In an unabashedly populist inaugural address, President Donald Trump hammered the established Washington order and sold himself as the voice of the “forgotten men and women,” and a redeemer to a country he described in strikingly dark tones.
His promise: “This American carnage stops right here and right now.”
As he stood among members of Congress, past presidents and Supreme Court justices, Trump differentiated himself from his new peers. The first man to become president without previously holding elected office or high military rank, Trump said his inauguration would be remembered as “the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”
It was a scorching 16-minute speech that offered a distilled vision of the radical departure from tradition that he promised voters. “The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country,” Trump said. “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. That all changes, starting right here and right now.”
There were brief moments of rhetorical flourish—“a new national pride will stir our souls, lift our sights and heal our divisions”—but more common throughout was Trump using the red-hot rhetoric he was known for on the campaign trail. He even ended it the same way he concluded nearly all of his rallies, with a crescendo that led to his slogan, “We will ‘Make America Great Again.’”
Trump, who at times struggled during the campaign to stick to prepared text scrolling on teleprompters, hewed closely to a script on Friday that described a struggling country in almost apocalyptic terms. He delivered the speech slowly and with deliberate hand gestures.
Trump spoke of “mothers and children trapped in poverty,” “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones,” “the crime and the gangs and the drugs” and a state of infrastructure in “disrepair and decay.” “The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world,” he said.
The ominous descriptions of the state of the union don’t line up with the reality lived by many Americans after years of steady, if slow, economic growth and a low unemployment rate that has dipped below 5 percent. But those same words helped Trump tap into the unease and anxiety of working-class voters that propelled him to a surprise victory in November.
With Trump’s swearing-in, Republicans now control both the legislative and executive branches of government. But his opening speech was notably short on promises of traditional small-government conservatism.
Trump spoke of few policy specifics—he left unmentioned entirely President Obama’s signature health care law that he has vowed to unravel in his first months—and he was particularly impassioned about investing in infrastructure.
“We will build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels, and railways, all across our wonderful nation,” Trump said, a Democratic priority more than a Republican one. “What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people,” Trump said.
The speech was unapologetically anti-globalist and inward-looking, another break from the GOP tradition of a more muscular and international vision of American power. And it had the fingerprints of Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, and Steven Miller, his top speechwriter and senior policy adviser, all over it.
“We will follow two simple rules: buy American, and hire American,” Trump said at one point. “We’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry, subsidized the armies of other countries, while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military,” he said at another.
“This day forward it’s going to be America First,” he said, repeating another campaign-trail slogan. “America First.”
Democrats girded to form a resistance to Trump from the very start, as Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) delivered a quasi-prebuttal to Trump’s inaugural from the same microphone. “Every day we stand up for core democratic principles enshrined in the Constitution—the rule of law, equal protection for all under law, the fredom of speech, press, religion. The things that make America America.”
At the stroke of noon, as Trump finished the oath of office, sworn with his hand on two Bibles—one from his childhood and one from Abraham Lincoln—Trump’s team took control of the federal government. Trump, fittingly, had kicked off Inauguration Day with an all-caps tweet, “THE MOVEMENT CONTINUES – THE WORK BEGINS!”
In his speech, Trump did not directly address constructing a wall along America’s southern border—the linchpin promise of his nationalist campaign—but he did say the days when America “defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own” were now over.
And he sought to define the border in terms of both immigration and the economy.
“We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs,” Trump said. “Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.”
Trump, who has record-low approval ratings for a new president, tied himself to some non-ideological and more broadly shared goals: “Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves.”
But he also used some violent language that is unusual for such a national address. He cited “radical Islamic terrorism,” which he declared “we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.” And he said, “We all bleed the same red blood of patriots.”
After his speech, Trump retreated for the West front of the Capitol inside to formally sign the paperwork to nominate his Cabinet—which will be filled with more billionaires and multi-millionaires than any before it. But in his speech, Trump promised his government would be all about those struggling and left behind. “We are transferring power from Washington D.C. and giving it back to you the people,” Trump declared.