The alternative universe of "post-truth"
If innocent souls had nurtured a sliver of hope that the evolution from campaigning to governing would even marginally transform President Donald Trump, his inaugural speech would have been the unequivocal denouement. If Trump's election campaign effectively leveraged fear, suspicion, and fanaticism, his first speech as President left little doubt that he had spiced that potent brew with another ingredient -- despair. Parts of his 16-minute speech were almost cinematic in the stark description of a decaying America -- rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape; an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.
The former reality television star might as well have been reading from the script of the iconic "Mad Max" 1979 Australian film about a dystopian society. His performance made a detour from history. American Presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Barack Obama have used the inaugural address to set the broad framework for their term while exhorting Americans to transcend the rancour of an election campaign. Ever the disrupter, Trump preferred the path less trodden, relentless in his prophecy of doom. The Washington Post noted that the speech was "bleaker" than that of any previous American President. Trump used a lot of grim words for the first time in an inaugural address, including tombstones, rusted-out, depletion, ravages, and carnage.
It was perhaps very much in character -- Trump has never been accused of idealism. Previous Presidents have urged citizens to hold the government accountable, kindled hope, and eulogised the power of American ideals. "Civility is not a sign of weakness and sincerity is subject to proof," John Kennedy had said at his 1961 inauguration. In 2009, Barack Obama asserted: "We have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over discord." Even George Bush, whose re-election had divided Americans, said in 2005: "Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals." In 2017, 56 years to the day of Kennedy's inauguration, President Donald Trump would have none of it. For him, civility exemplifies dishonesty, and idealism is for wimps, and humility for losers. His words and demeanour left the faithful with little doubt. He was the messiah anointed to lead his followers through the Red Sea. And as befitted such a momentous occasion, divine affirmation was quickly invoked to add to an absolute sense of entitlement. After Trump had delivered his speech, evangelist Franklin Graham offered both a benediction as well as an interpretation, of an omen. He drew the President's attention to the fact that it had started to rain, a biblical sign that God, too, had given his blessing. Earlier, Paula White, Trump's spiritual adviser, had revealed she had seen in him a "hunger for God", while conceding that he did not speak "Christianese", leaving open the nagging question if Trump, after upending politics, would now try to change the contours of an ancient religion.
The jubilant crowd of believers had its sprinkling of infidels too. With raindrops coming down, some of the spectators commented that nature itself was in mourning. The celestial tears seemed prescient. A few hours later the page on the climate change initiative, one of the hallmarks of Barack Obama's Presidency was obliterated from the official White House website.
During his campaigning, Trump's weapons of choice, when confronted with inconvenient facts, were euphemism and obfuscation. His senior aides have since refined the technique. When Democrats pressed for the release of his tax returns, an aide, Kellyanne Conway, retaliated with an alliteration, calling the heretics "political peeping toms". Later, reacting to reports that attendance at his inauguration was about a third of what it was during Obama's inauguration in 2009, Conway told a television anchor that the media should learn to recognise "alternative facts".
Trump's election, along with Brexit, has been attributed to the Oxford dictionary choosing "post-truth" as 2016's "word of the year". The term denotes circumstances where appeals to emotion and passion are more consequential than objective facts. It is increasingly evident that the Trump Presidency inhabits the alternative universe of "post-truth". Betsy DeVos, Trump's pick for Education Secretary, unusually opaque about her education policies, nevertheless set Twitter alight with the suggestion that school teachers be armed with guns as a defence against grizzly bears. A talk show host noted that she could be prophetic because, with Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier heading the Environmental Protection Agency, guns could be the only barrier between kindergarten kids and homeless polar bears dropping into schools for a quick snack.
In an attempt to redeem his signature campaign promise, Trump has turned a deaf ear to what economists have been saying -- most manufacturing jobs in this century have been lost due to automation rather than outsourcing, and with Wall Street's relentless pressure for higher earnings, corporations inevitably seek lower manufacturing costs. The American growth rate of two percent has not helped matters. Trump's intimidating tweets may not change the ground reality. Corporate arm-twisting will only go so far, given that capitalism and a social conscience have always had a tenuous relationship. The two durable solutions economists suggest -- redistribution and labour empowerment -- may be anathema to Trump's Cabinet comprising, as it does, of billionaires and multi-millionaires.
As the Women's March on the day following the inauguration demonstrated, many do not share Trump's nostalgia of a once-great, now declining America. It is reasonable to assume that there would not be too many African-Americans, or women, for example, hoping to reclaim the lifestyle of America in the 1950s. With the lowest popularity rating of any American President starting a new term, Trump is on precarious ground. Already, there are ruminations of a post-Trump era. Austan Goolsbee, a Chicago professor who was the chairperson of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, predicts a pendulum swing with the electorate looking to replace Trump with someone who is neither cruel nor impulsive. David Axelrod, a former Chicago journalist who was a senior aide to Obama, recalled the words of Martin Luther King, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice," a quote often used by Obama.
At the first stumble from the Messiah, even the most ardent devotee may drop the gloves. Through a flurry of presidential orders, Trump is wrestling with the unreasonable expectations that he had ramped up during his campaign. It may yet be too little too late. Reason seldom fetters an all-consuming devotion. Neither, alas, is the backlash of a perceived betrayal.
(Ashok Easwaran is a senior journalist based in Chicago. He has reported from North America for over two decades. The views expressed are personal.)