I can confess with five years of detachment that I did not like Donald Trump’s inaugural address in 2017. It was depressing, and a little clunky. And the parts that weren’t clunky were doubly depressing:
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 all knowledge; and the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.
I’ve always been a Nixonian optimist, and I prefer the thick Americanism of the ’68 convention speech. There is the same hard realism there, the same “rock-em, sock-em” style, the same disdain for the nation’s enemies and the drivers of its decline. Yet it was paired with a sunny vision of the best of America and the hearty communitarianism for which our 37th president once was so beloved.
It is remembered as a seminal “law-and-order” speech, but it was so much more than that. Even in 1968, Richard Nixon could still speak without irony about “a great American city,” about the silent majority of Americans who had not lost their minds, about a future in which the good life would be attainable for the average citizen.
I wanted to believe in 2017 that we could still do the same. Maybe everything has fallen apart in the last half-decade; maybe I just moved to Washington, D.C. Either way, when President Trump returned to the capital this week to deliver a kind of sequel to the “American carnage” speech at the America First Policy Institute, I found myself a whole lot more receptive.
He described the America of two years ago in terms maybe a little hyperbolic, but hard to argue with:
Booming economic recovery like nobody has seen before; the strongest and most secure border in U.S. history; energy independence, and even dominance; historically low gas prices; no inflation; a fully rebuilt military; and a country that was highly respected by other leaders, other countries. Very simply, we had made America great again—and we did it by putting workers first, putting families first, and putting America first.
However bright the Before Times were, the present scene is just as bleak:
But now our country has been brought to its knees, literally. Who would have thought this could happen? Inflation is the highest in 49 years—9.1 percent, and a lot of people think it is much higher. Gas prices have reached the highest in the history of the country. We have become a beggar nation, groveling to other countries for energy. Millions of illegal aliens are stampeding across our wide open borders, pouring into our country; it’s an invasion. Democrat-run cities are setting all-time murder records.
Our country is being dealt one humiliation after another on the world stage. At home our basic rights and liberties are under siege. The American dream is being torn to shreds, and we will not have a country left if this economic and social attack on civilization is not quickly reversed.
Before any more ambitious projects of civilizational restoration can begin, we have to clean up America’s public spaces, where “the criminals have been given free rein.”
Our streets are riddled with needles and soaked with the blood of innocent victims. Many of our once-great cities—from Chicago to New York to L.A.—where the middle class used to flock to live the American dream are now literal war zones. Every day there are stabbings, rapes, murders, and violent assaults of every kind. Violent turf wars rage without mercy. Parents are worried their children will get shot on the way to school or the way back home….
Drugged-out lunatics attack innocent victims at random. Roving mobs of thieves walk into the store and walk out with whatever merchandise they can carry. They are left alone. Nobody tells them, “Don’t do this. Put it back now.” Homeless encampments are taking over every public park and every patch of green space in previously beautiful urban centers, and the dangerously deranged roam our streets with impunity. We are living in a different country for one primary reason: there is no respect for the law, and there is certainly no order.
Nobody who has spent any time in a blue city these past few years could dispute any of that—at least not honestly. Trump went on to catalogue a number of horrific examples, worth listening to for anyone who can stomach them. Our streets are in chaos, and nothing more ambitious can be attempted until Americans can step out their front doors without fear of being shot, or walk through public parks without the risk of being stabbed, or send their kids to school and be certain that they’ll come home.
Other concerns, though less dramatic, are hardly any less urgent. What’s happening to those kids when they do go to school, for instance? The attacks on America’s next generation, the attempts to indoctrinate them into radical ideologies of race and sex, will be some of the gravest challenges facing the next crop of Republican leadership. Trump is clear-eyed on the problem and solution:
Federal, state, and local government should aggressively enforce existing statutes to stop the perverted sexualization of minor children. We have the statutes. A society that refuses to protect its children is a society that will soon not be able to protect anybody. This is a hallmark of cultural and social decay against which we should fight back very hard and very soon. We do not have time to waste to do this.
The sickos that are pushing sexual content in kindergarten or providing puberty blockers to young children…are not just engaged in acts of depravity. In many cases they are breaking the law, and they should be held fully accountable.
To all but the kind of blue-haired, tattooed kindergarten teacher who hangs BLM/Pride/Ukraine flags in her classroom and spends her every moment scrolling through TikTok, this is obvious. But Trump went further, taking a two-handed grip of the third rail of American politics circa 2022: transgenderism.
If our 45th president weren’t already on show trial in absentia, his remarks on women’s sports might have been enough to set the ball rolling. “…And then this guy comes along.” A pause for comedic effect: “His name is Alice.” The audience bursts into laughter. He’s encouraged now: “I would be the greatest women’s basketball coach. Because—I do not like LeBron James, I like Michael Jordan much better—but I would go up to LeBron James and say, ‘LeBron, did you ever have any desire to be a woman?’”
The remarks on transgenderism draw the most applause of anything in the speech. Yet Trump divulges that all of his consultants told him not to touch it, because the issue is “controversial.” Predictably, he went rogue; one can only hope that the positive result encourages him to embrace a stronger social conservatism, even as the consultant class and the rest of the GOP elite attempt to rein him in.
That remains his greatest weakness: Donald Trump surrounds himself with people who insist he soft-pedal on facts as mundane as the existence of men and women. Among the many people he thanked in his remarks were Brooke Rollins, Larry Kudlow, Kevin McCarthy, and Kellyanne Conway—all in attendance. If America First Policy Institute succeeds in its clear mission to be a holding ground for the next administration, it is going to be a disaster.
On the progressive elite of the other side, Trump has more awareness—and he’s in peak form rhetorically. On Adam Schiff: “His head, as you know, I feel is shaped like a watermelon. Quite an unattractive man…. Not a stupid person, an evil person—a sick person, in my opinion…. A sick, evil, very bad human being.” Ditto “Cheney, who’s the worst, and Cryin’ Adam Kinzinger.”
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One wonders, after a moment, if Trump does know who he’s talking about: “Never forget: everything this corrupt establishment is doing to me is all about preserving their power and control over the American people.” As he delivered the line, the crowd erupted in chants of “Four More Years.”
Trump knows that the deck is stacked against him. He harkens back to Nixon, who “always regretted that he didn’t fight.” He says that somebody asked him recently how he gets up in the morning when so many people seem to hate him. His answer: “Do I have a choice?”
To borrow a Trumpism: “A lot of people are saying…”