Saturday, January 21, 2017

President Trump

The first Presidential Inauguration I can recall was President Eisenhower's 2nd Inaugural in 1957. Actually, I don;t recall the Inauguration at all, just watching the parade. The first one I can really remember was, of course, John Kennedy's in 1961, which fell on on a snowy Friday that closed school, freeing me to watch the whole event from start to finish. Even now Kennedy;s inaugural stands out more vividly in my memory than any of the subsequent ones.

Nowadays, the media covers the arrivals not just of the principals but of almost everyone else. And with the ceremony moved since 1981 to the West Front of the Capitol, that means lots of footage of people climbing up and down seemingly endless stairs inside the building on the way from the east entrance to the west.

That said, the inaugural ritual still really revolves around three highly symbolic moments. The first is the arrival of the president-elect at the White House, his welcome by the outgoing president, and their ride together to the Capitol. (See CNN photo above). This tradition, which dates back to Jackson and Van Buren in 1837 is rightly regarded as one of the great symbolic rituals of democratic governance and the principle of the peaceful transition of power. (The practice of the outgoing president actually coming outside to wait for and welcome the president-elect in the north portico is actually a newer addition to the tradition, dating back only to 1961).The second is, of course, the actual swearing-in (a constitutional requirement) and the inaugural address, both of which date back to George Washington's 1st inaugural in 1789. The inaugural address is the substantive as opposed to symbolic part of the ceremony, suggesting the tone the new Administration aspires to set. The third is the very new tradition of the now former president's formal departure from the East Front of the Capitol. (When I first started watching inaugurations. the new president left the stand and went to his congressional luncheon, while the now retired president was more or less left on his own). 

Unsurprisingly, the first and third ritual moments were well executed and even mildly moving, while the oath-taking (complete with Hail to the Chief and 21-gun salute) were what one would expect. It was the speech that everyone was waiting for - to hear how the new president would interpret the ritual and apply it to the practical politics of governing. 

My first reaction to President Trump's address was that it sounded more like a campaign speech than an inaugural address. I assume that was the intention - to make clear that the radical populist agenda on which Trump campaigned was for real and that he does in fact intend to govern differently. In this regard, the crucial reference was when he said that the ceremony was not about merely transferring power from one Administration to another, or from one party to another - but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People. Historically, Donald Trump had never been a Republican, and he never really campaigned as one. He was always more like an Independent candidate who, instead of running independently, had successfully taken over the Republican party as a vehicle for his campaign.

The speech served notice - on the Republican elite as much as on everyone else - that Trump, who ran as a nationalist populist, plans to govern as one. Were he historically oriented, he might have referred to himself in Roman terms as tribunus plebis. A more proximate - and American - analogy would be Andrew Jackson, probably the most nationalist populist president (successfully so) we've ever had.

Jackson, of course, counts as the second founder of the Democratic party (after Jefferson). The irony is that today's Democratic party - itself increasingly uncomfortable with Jackson's legacy because of its commitment to identity politics - has in fact largely abandoned much of the substance as well as the style of Jackson's democratic movement and the tamer version of nationalist populism which sustained the Democratic party until relatively recently in its identity as the party of the "common man." Strains of that still survive, of course. One could quite easily picture Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren composing parts of Trump's speech - more so than Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. 

It was a divisive speech in that it spoke primarily to Trump's nationalist populist base - those who feel (with some good reason) that they have been the losers in the transformation of American society, their economic and social interests ignored and their culture and morals contemptuously looked down upon by the condescending elites who have been among the winners in the transformation of American society. But, just as Barack Obama spoke to his own constituencies (even mentioning atheists) at his inaugural, it should come as no surprise when Trump speaks to his constituency at his.

Of course, when he promises I will never, ever let you down, Trump is certainly raising the expectations of his hearers higher than they might have otherwise dared to hope. He had better make good on many of his promises, or the disappointment and anger at yet another betrayal will be an even greater challenge to President Trump and the rest of the ruling political establishment.

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