Updated: Jan 4, 2022
Jan. 20, 2017
WASHINGTON — Pledging an “America first” policy, Donald Trump took the oath of office Friday as the nation’s 45th president, vowing to restore prosperity to a disaffected working class that he said was long ago abandoned by a political establishment that flourished as jobs left and factories closed.
“Jan. 20, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again,” Trump declared. “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now. You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before.”
During a forceful, 16-minute speech, strikingly populist and nationalistic, the new president discarded the conciliatory tones common after a deeply divisive election, giving scant nod to the majority of voters who did not support him, or to the vanquished political foes who sat behind him.
As a crowd well below the levels of recent inaugurations watched and listened in the rain on the National Mall, Trump, a 70-year-old wealthy businessman with no previous government experience, attacked the Washington establishment with naked prose, an implicit assault on the records of the four former presidents and current elected officials who sat behind him.
resident Donald Trump waves after taking the oath of office as his wife Melania holds the Bible, and Tiffany Trump looks out to the crowd, Friday, Jan. 27, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Jim Bourg/Pool Photo via AP)
“For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost,” Trump said. “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. 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 because this moment is your moment, it belongs to you. ... This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
Setting a high and quantifiable bar for his presidency, Trump said, “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.” He vowed to rebuild bridges, roads, tunnels, airports and railways, following “two simple rules: buy American and hire American.”
Stanford University historian David Kennedy said he was struck by the nostalgic tone of Trump’s speech, “the tone of restoration and yearning for a prior epoch in American history that in my opinion is simply unretrievable.”
Casting aside the unifying role of U.S. leadership in the world dating back seven decades to the end of World War II, Trump issued a message “to every foreign capital” that “from this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.”
Trump declared that the United States has “defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own, and spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.” From now on, he said, the United States would lead by example, and “not seek to impose our way of life on anyone.”
Richard Abrams, professor emeritus of political science at UC Berkeley, said the “America first” slogan “has long been associated with pro-fascist sentiment in America dating to the 1930s and early 1940s.” Even if Trump doesn’t know its history, the people around him surely do, Abrams said. Trump, he said, “has taken that on as his own.”
Kennedy, agreeing that the “America first” slogan has “deep historical resonance,” said he was struck by Trump’s lack of sophisticated historic understanding, “and why the longed-for period of sustained economic growth and shared prosperity and American global hegemony in the post-World War II quarter century is just not coming back.”
That era, he said, was “a result of a set of historical circumstances that cannot be replicated.”
Trump’s speech was deliberately short. Transition aides had said it was largely written by Trump, with advice from top aides, including Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway. Trump read from a teleprompter and did not veer off script, as he was prone to do during the campaign.
At the end he raised his fist in the air as he repeated his campaign slogan, promising to “make America great again.”
Trump has set a high bar for success among the voters who elected him, said Bill Galston, an expert in governance at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “He’s promised to change the fundamental trajectory of their lives,” Galson said. “That’s the promise they hear, and that’s the promise that he said he’ll do his best to achieve.”
From the White House tea hosted by President and Michelle Obama to the presence of all but one of the five living presidents on the Capitol’s West Front balcony, each ritual of the inaugural ceremony is crafted to symbolize the peaceful transfer of power that is a hallmark of American democracy.
Former President George H.W. Bush was unable to attend for health reasons. In attendance were Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but none was more striking than the presence of Hillary Clinton, dressed in white and joined by her husband, the former president. Defeated by Trump for the presidency despite her 2.8-million-vote victory in the popular vote, Hillary Clinton was a spectator at an inaugural she had hoped would be her own as the nation’s first female president.
Only a week ago Trump had tweeted that Clinton was “guilty as hell” for using a private email server as secretary of state, and he did not extend an olive branch to her during his address. But he did in the congressional luncheon that followed, saying how honored he was that the Clintons attended. “There’s nothing more I can say, because I have a lot of respect for those two people,” he said.
Earlier in the day, Supreme Court Justice John Roberts administered the oath of office. As he was sworn in, Trump held his left hand on two Bibles, Abraham Lincoln’s and a Bible given to him by his mother. First lady Melania Trump, tall and elegant in blue, and Trump’s five children and son-in-law Jared Kushner looked on.
Trump takes office with record low approval ratings for a new president. Post-election divisions remained plainly on display Friday. As many as 50 House Democrats stayed away in protest, including nearly a third of California’s Democratic delegation. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was gracious in greeting Trump at the congressional luncheon, but during the swearing-in ceremony, she and other Democrats wore blue buttons that signified their support for the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature achievement that Republicans have moved to dismantle.
Trump did reach out to minorities, many of whom felt alienated by his campaign, saying that a renewed sense of national pride will heal the country’s divisions. “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice,” he said, recalling the “old wisdom our soldiers will never forget, that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots.”
Robert Smith, a political scientist at San Francisco State University, said Trump’s description of inner-city poverty painted a “bleak” portrait of African Americans that may not resonate with them.
“He used the words carnage and crime and gangs,” Smith said. “I would think one would want, as Lincoln said, to look to the better angels of our nature and say something that was more uplifting. Most blacks rejected his characterization of the black community in the campaign because he painted an undifferentiated picture of just chaos and disaster.”
Shortly after the inauguration, the new White House website went live. All mention of climate change was removed, and a promise was made to halt Obama’s Climate Action Plan.
The Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT rights group, said the new administration also had removed all mentions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from the website as well as a report advancing LGBT workplace rights from the Department of Labor website.
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead