Despite the bold claims and fancy soundbites woven into Donald Trump’s inaugural speech earlier this evening, I thoroughly enjoyed most of what he said. I thought that his message, delivered with conviction and characteristic bite, was refreshingly patriotic. The beauty of Trump’s discourse is that it is precisely not what we would ordinarily expect from a senior statesman: politically incorrect, blunt and wildly ambitious.
I was struck, as I always am by these occasions, by the tendency of those on the conservative Right (or at least those pretending, as I suspect Trump could be) to rely heavily on patriotic sentiment in political discourse. Yes, the ceremony symbolises a transition of power and a new chapter for a republic, but there is always something spectacular about effused, Right-wing patriotism.Today’s inauguration certainly had a distinctly patriotic feel to it. The pomp traditionally provided by celebrity performances was ditched and religious propensity played its typically central role.
Trump said poignantly during his speech that “when you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” Perhaps this kind of rhetoric is a tactic that the Right finds useful when it comes to setting a narrative. I have for a long time considered ‘patriotic correctness’ to be a means of regulating acceptable thought, speech and behaviour by those on the Right, almost certainly a defence mechanism designed to counterweight the more liberal-espoused political correctness. But the best part by far of the new president’s inaugural message came towards the end, as he claimed boldly: “We will bring back our jobs, we will bring back our borders, we will bring back our wealth and we will bring back our dreams.” In one powerful sentence, Trump encapsulated why he had been entrusted with office. It was a beautiful line, displaying his love of country and using it to directly address the concerns of ordinary American people.
It tends to be the case that the political Right, or conservatives, are more openly patriotic than those on the liberal Left. Research on this issue is both abundant and unsurprising. The Pew Research Center show that by and large, ‘steadfast conservatives’ are more likely to believe that the United States of America stands out above all other countries, with only a small minority of ‘solid liberals’ agreeing: http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/26/section-2-views-of-the-nation-the-constitution-and-government/.
A prominent Gallup poll, conducted between 2001 and 2016, showed that while patriotic feeling has stagnated, those most likely to be patriotic are republican voters: http://www.gallup.com/poll/193379/new-low-extremely-proud-americans.aspx, which serves to support the idea that a broad liberal-conservative divide, not by any means perfectly illustrated by voting tendencies, exists when it comes to attitudes towards American patriotism. By July 2016, 68% of Republican voters said that they were proud to be American, compared with just 45% of polled Democrats.
If the new leader of the free world’s combative inaugural address is anything to go by, the exploitation of republican-led patriotic sentiment in America (I strongly suspect Trump’s voter base included many democratic defectors, too) might well be what we end up calling Trumpism. It probably has something to do with how the president connects with people. Simple language, bold optimism and evocative expressions of personality are exotic traits in modern politics, used sparingly and often by those attempting to present themselves as ‘anti-establishment’.
The imagery, too, was remarkable as Trump stood up in front of a White House teaming with establishment figures. Four former presidents sat nervously behind him as he delivered a punchy pledge to unite Americans, reminding them of the privileges they are to enjoy over those he referred to as “outsiders”. This does not mean that the new American patriotism is rooted in xenophobic prejudice or snobbish majoritarian entitlement. Rather, it is a rallying cry against the very mechanisms that have left a large chunk of the population feeling marginalised. In many ways, Trump’s presidency marks the first true test for populism in the modern era. Since Marine Le Pen must wait until May to be elected and Brexit has not yet happened, the next few months will serve as a useful appetiser for those who have spent the last year or so riding populist waves.