January 23, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, January 23, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
President Trump's inaugural address, the media's reaction, and a tale of two Americas
Friday, January 20, 2017 marked the 58th presidential inauguration, the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. And as we looked Friday at the meaning of the event in terms of American history, by the time we now speak after the weekend it was clear that President Trump delivered an inaugural address that was very much like candidate Trump, and that in one sense upended official Washington.
There’s a myth, there is a prevailing myth in official Washington and it comes down to this, and that is that candidates run on one platform, but govern on another. There were particular expectations when it came to the election of Donald Trump and then his inaugural address on Friday that some signal will be sent by the President-elect that he would govern differently than he had run as a populist. But he was a populist in delivering his inaugural address.Show Full Transcript
The President’s address watched by millions at home and around the world was one unlike any recent American inaugural address. Some historians and many in the media suggested that it was unlike any presidential inaugural address, going all the way back to 1789. But the media tend to have a very selective and somewhat short historical memory, and so some of the assessments of the inaugural address made in the immediate aftermath tended to ignore the fact that there have been many tense moments in American presidential history and in American inaugural ceremonies as well.
One of most interesting ways to look at Donald Trump’s inaugural address is to look at the response that came from both liberal and more conservative media. The front pages of every major newspaper, not only in the United States, but in most world capital cities, reflected on the President’s address, and many of them suggested that it was uniquely dark. This was reflected not only on the front page of the New York Times, the subhead said, “Uniquely dark vision of the United States,” but the editors went on to comment on the inaugural address, and the editors declared it
“President Trump’s dark vision.”
“President Trump presented such a graceless and disturbingly ahistoric vision of America on Friday that his Inaugural Address cast more doubt than hope on his presidency.”
The news article on the front page of Saturday’s edition of the New York Times, an article by Peter Baker and Michael D. Shear read,
“Donald John Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States on Friday, ushering in a new era that he vowed would shatter the established order and reverse a national decline that he called ‘this American carnage.’”
“In a ceremony that capped a remarkable rise to power, Mr. Trump presented himself as the leader of a populist uprising to restore lost greatness. He outlined a dark vision of an America afflicted by ‘the ravages’ of economic dislocation and foreign exploitation, requiring his can-do approach to turn around.”
On the front page of the paper, not on the editorial page, the New York Times declared,
“Mr. Trump’s ascension amounted to a hostile takeover of a capital facing its most significant disruption in generations. While officially a Republican, he has taken on leaders of both parties and, with no prior political career of his own, made clear that he saw himself as the ultimate outsider not beholden to the current system.”
The Washington Post and other more liberal newspapers ran a decidedly similar kind of article, and most of them an editorial as well. But it’s interesting to look at the front page of the Wall Street Journal, a more conservative paper identified more consistently with the Republican Party than other major American daily newspapers. Gerald F. Seib writing the front page article for the Wall Street Journal wrote,
“Donald J. Trump took the oath of office as president at noon Friday, having at last been embraced by the bipartisan Washington establishment gathered around him on the steps of the Capitol.
“Two minutes later, he went on the attack against that same establishment.”
Seib then wrote,
“In an inaugural address unlike any in recent memory, he indicted the political system he now leads. He also signaled that he will be an entirely new kind of president—and the closest thing to a political independent in the White House since Dwight Eisenhower.”
That’s an interesting statement in and of itself because Dwight David Eisenhower, being such a national figure, was also bipartisan to the extent that the general most often credited with leading the war against Nazi-ism as the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe was believed by members and leaders of both parties to be the potential standard-bearer for their own party in 1952.
The most interesting aspect of the major media response to the President’s inaugural address is the fact that they, all across the spectrum from the left to the right, understood the address as a basic indictment of the political establishment in Washington, the political establishment ruled by both parties, the Democrats and the Republicans.
President Trump’s address included these words,
“For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. That all changes starting right here and right now.”
It is also interesting that many of the major newspapers did not cite the sentence that followed that statement when the President said,
“Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth.”
