Trump’s Civil Religion Has an Angry God
America’s 45th president isn’t the first populist to be inaugurated — but he’s the loneliest.
Friday’s inauguration of the 45th president of the United States was a rather angry campaign rally wrapped inside a ritual of national unity and civil religion. Before and after President Donald Trump’s speech, tradition held sway. Former presidents and first ladies of both parties crowded into the reviewing stand, several ministers and a rabbi intoned soothing benedictions, warm-up speakers hailed another “peaceful transfer of power,” and the patriotism of the music matched the ubiquitous bunting.
But once the real estate tycoon from Queens took his hand off two Bibles — his mother’s and Abraham Lincoln’s — he quickly let loose with a rerun of the belligerent populist talk that helped win him the White House. Trump bashed “the establishment” for neglecting their fellow citizens. He vowed to champion “the forgotten men and women” by protecting their borders and the industries where they used to work and might work again. And he portrayed the nation he will govern as a land of pain, poverty, and “carnage” in desperate need of a strong hand.
Angry populist talk has been something of a ritual in presidential politics, too. Andrew Jackson condemned the financiers of the Second Bank of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt scolded “malefactors of great wealth,” while his cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt called out the “economic royalists” who built “new kingdoms … upon concentration of control over material things.” But all these men made such statements in the thick of electoral combat, not moments after taking the Oath of Office.
However, from the first days of his campaign to his last pre-inaugural tweet storm, Trump has been on the attack. Whether from conviction or temperament, that is how he feels most comfortable; no doubt, he bridled at calls for him to sound more “presidential.” Why should the oldest and probably the richest man ever elected to what is now the most powerful office in the world change the habits of a lifetime?
But during their inaugural rituals, each member of that trio of esteemed predecessors restrained himself either from daubing the nation in grim colors or pitting a virtuous people against a self-serving elite. Instead, they drew on history and a spirit of social responsibility to declare what they expected to do in office. In 1829, Jackson presented an undramatic list of the ways he thought government had grown beyond the limits prescribed by the Constitution. That included opposing an expansion of the rather tiny standing army, perhaps a surprising position for a man whose reputation depended largely on his military exploits. In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt evoked a sense of national solidarity — “We have duties to others and duties to ourselves; and we can shirk neither” — and reassured his listeners that he would seek to enact no change that would break faith with “our fathers who founded and preserved this Republic.” Like many other presidents, TR vowed to hold fast to the “ideals” bequeathed by such national heroes as George Washington and Lincoln.
Not even during the pit of the Great Depression in early 1933, when joblessness was at least five times what it is today, did Franklin Roosevelt focus his inaugural address on the “money changers” whom most Americans then blamed for causing the worst economic debacle in the nation’s history. Instead, he famously declared his “firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Like the other Roosevelt, FDR made clear that he would fail at his job if the people did not mobilize to help themselves: “We face the arduous days that lie before us in the warm courage of national unity; with the clear consciousness of seeking old and precious moral values; with the clean satisfaction that comes from the stern performance of duty by old and young alike.”
In his inaugural address, Trump did call for a “new national pride” that will “lift our sights and heal our divisions.” But, aside from thanking the ex-presidents sitting behind him, he did not mention the deeds or ideals of any previous chief executive. Nor did he mention the Constitution, the document that is supposed to define and circumscribe his powers. And it wasn’t clear how he would like the “forgotten … tens of millions” of Americans whom he called “part of a historic movement” to assist him in transforming the nation. Perhaps, as some of Trump’s critics fear, he simply expects that he will make the big decisions and expect them to obediently follow.
But there is a sound reason why the 39 other presidents who celebrated their inaugurals sought to enrobe themselves in consensual national traditions and to describe the land in reassuring tones instead of dire ones. It was the only way they could imagine retaining or attracting a majority to their side.
Many, if not most, Americans disagree with Trump that America is no longer “strong,” “wealthy,” “proud,” or “great.” But if he truly wants to turn the United States into a society that would fit his definitions of those terms, he will have to find a way to speak to the 54 percent who did not vote for him and millions of others who felt they had no one to vote for at all. More scorching addresses like the one he gave today will not accomplish that end.
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