President Donald Trump - and, yes, we should, albeit under duress, get used to the title - is in possession of a “new vision for America”. That, at least, was what he said in his inaugural speech last Friday.
Was it for real? Was what Washingtonians, 96 percent of whom are ardent Democrats, were watching take place on the steps of the Capitol that day? What Washingtonians, including this one, were watching to their horror was a business tycoon who had never performed public service, a philistine who had never read half a dozen decent books in his life, delivering his inaugural speech as the 45th president of the United States. Yes, it was all real - or more to the point surreal.
A multitude of dignitaries attended the event, and early estimates put the number of people on the Mall at between at 600,000 to 800,000. As a warm-up to the oath of office and later the speech, a rabbi, a priest and a pastor gave short prayers. Only the rabbi chose, in bad taste and out of context, to politicize his, invoking Psalm 137, that posits the centrality of Jerusalem in the history of ancient Hebrews, and presumably for modern-day Jews as well.
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept,” he intoned in a sonorous voice. “If I forget thee Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning.” Very cunning indeed. But the reference to Jerusalem passed largely unnoticed by the crowd, who were in town to hear the new president’s inaugural comments - a ritual for new presidents since 1789 when George Washington took office - and later celebrate his victory come nighttime.
America first, for those Americans in touch with their modern history, is a toxic and racially provocative phrase, referring to the isolationist, one-million-member strong America First Committee, that in the late 1930s urged the US to appease Hitler, and propagated the caveat that the Jewish community was behind all the ills that afflicted AmericaFawaz Turki
Everyone waited as Trump approached the podium. Will his speech be eloquent like President Kennedy’s? Like Ronald Reagan’s, that sought to heal by calling on Americans, whether Republicans or Democrats, to reach out to each other in the interest of the nation? Like Barack Obama’s, that dazzled everyone with its rhetorical flourishes and encoded profundities? Or perhaps like any other inaugural speech that an incoming president, along with his aides and speechwriters, toil over for months? Far from it.
Trump began by vaingloriously saying that he was behind a “movement the likes of which the world has never seen”. Then the vintage Trumpisms came cascading out. Foreign policy? He simply reiterated what he had said on the campaign trail back in April 2016, when he pledged, “My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people, and American security, above all else. That will be the foundation of every decision that I will make. America first will be the major and overriding theme of my administration”.
America first, for those Americans in touch with their modern history, is a toxic and racially provocative phrase, referring to the isolationist, one-million-member strong America First Committee, that in the late 1930s urged the US to appease Hitler, and propagated the caveat that the Jewish community was behind all the ills that afflicted America. The economy? He railed against the Washington elite, rutted-out factories, cities struggling with crime, families “trapped in poverty” and fearful of foreclosure on their homes, and the rest of it.
Angry, tattooed, frustrated
This “American carnage”, as he called it, “stops here and right now” Islam and Muslims? He promised to “eradicate Islamic terrorism from the face of the earth”. Immigration? America will no longer “spend trillions and trillions of dollars on defending the borders of other countries while refusing to defend its own”.
And so it went. The crowd heard him, loud and clear - the same crowd of angry, tattooed, frustrated Americans who want their "country back." And never mind that his inaugural speech was delivered in the brash style of campaign patois, rather than in the dignified idiom of an incoming president - president of a nation that prides itself on being the “leader of the free world”.
If you have any doubt that America is today a nation divided, then consider this, “It took Barack Obama 18 months in the White House for his approval rating to drop 44 percent”, the New York Times wrote in a news report on the front page last Wednesday, “and it took George W. Bush four and a half years to fall that far. Mr Trump got there before even being sworn in. Indeed, Mr Trump will take office on Friday with less popular support than any new president in modern times, a sign that he has failed to rally Americans behind him, beyond the base that helped him win November.”
Another sign? Approximately 600,000 to 800,000 people may have come to Washington for the inauguration on Friday, but the following day, the American capital will host the Women’s March on Washington (men are welcome) that will attract a much larger crowd of anti-Trump protesters from all over the east coast and beyond, with “sister marches” in cities all over the country.
And, yes, an afterword - an afterword about the sad moment when Barack Hussein Obama, now former president, accompanied by Michelle, was whisked away out of Washington by a helicopter, Executive One, after the conclusion of the inaugural ceremonies. Some of us stared at it and continued staring at it till it became a speck in the sky. The bard was right, parting is such sweet sorrow - sweet sorrow to have known someone for eight years who, you now discover, is so hard to say goodbye to.
And now look who we’re stuck with for the next four years?
Fawaz Turki is a Palestinian-American journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington, DC