That’s a very interesting observation, because it is borne out by the facts. Washington, D.C. and its neighboring areas benefited by the radical expansion of government not only in the period of World War II and its aftermath, not only in the so-called Great Society of the 1960s and beyond, but even in recent years where other parts of the nation suffered in the Great Recession that ended the last decade, but not so much Washington, D.C.
In its major editorial concerning the inauguration and the address, the Wall Street Journal took a very different perspective than the New York Times with the editors writing,
“Mr. Trump won the Presidency as an outsider who defied campaign norms, but with his stern countenance even he seemed sobered by America’s grandest democratic stage. The peaceful transfer of power is among our greatest civic rites, all the more impressive when it is a hand-off between political rivals such as Mr. Trump and now former President Obama.”
In terms of that peaceful transfer of power, the editors also wrote,
“One minute Mr. Obama is the world’s most powerful man, the next he’s a citizen who needs to call for a dinner reservation.”
Peggy Noonan, perhaps the most famous former presidential speechwriter now living—she was the senior speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan and later also for President George H.W. Bush—speaking of President Trump said,
“He presented himself not as a Republican or a conservative but as a populist independent. The essential message: Remember those things I said in the campaign? I meant them. I meant it all.”
Citing the very same paragraph that got so much media attention about the government benefiting while the citizens paid the cost, Noonan said,
“It was an unmistakable indictment of almost everyone seated with him on the platform.”
Noonan also wrote,
“Throughout the speech, and much of the day, Mr. Trump looked stern. At first I thought it was the face he puts on when he’s nervous. I don’t think so now.
“Anyway, it was a remarkable speech, like none before it, and it marked, I think, yet another break point in the two-party reality that has dominated our politics for many decades.
“And so, now, it begins. And it simply has to be repeated: We have never had a political moment like this in our lives. We have never had a president like this, such a norm-breaker, in all the ways we know. We are in uncharted seas.”
It’s also interesting to see how media outside the United States responded, especially those in the media representing the global elite, none more classically represents this than the editorial page of the Financial Times of London. The editors of that paper said,
“The speech did conclude with the notion that Americans are a single people, linked by shared values and unstoppable when united in a common cause. This has been a familiar theme at inaugurals at least since Lincoln. But it is likely that it is the first half of the speech that will be much remembered.”
They then wrote,
“It will be hard to forget how the speech began: with a dark portrait of a once great country terribly misused by its own political class and by other nations. If one word captured the spirit of the speech, it was ‘protection.’ ‘The establishment protected itself’ when its job is to ‘protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.’”
The editors then wrote,
“Ronald Reagan’s inaugural also revolved around the failures of government to preserve what was best in America. However, his hopeful tone was a world away from Mr. Trump’s image of ‘American carnage.’”
What struck me in my analysis of the entire event was that was the fact that we saw two different Americas over the course of the inaugural ceremony and in the aftermath. Of course we saw two different Americas in the protest that took place on Saturday. But before getting to those two Americas—the America separated in terms of left and right—it is first interesting to note that what these editorial writers and reporters understood was that the two Americas that President Trump identified first and foremost was the America of the insiders and the America of the outsiders. That in itself is an interesting point. Not only arguably is Donald J. Trump the least politically obligated and clearly identified President in recent American history, at least going back to Eisenhower, it is also true that he is, throughout the entire history of United States, the only President to be inaugurated having never previously served either in government, nor in the nation’s military. That means he really is an outsider.
The Wall Street Journal editors I think got it exactly right when they pointed to that bipartisan crowd gathered for the formality of the presidential inauguration on the West front of the Capitol and pointed out that Donald Trump declared his independence of not only the Congress, but of both parties. Even the Wall Street Journal editors thought that President Trump went too far in describing in his words “this American carnage.” They pointed out that even though America has suffered a great deal economically in terms of the last generation or so, even though middle-class salaries have stagnated and any number of other statistics can points to the relative weakness of the American economy. America is still a very privileged nation, and it finds itself in a situation in which its future is still to be defined, but its present is not exactly, for many Americans, described as a carnage. But that misses the point. It misses the point that Donald Trump was largely elected by Americans who believe that they have experienced an economic carnage.
