In his first address as the president Friday, Donald Trump put his brand on his new administration: America First.
With that phrase, he fulfilled his campaign promises and launched a new American era of fierce nationalism and populism, signaling a tectonic shift from decades of internationalist outlook and policies.
He laid down that marker in a taut speech short in length and details but loaded with broad strokes painting a bleak picture of America and promises of quick action to alleviate years of neglect and pain for the “forgotten men and women.”
Trump said little to reach out to opponents or protesters — he invoked loyalty and unity through patriotism — and focused instead on solidifying the loyalty of the hundreds of thousands of supporters on the National Mall, telling them: “Everyone is listening to you now.”
University of Texas history Professor H.W. Brands said Trump failed to do what most other modern presidents have done: “He conspicuously did not say he was reaching out to the voters who did not vote for him.”
“It was a concise, muscular, action-oriented and populist speech,” said Meena Bose, a presidential scholar at Hofstra University. “It was not a conciliatory speech.”
Trump read from a teleprompter in a voice that was strong but with little inflection. He still sounded more presidential than he has ever before. Yet the speech left out some usual elements, such as beginning by expressing a sense of humility at taking on such a high office.
Trump also spoke with an “implied righteous indignation” about government failing the American people, said Martin J. Medhurst, a rhetoric and political science professor at Baylor University.
“He wanted to give the persona of the tough guy, and I think he did,” Medhurst said. “There was very little eloquence in the speech. . . . His voice was forceful. The language was simple.”
And he delivered a line that will be singled out as the heart of his message for years to come, one on which he ad-libbed as he strayed from the prepared text: “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America First, America First.”
Brands and Medhurst both questioned whether Trump or the aides who helped him write his speech understand that the America First movement in the 1920s and 1930s opposed U.S. entry into World War II and included some supporters of fascism.
But in his speech, Trump insisted that with an inward look and a self-centered approach, America can become great again by recovering from the ravages of years of globalization, factory shutdowns, defense of European and other allies, and unchecked immigration.
With his back to the halls of Congress as he stood on the west terrace of the Capitol, Trump identified the only thing standing in the way, and it was not rigged rules of the economy or the greed of Wall Street and the top 1 percent blamed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
It was the political establishment in Washington, Trump said, and he accused it of flourishing, prospering and protecting itself while allowing “the people” to suffer.
“We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action — constantly complaining but never doing anything about it,” Trump said. “The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action.”
That may be easier to promise than to do, as he himself has shown by kicking to Monday many of the major executive actions that on the campaign trail he vowed to do on his first day in office.
“He is starting to back away a little bit. He conspicuously did not say, ‘We’re going to build a wall.’ He did not say he was going to slap a tariff on China. He did not mention scrapping the Iran nuclear deal,” Brands said.
“It strikes me we’re seeing a transformation of candidate Trump to President Trump,” he said.
The only real policy promise Trump made was to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.”
“That’s a line I’m sure drew a lot of applause, maybe the most applause in the whole speech. But it’s not that easily done,” Medhurst said.