As a light rain fell on the modest crowd scattered across the National Mall — and pedestrians gawked at shattered storefronts a few blocks away — Donald J. Trump announced that the United States had become a democracy again.
“Today, we are not 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 people,” the new president declared. “January 20, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”
The first notes Trump sounded as leader of the free world were more strident than most had expected. The opening passages of his remarks assailed the bipartisan congregation of political elites arrayed in front of him as a parasitic cabal, whom the American people owed little more than contempt.
“For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost,” Trump said. “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.”
The Republican standard-bearer argued that the differences between America’s two major political parties were insignificant, when compared to the differences between the “people” and the “Establishment,” saying, “What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.”
It was not always clear who, precisely, these “people” were. While Trump’s speech was filled with paeans to a national unity that transcends the divisions of race, region, and religion, at times, the “you” he was addressing became decidedly less diverse.
“The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer,” the president said. “You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before. At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction, that a nation exists to serve its citizens.”
Trump then defined what it means for a nation to serve its citizens in starkly protectionist terms, promising to guard “our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.”
The president went on to describe the decrepit America that he would be inheriting after decades of globalist rule — a country where “rusted-out factories” are “scattered like tombstones across the landscape,” our “young and beautiful students” are “deprived of all knowledge,” and “the crime and the gangs and the drugs” rob our nation’s “unrealized potential.”
“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” Trump promised, proceeding to argue that by restoring a vigorous nationalism — both civic and economic — the American people’s financial hardships and bitter divisions would swiftly end. As, for that matter, would the threat of Islamic terrorism and “the miseries of disease.”
“We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth,” Trump said. “We will follow two simple rules: Buy American and hire American.”
“When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice,” the president continued. “It’s time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget, that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots.”
This was not a conservative speech. While Trump softened the undertones of white resentment that infused his campaign-trail improvisations, the populist, nationalist, and quasi-authoritarian themes of those stump speeches were, if anything, accentuated.
On Friday, a Republican president did not come to power. Donald Trump did — and, with him, the “people.”
Whether they like it, or not.