The political class gathered there on the West front of the Capitol is a protected class. It is protected sociologically; it is protected economically as well. Very few of the people there on that platform, at least, have to worry about their economic future. That’s largely secured. And as Trump pointed out, much of it has been secured by the payment of the American taxpayer.
The comparisons with the first inaugural address of Ronald Reagan are apt end very interesting, because, of course, Ronald Reagan did declare that government is not the solution to our problems, rather, the President said, government is the problem. But at the same time Ronald Reagan was often known as the happy warrior. He held out a vision of hope and he intended his own presidential leadership to provide a way towards that hope.
One additional contrast with President Reagan is that Reagan continuously presented what can be described as a patriotic vision of the United States. While there were patriotic elements of President Trump’s inaugural address, the overarching theme had to do, once again, with the fact that he was not only seeing government as the problem, but he clearly saw himself and the movement that he leads as the answer to that problem. Ronald Reagan clearly believed that Washington was a city and a political system, a culture that desperately needed to be changed, but he did not believe that Washington itself would be the epicenter of the change that would need to take place in the United States. That particular theme was missing in President Trump’s inaugural address.
So the first sense in which we saw the two Americas displayed in President Trump’s inaugural address was the distinction between the insiders and the outsiders, the establishment and the populist movement that had elected him. Carl Hulse reflecting on the address and the ceremony in the New York Times said,
“The ceremonies had a tension that was absent from other recent inaugurals.”
That tension is the tension between the establishment and the people. In previous inaugurations, including going back to the inaugurations of George W. Bush in 2001 and Barack Obama in 2009, signaled one party at the expense of the other. President Trump seemed to signal the establishment was at the center of his target.
Identity politics and the Women's March: A closer look at Saturday's protests
But over the course of the weekend, we also saw two different Americas in a different sense, and that was the division of basic political ideology and perception in America that can only be explained by that deep chasm that divides Americans in terms of worldview. And for this we only have to look at the distinction between the inaugural ceremonies on Friday and the marches that took place not only in Washington, but in many other cities across the country on Saturday.
While the marches included at least some men, it was advertised as a Women’s March, originally a Women’s March on Washington that was later expanded to other cities as well. What we saw in those marches was a protest against not only Donald Trump, but it was also a protest against what was understood to be a rightward shift in the entire country. As we saw in controversies leading up to the March, the organizers actually sought to make very clear that they were not only a group of marching women, but a March of very progressive women. We saw for instance, that they had removed an officially pro-life movement of feminists from the group, because any kind of pro-life sentiment was ruled to be out of bounds in terms of the progressivist vision of women’s rights and ideological feminism that marked the organization behind the march itself.
If the ceremonies and the inaugural address on Friday were described as a resurgence of populism, it was a clear assertion of identity politics that marked the events on Saturday. The open embrace by so many on the political and ideological left of identity politics has the most basic dynamic of their worldview and their political ideology as well. The identity politics were very apparent not only in the leadership which was from the feminist movement, but also from other movements as well based in identity, including those who are driving the LGBT revolution.
But there were some very interesting side notes as well. Lori Adelman, identified as executive director of the website Feministing, writing an op-ed piece published in the New York Times lamented that the group was not quite as diverse in terms of identity politics as even the organizers had pledged. She wrote,
“To be sure, the march platform isn’t perfect. Sex workers have rightly raised issues with its failure to meaningfully address their concerns.”
But Adelman was very glad about the decision to excise any kind of pro-life group when she wrote,
“And in a nod to the dangers of becoming so inclusive as to render political demonstration meaningless, march organizers were forced to awkwardly issue a statement this week reiterating their stance for abortion rights when anti-abortion groups were briefly listed on the march’s website as partners.”
So if Friday represented, rightfully described, a quintessentially populist moment in America, Saturday was quintessentially committed to identity politics, and an identity politics turned up at very full volume.
