After taking the oath of office as America's 45th president, Donald J. Trump proved that we can stop waiting for him to drop the act he put on during the campaign and become what we think of as presidential. It did not happen after he won, it did not happen during the transition, it did not happen when he placed his hand on a Lincoln bible on the steps of the Capitol, and it did not happen during his inaugural address. Instead of acknowledging America's divisions or the unlikeliness of the role he now occupies, Mr. Trump stuck to his well worn script.
His speech could be called populist, if in fact he was popular. Rather, he comes to office with the largest popular vote defeat of any winning presidential candidate in history, and the lowest approval ratings for any new president in modern times. It wasn't populist so much as ominous. The invective against a corrupt and wealthy elite, delivered by a billionaire real estate developer whose previous address is the penthouse of a gilded Manhattan tower that bears his name, devolved into dark and foreboding rhetoric about "American carnage."
It also didn't make much sense. In one moment, he announced a new decree of "America first, America first," promising that every decision of his administration would put this nation's interests before all others — an unmistakable echo of the isolationist politics that gripped the United States during the rise of fascism in Europe before World War II, and quite a contrast from the open hand President Barack Obama extended to the world in his first inaugural. In the next moment, Mr. Trump vowed that America would "shine as an example" for the rest of the world, which would "unite ... against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth." He promised to "build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation," but cast all those he will need to rely on to support those initiatives, the leaders of both political parties, as "all talk and no action, constantly complaining but never doing anything about it."
Former President Ronald Reagan declared in his first inaugural address that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem," but Mr. Trump personified it, effectively calling all the former presidents and members of Congress who surrounded him betrayers of the people, of whom he was the one true champion.
Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, who served as chairman of Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, opened the event with a testament to the healing potential of America's grand tradition of peaceful transfer of power, calling the day "not a celebration of victory, a celebration of democracy." Mr. Trump, quite clearly, didn't see it that way, using his address to trumpet a victory over a political establishment that never supported him. Mr. Trump dropped the "I alone can fix it" theme of his convention speech, but there was no mistaking the subtext that the new president does not believe he needs anyone's help. He won the GOP nomination in spite of the best efforts of the Republican establishment to stop him, and he defeated Hillary Clinton in the general election in the face of unprecedented denunciation not only by Democrats but also by members of his own party.
And today he was the one standing, fist raised in the air, in victory, in defiance.