There was no poetry in the words delivered to a half-empty National Mall on Inauguration Day. But then, nobody expected a hint of verse or a well-turned phrase from President Donald J. Trump.
There were no historical allusions either — at least not direct ones — from a man who is defiantly truant in his knowledge of history.
And there were no concessions to the other side, the vanquished plurality of voters, the woman who missed her place in history, the outgoing president who kept his dignity to the last minute in office, his place in history intact.
What we got, coinciding with the first rain drops falling while Trump spoke to the nation he now leads, was a clenched fist — his own salute of nationalism and defiance, borrowed from political causes rooted in far different passions. He raised the fist while taking his place at the Capitol steps, and again at the close of a dark, soulless speech introducing himself as the leader of the free world.
We might be able to ignore the fist had he mentioned liberty, the Constitution, equality for all, some joy note to American values. We might be able to give him a wider berth, an open heart, had he quoted Washington, from that humble first inaugural in 1789, or Lincoln, with his call to our better angels, or Kennedy’s plea for a patriotism of selflessness.
No, what we got was the clenched fist, to go with the rhetorical one: America first to fix American carnage.
The populist tone, from a man who lost the popular vote — “the day the people became the rulers of this nation again” — would be welcome, had not Trump brought to Washington a cabinet of the very wealthy and the very elite, a predators’ ball. Included among them is a Treasury nominee whose bank foreclosed on some of those Trump proclaims to speak for. And a labor pick who doesn’t believe fast food workers should earn a living wage. The nationalist tone — “buy American, and hire American” — would also be welcome had not Trump done the opposite to enrich himself over the years, from using Chinese steel in his hotels in Las Vegas to employing foreign workers for his properties in Florida.
The chorus of nationalism in the speech — “From this day forward, it’s going to only be America first. America first” — might even be appealing, had it not those ugly echoes of history. Trump is no doubt ignorant that a similar phrase was used by isolationist, anti-Semitic Americans who aimed to appease Adolf Hitler as it was just becoming clear how much of a monster he would be.
Take Trump, as I’ve said before, not at his word, but for his actions. What we saw on Inauguration Day of the 45th president was the truest sign of how he will rule: not by extending an open hand, but by raising a clenched fist.