There’s a famous story that when Barry Goldwater accepted the Republican presidential nomination in 1964 with a fiery conservative speech, a journalist said: “My God, he’s going to run as Goldwater!” There are similar reactions to Donald J. Trump’s inaugural address, whose prepared text can be found here. For at least a year, mainstream journalists have been predicting that Trump will “pivot” to sounding presidential in a traditional way. Instead, his speech consisted almost entirely of the type of rhetoric that won him the nomination and the presidency. He’s going to govern as Trump.
There were predictions in advance of the speech that he would stress “unity.” He sort of did, but not in the way unity is usually defined: telling people to come together and compromise and meet in the middle. What Trump’s speech posited is that unity would be achieved if it weren’t for the establishment and elites standing in its way. “The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs.” This aspect of populism—telling the people that they have been misled by a small arrogant elite—makes a lot of people understandably nervous, and this understandable nervousness will inform a lot of the coverage, especially since journalists are more likely to be aware of the unpleasant historical associations of the term “America First.”
But as a speech, as a piece of rhetoric, it was effective, and may signal how a Trump presidency could succeed, if it succeeds.
The essence of this speech, as well as Trump’s convention speech (written by some of the same people, like Stephen Miller), is that the U.S. is a failing country, ravaged by crime, terrorism and exploitation. He alone, as he’s said before at the Republican convention, can make it better. The conventional pre-Trump wisdom was that politicians have to be optimistic to succeed; this turned out not to be true. Pessimism sells as long as you offer hope that problems can be easily turned around. And blaming the problems on elites has always been an effective tactic to make problems seem easily solved.
Liberals sometimes seem to be arguing that these problems can’t be solved unless we end sexism and racism. This is a plan that has both the advantage and disadvantage of being impossible; it also makes people suspect that they’ll have to give up some things they like in order to create a more just world. Trumpism counters that people can go on doing what they were doing and believing what they believed, and that it only takes a few cosmetic changes to make their lives better. This is a powerful message unless the opposition comes up with its own simple, easily explicable fixes.
But won’t Trump start to be blamed when he’s been in office for a while, and has ownership of the country’s problems? Well, that’s the other part of the strategy behind the speech: it presented Trump not as a Republican, but as an independent standing against the evils of the establishment; many people pointed out that it seemed aimed at both parties. He’s trying to set himself up so that when things go wrong, he can blame it not only on the Democrats (who have almost no political power right now) but on the Republicans who control Congress. He’s basically setting himself up as a third-party president who poses as a Republican.
Will this actually work? Quite possibly not. Trump may not be a normal Republican, but he’s stocking his cabinet with normal Republicans, and he’s going to listen to normal Republicans on a lot of issues. Trump is unpopular and so are the Washington D.C. Republicans (well, so are the Democrats, for that matter). When he signs the usual Republican bills for upper-class tax cuts, Obamacare repeal and other typical conservative items, it will become hard for him to distance himself from them, except for his core of loyal supporters. That core isn’t enough to keep him in power all by itself.
Still, Trump’s personal unpopularity shouldn’t make us assume that all, or even most, of what he talked about today is unpopular. As the pro-Trump journalist Byron York points out in examining a recent poll, most of Trump’s own signature issues are popular. The most important issue for Americans, he notes, is “keeping U.S. jobs from going overseas.” The issues that are not wildly popular or a huge priority for those surveyed are often the ones that are important to the Republican Party, not Trump: while the public doesn’t like Obamacare, they don’t think of Obamacare repeal as being a top priority issue. (One signature Trump issue that is not a priority is building a border wall; this may explain why it was mentioned not once in the speech.) The issues he focused on in this speech were the ones that had the broadest popularity; in a weird way, it was a poll-tested speech.
The more Trump acts like a conventional tax-cutting, Obamacare-repealing Republican, the less popular he gets. If he actually tried to act the way he does in this speech—rejecting both parties in favour of pure anti-elite hostility—some unpredictable or very bad things might happen. But he’d probably be more popular. Easy answers are usually popular.