He fought the campaign as a populist – and today from the most solemn stage, in his first defining speech as President, Donald Trump delivered a populist manifesto to his country. He would make America great again, and nothing a self-serving national elite or an ungrateful world would do would stand in his way.
“I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear to faithfully execute...” At exactly noon on Friday, the words that were virtually unimaginable even four months ago, wafted out over a rainy Washington and the world. And with them his country entered a new and uncertain future.
In the setting where Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D Roosevelt and John F Kennedy had taken the oath of office, a property mogul and reality TV virtuoso became the 45th President of the United States, and one unlike any other: without the slightest experience of public office, richer than any of his predecessors, the most unpredictable and surely the most divisive.
And he delivered a speech unlike any other: terse and blunt, and shorn of the soaring and cheering rhetoric that have marked every other inaugural address. There was little overt emphasis of unity, no evocation of a shining city on a hill, as per Ronald Reagan, no talk of an America as noble example for the rest of the planet. Mr Trump instead vowed to remake a country he portrayed as battered and dispirited, riven by violence, and neglected by a pampered establishment.
“We are transferring power from Washington DC and giving it back to you the people,” he said at the very epicentre of power in the capital. “For too long a small group in national government has reaped rewards, but the people bore the cost. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.”
But that was all changing, “starting right here and now”. What truly mattered was not which party controlled government, but which government is controlled by the people. “Today will be remembered as a day when the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten will be forgotten no longer.”
In front of him, a crowd flecked with those familiar red “Make America Great Again” caps and chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A” stretched away down the Mall. But its size appeared modest, a far cry from the millions who turned out for Barack Obama’s inauguration eight years ago, when hope and idealism filled the air. This time, it was a hard Trumpian reality, of few smiles and a turning inward.
Throughout the day, unity and disunity battled for supremacy. The ceremonial part was thick with the former, epitomised by Mr Obama smiling and patting the back of his successor as they made their way through the Capitol building on their way to the formal transfer of power.
And no symbol was more poignant than a certain former First Lady: Hillary Clinton smiled bravely as she underwent the excruciating ordeal of watching the man she beat by three million in the popular vote embarking on the job that she and the rest of the world had expected to be hers. It was a sign of sorts that a polarised country could come together – if not in a resounding display of comity, then at least in the sense of wounds temporarily plastered over.
But behind the veneer of pomp and circumstance – the marching bands, the patriotic music, the shared drive from the White House to Congress by presidents 44 and 45 – America’s political fissures, deeper and more personalised than ever, were plain. Some 60 Democratic members of Congress boycotted the ceremony.
Sporadic protests and confrontations between Trump supporters and opponents broke out on the streets. Police used pepper spray in at least one incident and reported “numerous arrests”. Saturday, meanwhile, may see a demonstration rival the crowd today, the Women’s March on Washington that may draw 200,000 protesters.
Democrats might pay their respects to the office, but not to the man. Mr Trump’s words today may have commanded the stage. But there was no forgetting the bullying, the coarse and vindictive tweets, the lies and exaggerations (“truthful hyperbole” in Trump-speak) that marked not just the campaign, but the transition as well.
But if Mr Trump was mindful of this, his speech, which might have been delivered three months ago in any of the Rust Belt states that handed him victory on 8 November, showed scant sign of it. The economy might be thriving, and unemployment stand at just 4.7 per cent. But the new President described closed factories as “tombstones” that dotted the county and scolded the federal government for spending billions of dollars defending “other nations’ borders” while refusing to defend America’s own.
He lamented not just the loss of jobs and factories, but also the disorder and violence in America’s cities. “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” Mr Trump said with his predecessor looking on impassively. “We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, and in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land, from this day forward it's going to be only ‘America first! America first!’”
The question now is how much is words and how much action. Once again the new President did his good cop/bad cop impersonation, first scolding Washington, then once inside the Capitol Building, joking and backslapping with some of the members of that very elite he had excoriated a few moments earlier.
Republicans have a total grip on Washington, and their President may soon have the chance to turn the Supreme Court conservative for a generation. But how relations will work out between Mr Trump and the party he hijacked and which still does not entirely trust him is anyone’s guess. The themes he sounded in his inaugural address were populist, rather than Republican or Democrat. As usual, they were fleshed out with few facts and fewer details. Washington, America and the world are set for a unpredictable ride.
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