Shribman: Inaugural full of swagger and populism

David Shribman

For nearly two and a half centuries this continent has been buffeted by the breezes, and sometimes battered by the fierce atmospheric currents, of change. This weekend the winds veered in gusts, and the country reeled with change.

The United States has always been an awkward blend of tradition and transformation, and never has that mixture been more evident, more evocative, more stunning, than in the fevered days of transformation that began Friday with the inauguration of an insurgent.

Donald John Trump is the 45th president, and different from all who preceded him, just as his inaugural address was different from all that preceded his clarion call to “think big and dream even bigger.’’

Some inaugural addresses reside in favored positions in rhetorical history, and some recede to the anonymity assured by their presence along with 57 others in the anthology of such remarks. And though Trump may have introduced no new jewels into the oratorical crown of this ancient ritual, the scene, and the symbolism, of this inauguration will retain its power for decades, perhaps for generations.

For this was not merely a departure, but it amounted to a remarkable rhetorical repudiation of the president sitting only feet from him and of the established power centers of the capital that he both dominates and derides.

More broadly, this was a moment when a president representing change succeeded a chief executive who himself represented change. And while it may have seemed impossible, eight years ago, to imagine a change from form and profile greater than the inauguration of a black president, this was yet another departure from form—perhaps a measure of how responsive the American system is to public demands for change, perhaps a measure of how frustrated the public has grown with customary politics, and with the custom of politics.

And while commentators repeatedly remarked on the continuity implicit in the ceremonies and circumstances of this momentous weekend, the presidents who joined Trump on the West Front of the Capitol were themselves more than symbols of continuity. For the recondite but irresistible element in the ceremony was that each of the men assembled on the podium themselves once represented deep change: Jimmy Carter (exuding a new spirit after Watergate and Vietnam), Bill Clinton (representing a new generation of leadership after nine presidents shaped by World War II), George W. Bush (brandishing a newly shaped conservatism), and Barack Obama (symbolizing a new inclusiveness).

Friday’s ceremony bore both the imprimatur of history and the impulses of the nation’s newest occupant of its most cherished office.

Trump approached the podium with his trademark swagger and he paused for a kiss for Michelle Obama and the sort of half-hug for Obama that men share when they feel they must. When he finished he shook his fist, perhaps in triumph, perhaps in determination. It was a gesture that none of his predecessors dared make.

Moments later Trump launched into perhaps the most populist Inaugural Address of all time. Presidents at moments like these often speak of the rule of the people, but Mr. Trump spoke of “transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people.’’

Trump’s opponents, and minority groups troubled by his campaign and fearful for their futures, were thirsty for words of reconciliation and unity. The president’s pugilistic tone almost certainly disappointed them, though he made a bow in their direction, declaring, in perhaps his most lyrical passage, “When you open your heart to patriotism there is no room for prejudice.’’

For all, last weekend was a moment of reflection. “We have to remember who we are, what we have accomplished, and what we stand for,’’ David McCullough, the biographer of John Adams and Harry Truman, said in an interview.

Thus begins a new era in the most American tradition of all: change. It is the great national continuity.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.