Grading an inaugural address like that is hard. The three most obvious standards are: style, substance, and politics. So I’ll respond in that order.
Stylistically, it was a mixed bag. I’ll start with the things I liked. I loved how short it was. I am not being a smart ass. Short speeches are almost always better, and it takes discipline and clarity of mind to deliver them. I liked that he spoke in an accessible way for all Americans. I could have used a bit more poetry — though there was some — but bluntness has its advantages in a democracy. Rhetorical grandiosity often provides politicians places to hide from their own message when it becomes convenient. Blunt words give politicians no place to hide and the people no illusions about what they mean.
On the other hand, I thought it was a fairly dark speech. I can see how people don’t see it that way, but that’s how it sounded to me. It reminded me of his acceptance speech at the convention, which made America sound like Gotham. (He may not have meant anything sinister by ending the speech with an upraised fist, but I don’t think it was a good look.)
Moreover, for those of us who have listened to Donald Trump for the last two years it was remarkably unoriginal. The end was basically his stump speech. Politically that may have been smart (more on that in a moment), but stylistically it was all-too familiar.
On the substance, there wasn’t that much for me to get excited about. I liked the stuff about good schools and sending power back to the people, save where it descended into Jacksonian populism. And, if you read it as a corrective to Obama’s globalism, I enjoyed it. Obama often spoke as if his speeches had to be translated from original Esperanto.
But this was an overreaction. Forget the historical connotations of “America First” (most people listening don’t know them), this speech made no serious nod to American exceptionalism. He may use the word “patriotism,” but what he means is nationalism. He may use the word “winning,” but he means glory.
The economic nationalism is obvious enough:
Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.
Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength. I will fight for you with every breath in my body and I will never ever let you down.
America will start winning again, winning like never before.
This simply was not a conservative speech and it was barely a Republican one — at least going by how those terms were conventionally defined up until, say, 2014. He triangulated at the beginning against both parties (“What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people”). The address brimmed with words like strength, winning, protection, nation, unity etc. But “liberty” was nowhere to be found. Limited government? Not really. There was one passing reference to freedom, but even that was couched in a nationalistic appeal to unity:
It’s time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget, that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots.
We all enjoy the same glorious freedoms and we all salute the same great American flag.
And then there’s the politics. This may have been a very smart speech. First of all, the message is popular with a lot of Americans, including a lot of Democrats who don’t let The Daily Show do their thinking for them. It’s quite possible that millions of Americans never paid much heed to the campaign or did so through media filters. They may like this America First talk a great deal. His talk about how the establishment took care of itself could have been delivered by a President Sanders.
But here’s the problem. Man oh man did he promise a lot. When you run as a man of action and promise a revolution, you’re expected to deliver it. Overpromising and under-delivering — by Obama, Democrats, Republicans, tea partiers, the conservative establishment, and counter-establishment – is largely why Trump won the primaries and the election. If it spelled their undoing, it can spell his too.