Campaign Donald Trump is the same as president-elect Donald Trump is the same as inauguration Donald Trump. Some might say that a pattern is emerging.
To call the speech merely “populist” is incomplete. It was populist but with a strong nationalist theme. In other words, it was the exact kind of populism that we now know works so effectively with the Republican base. Trump’s declarations of patriotism were his best moments. Lines like “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice” and ” 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” remind us of the truth that love of country includes a love for all its citizens. And it was certainly refreshing to hear him clearly name our radical Islamic enemies — though I’ve always thought the debates over semantics were overblown. Bombs matter more than labels.
Trump’s promise list, however, was problematic. Coming on the electoral heels of Obama’s much-mocked declaration that “this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick, and good jobs for the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow, and our planet began to heal,” Trump’s vows to America continue the troubling trend of promising hurting Americans that government is indispensable to setting things right. Here are the core Trump promises:
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.
We will bring back our jobs.
We will bring back our borders.
We will bring back our wealth, and we will bring back our dreams.
We will build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation.
We will get our people off of welfare and back to work, rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor.
We will re-enforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.
Obviously, he can’t do all these things. These promises are beyond the reach of even the best-run, most-united government, but so long as he keeps the first promise — to fight with every breath in his body — that may well be enough to retain his base and propel him into a second term. Speaking with Trump supporters, it’s clear that many don’t necessarily believe he can keep all or even most of his promises, except that all-important promise to fight. It’s difficult to overstate how much his fighting spirit helped him forge a bond with his core voters and separated him from the GOP pack. That’s one reason why he could never back down from a political or personal scrap (aside from his combative nature); his brawling was central to his appeal.
Trump’s voters elected a fighter. That much is abundantly clear. And every extreme reaction against him — from the violence before the inauguration, to the repeated declarations that he’s “illegitimate,” to the Democratic lawmaker boycott — forecast the struggles ahead and reinforce his supporters’ conviction that they made the right choice.
Indeed, Chuck Schumer’s brief speech prior to Trump’s was its own indication of the coming battle. Schumer chose to hearken back to 1861, “a time when our country was bitterly divided and faith in the future of our country was at a nadir” and read a letter from a Union soldier penned just before he died at the first Battle of Bull Run. The letter is inspirational, no doubt, but the message conveyed was of the deep willingness to fight, not of the urgent need to unite.
In the days, weeks, and months, we’ll see how that fight takes shape. There will be immediate executive actions, followed by furious legislative activity. Cabinet appointments have given conservatives some reason for optimism, but make no mistake — at his core. Trump is no conservative. He did not campaign as a conservative. He didn’t give a conservative speech. He’s a populist brawler who will (hopefully) see conservative policies as the best means for accomplishing populist ends. Trump has set the tone. The battle has begun.