And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink.
—Philip Larkin, “Aubade”
It was a little twitch, a little pulse, a little burning sensation in your head that said something went wrong. It was sitting down in a comfortable chair on a sunny day and feeling bad without a visible reason why. It was the second before a car wreck, it was the minute before a storm, it was the day before we got sick. And it’s over now. Donald Trump is president, and there can be no delay in accepting this and resisting this.
It’s a job he should not have, because he’s a gutless liar and a predator and a narcissist who believes in nothing. But it’s a job he got anyway, because he’s good at television, and he knows that the key to a grift is to give the mark hope.
What did we gain from watching his inauguration speech, and his first speech as America’s 45th president? What did it teach us about how Trump will govern? The answer is nothing new. He’s been working on that speech since his campaign began. He’s been road testing his material, spit-shining his “I’m a road comic, but a fascist road comic” act all across the country. The only surprise of January 20, 2017 is that he got it all down to a hard and economical 15 minutes. It was a tidy summary of every platform he campaigned on, with all the ego-drunk Lonesome Rhodes histrionics that entails.
He kicked the thing off with his workaday, bullshit populism by declaring that “we are transferring the power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people.” He spoke about how politicians prospered while citizens — “forgotten men and women” — suffered. This was an effective sales pitch throughout his campaign, because it gave voters an easy-to-repeat scapegoat for problems that are far more unwieldy and complicated than politicians as a class. This was also a sales pitch he instantly betrayed by stuffing his Cabinet with vampires from Goldman Sachs.
Then the usual nihilism began, a nihilism he claimed was his own invention, but was mostly the black art of Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, the men behind the curtain. Armed with their screed, Trump took the biggest stage in the world to present America as dystopia. His was an America of impoverished inner cities, of schools that leave students “deprived of all knowledge,” of CRIME! and GANGS! and DRUGS! and death.
“This American carnage stops RIGHT HERE and stops RIGHT NOW!” he thundered, like Elmer Fudd summoning a hurricane.
Carnage. Think about that word choice. That’s a confrontational word. Calling your own country a place of carnage is viscerally punishing. It’s grotesque, loaded with drama, a word you associate with towering piles of twisted bodies and medieval war. It single-handedly renders America a horror film, and puts Trump in a position to be its savior.
And this wasn’t the only time he did it. He kept going. “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.” Then he made it explicit: He is America’s savior.
“I will fight for you with every breath in my body, and I will never, ever let you down,” he declared from the vertiginous height of his showmanship, in one of the most obvious lies of his career. Saying you will never let anyone down is to call yourself an impossible thing: infallible. Everybody lets people down. It’s human nature, and one of the only things we really know about it. Denying this requires true egomania, if not an outright god complex, and doing so in front of his supporters requires cruelty in concert with it.
As self-appointed savior, he then promised to make America “start winning again, winning like never before.” Jobs for everybody, wealth for everybody, dreams fulfilled for everybody. (At that exact second, on ABC’s broadcast of the speech, the camera cut to a happy white guy in the audience yelling “WHERE’S MY TAX CUT?”)
Trump cared so much about being a miracle worker that he then proposed something that any modern conservative would reflexively hate, something that sounded a whole hell of a lot like FDR’s Works Progress Administration. Trump said we would build new roads, highways, bridges, airports, railways. He promised the return of the kind of American labor now seen mostly in World War II propaganda newsreels. (If you haven’t seen a World War II propaganda newsreel, imagine lots of sweaty white guys with hammers.)
His status as messiah thus outlined, and his miracles enumerated, he started spraying bullshit like a firehose. He said he would “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth,” then he said “when you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice,” a perfect contradiction of the previous statement.
It all built to his usual “Make America Great Again” crescendo, and then he lifted his fist in the air, like he was the most popular man in the world, and said “God bless America” a couple times.
It was all redundant. He had already said everything in his inauguration speech over and over at his rallies. There was no lesson in that speech, just a performance to review. Inaugurations are pageants, they are ceremony and ritual, and they do not tell us what the future brings. But this speech, the formal commencement of the new order, should serve as a hard reminder that while our new president cares about strength and his own reputation and promising the return of a mythic American past, he doesn’t give a good goddamn about real justice. Not once in his speech did he mention protecting American citizens who are at risk of being hate crime victims, who are at risk of getting killed by cops, who are at risk of getting discriminated against by many of his own supporters. Not once did he mention homelessness. He sympathized with abandoned factories more than he did any actual flesh-and-blood human beings.
And his conception of America is flat damn wrong. If America was a smoldering crater at the end of the world, we’d be able to see the smoke coming out of it and we’d all be living in junkyard shantytowns of corrugated sheet metal, trading water and bullets for food.
There is darkness in America. I grew up in it. There are forgotten places, and there are forgotten people. I’ve seen the ghosts of evaporated industry, shuttered factories and empty houses in their shadow, and I know the despair that comes with believing the glory days of your hometown are in the past, the feeling in your bones that everything is ending. It breaks your heart and makes you feel like nothing.
Trump took that ache and weaponized it. The country can get dark, but it’s not all dark. We’re not standing in the lone and level sands, and we’re not a smoldering crater. The fact that we can even vote, and that our votes matter, is proof we’re not a smoldering crater. To suggest otherwise is to use fear as a control mechanism. In his inauguration speech, as he has through his entire campaign, he created an artificial fear, yelled it unceasingly, and made himself the only route of escape.
Donald Trump is president. That’s life in America now. It’s no longer a malaise or a nightmare. It’s real. His presidency has started, and he is dictating laws and enacting policy. His sales pitch is not what matters now; it’s his actions that do. And we have to track his every movement and make him know that a president is different from a king. His inaugural address was the last ride of Donald Trump, road show, and the beginning of Donald Trump, the most powerful man in the world. Most things may never happen: this one will.