“We are so much better than this . . . This is not helping us.”
— Protester in plaid lumberjack shirt pleading as demonstrators watch a limousine burn on streets of Washington, D.C.
Amid the chaos and cacophony of words on Friday, this guy stood out. He was the sidewalk seer of the day, the oracle. Yes, the violence was senseless and detrimental to the cause. But so were many things that were said and done in the dawning moments of this new presidential administration.
This gentleman could just have easily been shouting his message from the west steps of the Capitol building at about 1 p.m. Friday. Because what Donald J. Trump did with his inaugural address to the nation’s fragile hopes for unification was not unlike what protesters did to the windows of that Bank of America branch and that Starbucks just blocks from Pennsylvania Avenue. He shattered them, leaving many of us sharing that same inescapable thought, “We are so much better than this.”
Abraham Lincoln was a mere 75 words into his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, when he was already addressing the political divisions that existed at the time. “Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered,” he said. “There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension.”
He closed on a similar appeal for unity.
“We are not enemies, but friends,” he said. “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
If anyone was hoping for something equally bonding, let alone eloquent, this time around, they were sorely disappointed. Instead what followed was a discordant and unfamiliar portrayal of an America “in carnage” and a bold pledge to forge ahead to repair the damage done largely by the new president’s predecessors.
“For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost,” he said. “Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.”
The beginning was so dire it reminded me of how historians described the victory parades of ancient Rome, ones that began with the vanquished leaders of distant lands being forced to lead the way — in chains.
“Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs,” he said. “And while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.”
Trump was presenting himself not just as the victor but as the conquering hero. In the process, he seemed to be presenting a new doctrine, one that may give him justification for undoing so much of what President Barack Obama and others have done. John F. Kennedy offered the idea of government being a partnership, saying “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Ronald Reagan made famous the idea of government as an obstacle with quotes like, “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”