructure, Trump pivots to foreign policy. For years, Obama avoided saying that the US was at war with "radical Islam," an avoidance that enraged conservatives. So this line was red meat for hawkish Republicans. And by pitting "the civilized world" against this foe, and using language like "eradicate completely from the face of the earth," Trump was giving his implicit stamp of approval to the idea that the conflict with ISIS, al Qaeda, and other terrorist groups is a "clash of civilizations"—which, not incidentally, is the same worldview that those groups embrace.
At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.
When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.
When many people, including Obama, talk about fighting racism, they emphasize the hard work that goes into it. Centuries of slavery and institutional discrimination and anti-minority violence do not just vanish—to eradicate these effects take concerted action and careful thought. It's not about what's in individual hearts, either, it's about how systems press down on minorities and women in ways that they don't press down on white men.
Trump doesn't exactly reject all of this, but he doesn't seem to really care about it, either. If you're a patriot, you're not a racist, therefore the only work you need to do is "open your heart to patriotism." It seems simple.
When America is united, America is totally unstoppable. There should be no fear. We are protected, and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement. And most importantly, we will be protected by God.
Even in relatively anodyne-sounding parts of this speech, Trump makes it clear that he is speaking to some people and not to others—for instance, he is not speaking to the people who do not feel protected by law enforcement.
We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow.
So, wait, Trump is into going to space? Yes, he is. But, more generally, when Trump talks about all of these achievements, he is talking about American corporations doing these things, not American government.
Not included in his speech is his administration's reported plans to cut the federal budget, which would eliminate a lot of funding for scientific research, particularly any research into climate change.
So to all Americans in every city near and far, small and large, from mountain to mountain, from ocean to ocean, hear these words: You will never be ignored again. Your voice, your hopes and your dreams will define our American destiny. And your courage and goodness and love will forever guide us along the way.
This is the song of the populist. The difficulty for Trump is that he is not an especially popular populist, with struggling approval ratings and an electoral win that came despite losing the popular vote by more than 3 million. Trump's agenda, from protectionism to budget cuts to repealing Obamacare, seems set in stone. But what happens if those voices from the mountains and oceans tell him they'd like him to stop?
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.