A change in atmosphere rolled into Washington, DC, the very second Donald J. Trump approached the podium to deliver his first address as President of the United States.
The skies, thick with gray clouds all morning, picked that precise moment to part and give way to rain. At the same time, as the crowd fumbled with their parkas and ponchos, the sunny picture of America that President Barack Obama has tried to paint these last eight years began to fade behind a darker palette.
“Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential,” the president said, describing the country beyond the DC Beltway. “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
Trump’s inaugural address was a far cry from his predecessor’s insistence that “now is the greatest time to be alive.”
But the new president’s message resonated with the supporters who had gathered, rain and all, to witness his inauguration.
“America needs to be the superpower it once was,” said Damon Diamantaras, a small business owner who traveled to DC from Houston for the event. “We’ve gotten away from the things that made us prosperous.”
“This election wasn’t about conservatives or liberals. It was about the middle class,” said Ash Khare, a 68-year-old Republican elector from Warren, Pennsylvania. “Jobs aren’t there. Illegal immigration? There’s no control. And nobody got it but Donald Trump.”
That thesis helped Trump win the election and carried through in his inaugural address. The new most powerful person in the world drew a sharp distinction between the kind of progress Washington celebrates–for instance, unemployment below 5 percent–and the kind of progress his supporters seek.
“Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s Capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land,” he said by way of casting himself–now the very definition of the establishment–in opposition to the nation’s political class.
Whether or not Washington’s elite have had it easy these past eight years, the city spent today facing a crisis of its own. Washington, which cast 90.9 percent of its votes for Hillary Clinton, descended into bursts of chaos as protesters took over whole city blocks to denounce the new president.
The unrest was a dramatic inversion of the landscape President Trump described. At the very moment his supporters gleefully rejoiced, shouting “Thank God almighty, we are free at last” and snapping selfies with Trump on the jumbotron, the supposedly coddled city’s own liberal bubble burst in a wave of dystopian frustration. Rocks flew and windows shattered while Make America Great Again hats flooded the city atop “the kind of people you don’t usually see in DC,” as one lobbyist put it to me. The divided factions of American politics came face-to-face with the opposite ends of their echo chambers. Over the course of the day, at least 217 people were arrested, according to the DC police chief.
Trump’s address held a mirror up to this tension. “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer,” he said, in an apparent nod to the so-called “silent majority” that had voted him into office. “Everyone is listening to you now.”
To be sure, Trump did make a cursory call to “pursue solidarity.” But for a president whose goal is to upend the political system from the root up, and for whom it seems no norm is sacred, such solidarity may be hard to come by. His first move as President–cutting an Obama administration plan that would have saved low-income and first-time home buyers hundreds of dollars–is already playing into liberal fears that a President Trump would jeopardize the security of low-income and minority communities. Much as he did on the campaign trail, President Trump laid out a protectionist agenda for America, one which many of his opponents view as antithetical to the country’s history of inclusion.
“Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families,” he said. “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.”
It’s a markedly different path to prosperity than the one that President Obama laid out during his eight years in office. The now ex-president argued during his eight years that the country would prosper by joining the global economy, tapping into all of the talent and innovation the world has to offer. Neither President Trump nor his supporters ever really bought into that optimistic vision, and those Democrats who did are now as pessimistic as ever. In that lack of faith, perhaps President Trump is right that the country is facing a dark moment in its history. Now it’s his job to find a way out.