Right from the start, the Trump presidency was different. Donald Trump said as much in his inaugural address, casting his swearing-in as the start of a new era, one in which power over government would be returned to “the people.” Of course, that sort of rhetoric is normal new-administration bluster. But the real meat of the speech in no way resembled an American president’s inaugural address. And that’s where Trump expressed his distinctive view of the country he would lead.
With evocative imagery, he described a broken, defeated America. “Mothers and children” were “trapped in poverty,” he said. “Rusted-out factories [were] scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” The school system, despite being “flush with cash,” was leaving children “deprived of knowledge.” And then Trump came to the darkest image of all: “And the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
American carnage. It was an arresting phrase. Inaugural addresses have long produced memorable, occasionally beautiful oratory. Lincoln’s soars above all: “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.” But even the average remarks have conveyed a love of this country and espoused a basic idealism about its role on Earth.
Trump’s did not.
The distinction goes well beyond Inauguration Day. Throughout his presidency, Trump has imparted a grim assessment of the country’s purpose and welfare. In this, he stands out among American presidents, a group that has tended to take a sunnier view of things. Ronald Reagan saw “morning in America.” George H. W. Bush vowed to “keep America moving forward.” Bill Clinton imagined a bridge to the future. George W. Bush displayed an uncomplicated patriotism. Barack Obama was full of hope.
And then there is Trump. Trump, whose Twitter feed quakes with anger, whose response to school gun violence is to arm teachers, whose campaign slogan can imagine a bright future for this country only by reaching back into its past.
But his darkest appraisals have been reserved for the situation America faces at its borders, where men and women and children are attempting to enter the country. There are other ways to see this story, to see a country that is a beacon, that draws people in with the hope of something better. Even those who advocate for stricter immigration laws have typically focused their concerns on how immigrants affect wages or employment.
Trump has a more violent read: Immigrants are a threat to American lives. It is a theme he has returned to since the start of his campaign, in the days before the midterm election, and, most recently, in his fight for a border wall. In his first address to the nation from the Oval Office, on January 8, 2019, Trump recounted in gory detail murders he believes could have been prevented with a tougher approach at the border. American carnage, again and again.