No one watching Friday’s Inauguration ceremony could miss the contrast between the gracious civility with which the incoming and outgoing presidents treated each other and the utter repudiation President Donald Trump’s Inaugural Address made of Barack Obama’s eight-year reign. You could hear it at the start of the 16-minute speech. Trump thanked the Obamas for their “magnificent” aid throughout the transition. He then pivoted, with a loaded “however,” to how momentous this particular change of chief executives really is. It’s not just a change of administrations or parties, Trump averred. “We are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the American people . . . . What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people,” he said, echoing James Madison in Federalist 51.
You couldn’t have a starker contrast of visions than this. Goodbye to Obama’s power-swollen embodiment of the administrative state, hatched by Woodrow Wilson and dedicated to the proposition that the governors know better than the governed, whom they shepherd with public-spirited expertise for the people’s own good, whether the people like it or not. The people’s elected representatives, in this vision, matter little. They can serve, like Nancy Pelosi, as a rubber stamp for the ruler’s edicts, carried out by such executive-branch administrative bodies as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Or they can get out of the way of the mighty pen and phone of the philosopher-king, whose demeanor constantly shows his exasperation at lesser beings with narrower minds.
No more, promised Trump. No longer will Washington politicians and the Washington establishment prosper, while factories close and ordinary citizens struggle.
Dire indeed was the picture that the new president painted of the country Obama leaves behind, with “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones,” and “crime and gangs and drugs” creating a kind of national “carnage.” These, Trump implied, are the fruits of the public-spirited expertise about which Obama is so supercilious. If you want an especially stark example of how incompetent government really is to advance the public welfare, just look at the public education system, “flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge.”
The Trump administration, the new president implied, will return to the limited functions that the framers of the original Constitution envisioned: to serve “the just and reasonable demands of a righteous public,” which have for too long gone unheeded. These demands are modest: great schools, safe neighborhoods, good jobs, and safety from—a phrase that Obama refused ever to utter but that Trump spoke loud and clear—“radical Islamic terrorism,” which he promised to “eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.” Trump also took a swipe at the larger piety of Obama’s political correctness, which makes certain thoughts unthinkable or at least unsayable. Henceforward, Trump said, “We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity,” in place of the divisiveness that Obama stoked with what seemed like pleasure.
Trump made much of the idea of “America First,” emphasizing how much we’ve enriched foreign industry, subsidized foreign armies, and defended other nations’ borders at the expense of our own. In his administration, he vowed, “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.” He promised an infrastructure program that “will get our people off welfare and back to work—rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor.” And, again unlike his predecessor, he promised a strong military and strong law enforcement, which he sees as a protection, not a threat, to our citizens and allies.
His ultimate indictment of the Obama-swollen administrative state is that it has “robbed our country of so much unrealized potential”—minds unschooled, ambitions unawakened and unrealized, energy with no outlet. There’s nothing I admired more in this plain and forceful speech than its Hamiltonian spirit: that a free America, where government doesn’t meddle with the liberties of its citizens but encourages a rich multiplicity of occupations and opportunities for invention, allows individuals to achieve their fullest potential. That is the true genius of America, and if Trump can make it glow more brightly, all honor to him.
Alex Wong/2017 Getty Images