Trump's vainglorious and crass opening act

William Saunderson-Meyer says the US President's inaugural address was just a nationalist rant

To the backdrop of the 1960s pop classic, It’s My Party And I’ll Lie If I Want To, the world has stumbled blearily through its first week of what will become known as the Trump era. 

Like the decor inside some of his buildings — lashings of gilt overlaying acres of chipboard — it’s going to be difficult to gauge what is real and what is artifice in the new administration. And it’s already apparent that these “post-truth” times are going to be rich in political theatre.

Crushed Democratic Party voters no doubt think it all a tragedy, but at least the inauguration itself was comedy. Albeit of the cringe-making kind. 

Forget trying to measure up to the solemnity of past inaugurations. Forget trying to find the statesmanlike words that live on to inspire and define an epoch. For, traditionally, inaugurations are defining national moments.

At Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration, with victory imminent in the civil war to end slavery, Lincoln eschewed triumphalism in favour of reconciliation: “With malice towards none, with charity for all … let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”

In the Thirties, Franklin Roosevelt steadied an America mired in the Great Depression: “First of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself...” 

And in the Sixties, John F Kennedy stirred his countrymen with “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans … unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed.” 

An inaugural address is, of course, not only about spurring idealism, but also about presenting a coherent vision of how to navigate what perils lie ahead. Barack Obama tempered a soaring first inaugural with the blunt warning that the challenges America faced were substantial and real, and “will not be met easily or in a short span of time”.

Donald J Trump, in contrast, delivered a nationalistic rant, studded with staccato “America first” choruses. There was nothing memorable, except in a nightmarish sense. 

This was angry, bombastic and as crass as only Trump can be. With four former presidents sitting stony-faced behind him, with the judiciary, the nation’s elected representatives and the executives that pilot the United States’ formidable bureaucracy, all in attendance, he could find not a single word of thanks or tribute. Instead, he churlishly intimated, these were the people who caused the “carnage” from which he, SuperTrump, would rescue America. 

It was a declamation delivered, however, to a half empty theatre. Photographic comparisons gave lie to the “alternative fact” assertions of White House press secretary Sean Spicer that this was the inaugural biggest crowd yet. Indeed, many believers did trek from the Republican heartlands to cheer their hero, but not in the hordes that Trump boasted.

The gainsayers, still smarting at being trounced by a man they despise, sulked at home with the television switched off or turned out in small numbers to taunt the anti-riot police.

Many conserved their energy and passion for the enormous anti-Trump Women’s March, held across the US and in world capitals on the following day. Unfortunately for them — given that women comprise more than half of the US electorate and that 53% of its largest female demographic, white women, voted for Trump — it was all a little too late.

Those who in similarly ineffectual protest refused to watch the televised inauguration, missed some memorable moments. One involved Hillary Clinton, the woman whom they had fully expected to see in the starring role on the presidential podium. 

She was seated on the stage a row in front of husband Bill. During the proceedings she turned her head to smile at him, only to catch him leering at Melania Trump with unabashed lust. The Hillary smile turned distinctly frosty.

The second act of the inauguration, too, had its moments. Shortly after the swearing-in ceremony, Trump rounded up lawmakers and members of his large extended family and shepherded them into a room to watch his first presidential action, signing some paperwork with much flourish and trumpeting showmanship.

It reminded me of another, long forgotten, look-at-me moment of presidential vanity. Paul Kruger, president of the South African Republic at the time of the Anglo-Boer War, was barely literate and consequently enormously proud of having mastered the penning of his name.

When he was about to sign a letter or an official document brought to his home, his wife, Gezina, would rally as many of the 16 Kruger children who were around at the time, with the cry Kom kinders, Papa gaat zijn naam teiken, meaning “Gather around kids, Papa is going to sign his name.” 

When the curtain comes down on the Trump era, it might be on a resounding failure or a spectacular success. But this opening act will always be remembered as a cheesy bit of burlesque.

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