Political Insider

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A strong-man speech, delivered by a strong-man president

On Friday, the 2020 presidential election became the most important in the history of the United States.

That’s not my idea. It is the property of U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who served as master of ceremonies at President Donald Trump’s swearing-in ceremony Friday.

“As important as the first transfer of power was, many historians believe that the next election was even more important,” Blunt told the inaugural celebrants, offering his history lesson with some subtlety.

The Missouri senator was pointing not to George Washington’s noble exit, but to the contest of 1800, which saw the peaceful ouster of the first incumbent U.S. president, John Adams, at the hands of Thomas Jefferson.

It was an unusual reference. Still, the GOP senator put the thought out there.

With the exception of some useless whining about the Electoral College by the losers, and some initial disorganization within the winner’s camp, the 10-week hand-off from Barack Obama to Trump was completed without drama.

As Blunt said, it’s the next one that worries.

Granted, we do not know whether President Donald John Trump, 70, will even seek a second term. But we must assume that he will. And signs on Friday pointed to a campaign far more intense than 2016.

I’m not talking about the clashes between protesters and D.C. police that erupted while lunch was being served to Trump and members of Congress. If you could ask Richard Nixon, he’d tell you that law-and-order confrontations redound to the benefit of the Republican incumbent.

I speak of the language that came from the inaugural stage.

To be fair, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., now the ranking Democrat in Washington, threw the first punch. The Senate minority leader spoke, as Trump would, of “a rapidly changing economy that benefits too few while leaving too many behind.”

But Schumer also described “politics frequently consumed by rancor. We face threats — foreign and domestic.” Those last three, pointed words earned him boos from the crowd.

Yet the day was Trump’s. We have elected a strong man to the White House, and we were offered a strong man’s speech — an inaugural address with a tone unlike any Washington has ever heard. A strong man doesn’t comfort with inspiration. He reassures through singular command. And this is what Trump did, speaking very particularly to the people who elected him.

“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, as former Presidents Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter looked on. “Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. … Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs.”

Giants of Wall Street, whom Trump is bringing into his administration, were exempted from the new president’s indictment.

John F. Kennedy aimed his 1961 address at the Greatest Generation, his generation, which was no stranger to service and self-sacrifice. “Ask what you can do for your country” and such.

If his speech is any measure, Trump’s four years could become the primal scream of the baby boomer generation and its deflated expectations. My generation.

“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” the new president said, echoing his July nomination speech in Cleveland. “The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world …

“We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, 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.”

An interesting word, “decree.” You do not hear it often in American politics. In fact, if the Bartleby.com database of presidential inauguration speeches is accurate, the word has been used only once before by an incoming president. That was in 1881, by James Garfield, in the context of the outcome dictated by the recent Civil War.

Policy pronouncements will come later, in Trump’s first State of the Union address. But the president threw out multiple allusions to tremendous changes to come, including an emphasis on import tariffs that we haven’t seen since the early 20th century. “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs,” he said. “Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.”

Then there’s Russia.

Nixon shook the world order in 1972 when he reached out to China as a counterweight to the Soviet Union. Trump would flip that script with an embrace of Russia unseen since the early days of “Uncle” Joe Stalin and World War II. Hacking or no hacking.

“We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones,” Trump said, “and reform the world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.”

But the line from Trump’s inaugural that may be most disturbing to those outside his circle of supporters was actually uttered as an attempt at unification.

“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,” Trump said. “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.”

“Total allegiance” is a phrase that, according to Bartleby.com, is even rarer than “decree.” It has never before appeared in an inaugural address, and apparently does not include U.S. Rep. John Lewis.

“We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action, constantly complaining, but never doing anything about it,” Trump said a few breaths later — an echo of the critique of the Atlanta congressman that Trump tweeted out last week.

A president looking to expand his base in preparation for the next campaign doesn’t depend on total allegiance. He reaches out. He makes deals. He compromises.

But a man who thinks the same people who put him in the White House on Friday can do it again four years from now — that’s a man who will stoke the fires he’s already lit.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.