President Donald Trump appeared to be addressing his core supporters rather than the nation during his inaugural address last Friday. There was no outstretched hand to the other side, no inclusive reference to “my fellow Americans,” and no soaring rhetoric projecting the United States’ leadership role in the world.
What Trump delivered with a clenched fist was more akin to one of his campaign speeches: Telling it like he sees it. Us against them. Disrupt it or tear it down. America first. “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs,” he said. “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.”
There is an eerie and ominous tone to the “total allegiance” declaration. Does it mean that regular allegiance is not loyal enough? And does shared allegiance to such things as family, community and religion make one suspect?
Maybe it’s the paternalism inherent in the Trump message that bothers us. While his promise that “we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the American people,” may have resonated with his followers, nothing in his speech explained what he meant and how it would play out. Instead, we got the familiar and distorted message of “American carnage” and reference to efforts to address the needs of “a child … born in the urban sprawl of Detroit.” It felt like token empathy, and we don’t know what to make of it.
Just before Trump took his oath of office, a crowd of hammer- and crowbar-wielding anarchists broke storefronts and torched a limousine in an attempt to disrupt the inauguration. They were clearly no friends of the new president. But we can’t help but notice how their scorched-earth tactics were so consistent with Trump’s divisive identification of those in power as the real enemy.
The inauguration didn’t as much as blink during the disturbances, and the festivities and celebrations rolled on. But we wonder how the flesh-and-blood owners of the stores and limo felt to be labeled as abstract symbols of all that is wrong.
In a mind or movement without empathy, whether of the anarchist left or the heartless right, it is easy to strike out in hatred against abstract symbols. But for those of us stuck in the middle, it is confusing and frustrating to be targeted from both sides.