Like many, I chose not to watch (much) and I don't regret that choice one bit: the coronation/ascension ceremony of Donald Trump had all the feel of a sham celebration in a third world territory, minus the forced attendance of "adoring" crowds. Mr. Trump is, already, adored by thousands. Millions more seem fairly nonplussed.
Mr. Trump's big day featured thin crowds and the famed "orderly transition of power" that Washington desperately needs to reassure itself that all is not lost. It's one of the ways that - and just the beginning of how - DC, which would love to be seen as the most major of cities,remains slow to accept change of any kind... even when it's being wrested forcibly from its own grip.
Inaugural addresses are overplayed in importance - they occasionally offer the inspiring phrase, but rarely give good insight about the Presidency ahead of us. Our glorious institutional memory notes the high points (we love our own best moments so) of Kennedy and Roosevelt and such... but Nixon gave two of the things, and no one really wants to talk about them all that much.
Trump's speech, such as it was, turned out to be mercifully short, and was a vast improvement on pretty much anything he did during the campaign, but as a marker for what's ahead, he did himself no favors - though not for the reason, I suspect, given by popular media pans. Sure, the thing was, as Trump is rhetorically, a bit dark, but the real problem - a shockingly obvious one based on his approach to winning - was the pained attempt to pivot off of fear, anger, and resentment.
As much as anything, Democrats really need to unpack the complex mix of these fears anger and resentment in the white... well let's say "underclass" though that's not exactly politic. These are not expressions marked by coherence or intellectual rigor, as has been demonstrated repeatedly in post election interviews and strolls to coffee shops in smaller towns. Arguably, that's not really how fear works, anyway. What scares us isn't especially rational, or clear. Yes, there's the unifying, somewhat, dislike of Obama to unite the crowd that supports Trump. But to focus on that exclusively neglects the powerful fear of terrorism, the anger at perceived and imagined loss of a "way of life", and the resentment of others having, or seeming to get, more.
Trump's attempt to answer these fears and resentments on Inauguration Day was, ultimately where the speech didn't really work. It was a mix of "you won't be afraid again, because I said so," combined with vague assertions that by putting "America first" fear and anger about job losses and business closings across the country would cease. The latter is a condensed rehash of Trump's confused logic that ending free trade, and changing corporate tax policy will reignite American manufacturing, which is simply untrue. The former repeats Trump's "only I can fix it" logic from the GOP Convention that he somehow possesses unique insight and skills others don't to combat terrorism and restore America's place in the world, at least as many of the right would like it to be, militarily muscular.
The problem isn't just the inherent falsehoods and exaggerations of Trump's own importance; it's that Trump is no more likely to assuage the fears he himself played up than Republicans have been generally in basing nearly twenty years of electioneering on just such expressions of collective rage and resentment. The voters who turned to Trump, it's very clear, took to him because the "establishment" base of Republicans had exhausted their patience and their trust. The problem for Republicans is that they have had no better answers for the enormous economic changes in the world, no real resistance to the winds of social change, and temerity in the face of the deeper racist undertones to hatred of immigrants and Muslims. Trump, in this way, is simply the natural, logical, dead end to years of Republicans stoking an angry crowd, exhorting them to think the worst. He's here. And it's as bad as we ever thought it could get.
Trump's speech - short, tense, and provocative - left the thin veneer of his ostensible political philosophy badly exposed. His descriptions of life today continue to paint a picture of America better suited to the late sixties or early seventies, and his attempt to paint the coming era as one of hopeful progress couldn't point to any specific positive result, and much of it, too, felt hopelessly out of date. Many opponents of Trump (and in this, Steve Bannon), suggest that his beliefs are especially negative. I think it's simpler: the alt-right philosophy we are getting fed is cynical, distrustful of traditional institutions, and nihilistic. It's not believing in something... it's believing, in the end, in almost nothing.
With so little to offer, it's no wonder Trump's speech was seen as a dark, grim, letdown. The trouble, I think, is that what Trump is likely to do - ratifying a string of extreme right wing actions that cut taxes, decimate spending for people in need, and protect the interests of a small group of the wealthy and well connected - will prove what he actually believes. The trouble with the nihilism of the alt right is that it's a dead end in itself - faith in nothing will, literally, get you nothing. Trump isn't deeply committed to anything so thoroughly dark - he simply craved attention and approval. Lacking a clearly defined moral center or purpose, he's flailing around, trying to turn empty campaign rhetoric into an actual course of action. His Inaugural Speech was immensely revealing that there is, really, nothing there - except distrust, and more fighting.
None of this will assuage the fear and resentment and rage... and indeed, when Trump either fails to take action or takes the wrong actions that make things worse for his cause (and theirs) - an all too likely scenario - they will simply have more anger, more rage, and more fear. We would of course, be better served by the kind of Presidents we've had in dark moments who exhorted us to resist "fear, itself" or to "ask not what our country can do for you." But what we have is Trump, and his collection of fears and his hopes for a brighter 1962. That's no answer at all. And it is a good reason to be mighty, mighty afraid.