Analysis

Trump's Inaugural Speech Was Radically Populist and Hypocritical

Here was a billionaire born into privilege, surrounded by nearly every member of Washington's elite, rebuking that elite and promising to bring the people back their government.

U.S. President Donald Trump waves after taking the oath of office as his wife Melania and daughter Tiffany watch at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2017.
JIM BOURG/AFP

Donald Trump’s inaugural speech as the 45th president of the United States picked up where his election campaign left off: It was populist, anti-globalization, hostile to Washington and its elites, and unapologetically, blatantly nationalist.

>> Be the first to get updates on Trump and the U.S.: Download our App, sign up to Breaking News Alerts, and Subscribe

Trump may be a Republican president, but the truth is, his inaugural speech contained very little of what we’ve come to expect from Republicans in recent decades. It contained few religious undertones and no nods to conservative policies. Instead, it was a speech more reminiscent of old-school Southern populists extolling protectionism, rebuking the Washington establishment and promising to transfer power from political insiders to the people. 

More than anything, Trump’s speech seemed to be aimed at the people who delivered him the presidency: communities ravaged by globalization, drugs and neglectful government, and the forgotten people of Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta where, as Nobel laureate Angus Deaton recently remarked, life expectancy is lower than in Bangladesh. The slogan “America first,” which Trump repeated over and over, has fascist-friendly connotations, but it is perfectly tailored for Trump’s base. 

There was more than a shred of irony in that speech. Here was Donald Trump, a billionaire born into incredible privilege, standing in the heart of Washington surrounded by nearly every member of the capital's elite, rebuking that elite and promising to bring the people back their government. 

Donald Trump's inaugural speech. DONALD TRUMP SPEECHES & RALLIES via YouTube

It also contained a great deal of hypocrisy and disingenuousness. Trump is about to head a cabinet filled with billionaires, industry lobbyists and Washington insiders, and he carries around a heavy bag of conflicts of interest related to his businesses. Given all this, one would expect Trump to evoke unity, resort to platitudes and send a conciliatory tone to the establishment that is now a firm part of his government. Instead, Trump’s rhetoric remained as anti-establishment as ever.  

“The establishment protected itself but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs. While they celebrated in our nation’s capital,” said Trump. The next four years will tell if Washington, under his rule, will continue to prosper, as the people continue to borne the loss.