President Trump presented such a graceless and disturbingly ahistoric vision of America on Friday that his Inaugural Address cast more doubt than hope on his presidency.
Instead of summoning the best in America’s ideals, Mr. Trump offered a fantastical version of America losing its promise, military dominance and middle-class wealth to “the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.”
With sweeping exaggeration, Mr. Trump spoke of “carnage” in the inner cities. He deplored all of this decline as a betrayal of America, implicitly trashing the four former presidents who sat listening behind him at the inaugural ceremony. Those presidents, Democratic and Republican, must have put Mexico first, or perhaps Sweden, or China. Offering himself as a kind of savior, the leader of a “historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before,” Mr. Trump proclaimed he would have a different priority: “America First! America First!”
Though expectations couldn’t have been terribly high, the opening moments of Mr. Trump’s presidency were beyond disappointing. He spoke to a nation in need of moving past the divisiveness that, not so incidentally, was his hallmark during the campaign. But what President Trump presented was more of candidate Trump, now more ominous in bearing the power of the White House, yet no less intent on inspiring only his base of aggrieved or anxious white Americans.
The new president offered a tortured rewrite of American history — ignoring the injustices of the past as well as the nation’s economic resilience and social achievements in recent decades.
Mr. Trump portrayed the nation’s closed factories as having needlessly hemorrhaged jobs to overseas companies. But even as production jobs fell by about five million since 1987, the country’s manufacturing output has increased by more than 86 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Trade is part of the complicated story, but so is automation.
Equally misleading was his characterization that Washington has “subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military.” The United States leads the world in military spending, allocating more than the next seven nations combined, including China and Russia. Current spending, in fact, is far higher than it was before the 9/11 attacks.
Mr. Trump waxed apocalyptic in imagining the prevalence of crime in the nation’s cities. “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” he vowed. Crime statistics fluctuate, but they show that crime remains far lower now than in past decades. And one big factor in violent crime — easily available firearms — is not likely to be remedied by Mr. Trump, the candidate who was supported by the National Rifle Association.
There was little music in his speech, and no gentleness in his jackhammer delivery, but Mr. Trump did promise that “a new national pride will stir ourselves, lift our sights and heal our divisions.” Yet he said nothing about such practical needs as effective enforcement of civil rights and police reforms by the Justice Department he will oversee.
It was hard to make sense of Mr. Trump’s distorted vision of America’s past and present. But the passion was familiar in his promise to “make America great again,” as if the nation were in despair and yearning to retreat somewhere with him. The crowd cheered him repeatedly, particularly when he vowed to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate from the face of the earth.”
Vainglorious on a podium where other presidents have presented themselves as fellow citizens, preening where they have been humble, Mr. Trump declared that under him America will “bring back our jobs” and “bring back our borders,” “bring back our wealth” and “bring back our dreams.” This country has its challenges, and we fervently hope Mr. Trump will address them. But America had dreams before Friday. It was great before Mr. Trump became president, and with his help — or, if necessary, in spite of his folly — Americans will find ways to make it greater in years to come.