Donald Trump’s inaugural address was all the things commentators said it was — pugnacious, nationalistic, a repudiation of the Obama years and a warning to the power brokers of both parties. As I listened, though, I thought I heard echoes of another address. Only when I read the speech afterward did I realize: Trump’s speech bore an astonishing resemblance to Barack Obama’s first inaugural address, in 2009.
Trump sharply criticized Washington’s power elite — many of whom sat nearby. “Today,” he said near the outset, “we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people.” He went on to denounce a “small group in our nation’s capital,” a group he further narrowed to “politicians” of an “establishment.” “Their victories,” Trump said, “have not been your victories.”
Obama did much the same in 2009. Back then, the new president called for “an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.” He chided the nation’s leaders….: “The time has come to set aside childish things.” And he memorably dismissed those same political leaders — many of whom sat nearby — as “cynics,” purveyors of “stale political arguments.”
Once this cynical establishment was out of the way, however, both men imagined a unified America accomplishing momentous things. “We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together,” Obama said. “We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.” And he rejected the counsel of those “who question the scale of our ambitions.” “All this we can do,” he said. “All this we will do.”
Trump articulated the power of national solidarity even more boldly — “we share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny” — and envisioned its expression in a series of government projects that differed only marginally from Obama’s: “We will build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation.” Trump, too, warned against smallness of ambition: “Do not allow anyone to tell you that it cannot be done. . . . We will not fail. ”
For both Obama and Trump, however, all these things lay in the future. In the present, the United States gropes from one crisis to the next, the victim of its own lethargy and unwisdom. As he did in his convention speech last summer, Trump drew an unsparingly bleak picture of America. He spoke of “mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation”; of “crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.”
Obama envisioned a similarly dismal America in 2009. He spoke of an economy weakened by the greed and irresponsibility of some, and of a “collective failure to make hard choices.” “Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered,” Obama said. The country was in the middle of a financial meltdown, so true enough. But it was worse than that. “Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many”; he saw “a sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights.” This dim interpretation of present-day America was, in fact, a key component of Obama’s campaign pitch. “Those who hear only empty optimism in Obama,” the liberal writer Jonathan Raban wrote perceptively in 2008, “aren’t listening.” “The light in Obama’s rhetoric . . . is in direct proportion to the darkness.”
There’s one crucial difference between Obama’s inaugural address and Trump’s, however, and although it may have its roots in ideology or worldview, it has mainly to do with attitude.
In his first inaugural address, Obama spoke of the United States and its history and people in ways that sounded detached, academic, almost theoretical; and that professorial detachment ran through his public addresses for the next eight years. His 2009 speech exhibited a grasp and appreciation of U.S. history — our ancestors, he said, “toiled in sweatshops, and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip, and plowed the hard earth. . . . They fought and died in places like Concord and Gettysburg, Normandy and Khe Sahn.” But as for the actual Americans listening to him in the present, you didn’t get the impression that he liked them very much.
Trump, by stark contrast, simply tells Americans he loves them. He speaks far more often in the second person than Obama, and his simple diction and clipped sentences sound heartfelt compared to Obama’s writerly abstractions. “You will never be ignored again,” Trump told Americans at the end of his address. “Your voice, your hopes and your dreams will define our American destiny. And your courage and goodness and love will forever guide us along the way.”
Sophisticated liberal urbanites resist this kind of direct emotional expressiveness. That’s fair enough — I don’t care for it myself. But if they want to beat Donald Trump, they’d better not underestimate its power.
Barton Swaim is a contributing columnist at The Washington Post.