Facts vs. "alternative facts"? Why the media has such a hard time defining truth
All of this boiled over on Sunday and especially in the forum which is the very classic representation of establishment media, that is the Sunday morning talk shows. This time the controversy came down to how many people actually attended the inauguration as compared to previous presidential inaugurations, but it should also be extended to how many people actually participated in the various marches on Saturday.
Covering the controversy for the media column with the New York Times, Sydney Ember and Michael M. Grynbaum wrote,
“For wary Washington journalists, it seemed only a matter of time before Donald J. Trump’s presidency would lead to a high-tension standoff between his administration and the news media.”
They then asked,
“But on Day 1?”
But here we simply have to interject, what in the world did the media expect? The tension between Donald Trump and the media is not a new development, and only an extreme naïveté would’ve believed that somehow the opening days of the administration would have signaled something of a significant change. But the controversy that emerged on Sunday morning is of particular interest, because it came down once again to the contested category of facts.
President Trump, who had previously announced what he called a “running war with the media,” over the weekend accused the media of misrepresenting the crowd at the inauguration. The media reported it one way, but the President retorted that they were presenting a false understanding that the crowd was actually significantly larger. The President’s spokesman actually said it was the largest crowd at any presidential inauguration. Actually in truth, that’s not likely. But we also have to understand that’s not really important.
Anyone looking dispassionately at this situation would understand that the inauguration in 2009 of the first African-American President of the United States was almost sure to present a crowd that would not likely be equaled in terms of any future presidential inaugurations. But the controversy exploded on Sunday morning when Kellyanne Conway, one of the new President’s senior advisers, said to Chuck Todd of NBC that the spokesperson for the White House, Sean Spicer, had presented “alternative facts” about the inauguration in countering major media’s estimations. These “alternative facts” were immediately rejected by Chuck Todd, who said,
“Wait a minute — ‘alternative facts’?”
He went on to say,
“Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.”
The background of this is important, and it doesn’t begin with the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. It goes back to just about every time that organizers plan a major event of a protest or march of one sort or another about one theme or another in Washington, D.C. and then there is the continual debate about how many persons actually participated in the event. Whether it’s the March for life, for anti-Vietnam protests, or the so-called Million Man March, the controversy comes down to who is able to count the massive crowds that come on the National Mall and other official areas in Washington. This controversy is so regular that it should be absolutely expected, but in the case of the inaugural crowds, it was particularly dicey, and it was escalated by Kellyanne Conway in using the category of “alternative facts.”
But here a Christian operating out of a Christian worldview that considers truth and objective reality of such sublime and supreme importance. This is where we have to understand the danger in the category of alternative facts. But we also have to understand the danger in Chuck Todd’s immediate retort and rejection when he said,
“Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.”
The situation was not improved by Merriam-Webster, perhaps the classic American dictionary which in its own social media feed put out its definition of a fact. Merriam-Webster said,
“A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality.”
It’s hard to imagine how a postmodern philosophy or literature professor in a university could’ve done a better job of confusing the issue. The key problem here is the use of the word “presented.” Once again, Merriam-Webster said,
“A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality.”
There’s something here we need to note very, very carefully. Perhaps the most illustrative quote on this issue came from the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan when he asserted, “Everyone has the right to his or her opinion, but no one has the right to his or her individual facts.”
But here Christians understanding the issue of truth as always front and center have to understand that one that is presented as truth is not always the truth. The odd admission of this by Merriam-Webster came down to that definition of a fact as “a piece of information”—that’s interesting in itself—“a piece of information that is presented as having objective reality.” Well, the problem is just about everyone presents a piece of information as having objective reality. The problem is, what is the actual objective reality?
The postmodern worldview has argued for decades now that there is no such thing as objective reality and many in the media basically played along. Even though they have presented themselves as being tied to and committed to objective reality, the fact is as we have just seen that very clear editorial statements end up on the front pages of these newspapers leading as news when actually they represent analysis. To clarify the situation, I think that the late Senator Moynihan’s statement about no one being entitled to his or her facts has to be redefined from a Christian worldview to this: no one has the right to his or her truth.
The controversy between the White House and major media over facts and so-called alternative facts should trouble Christians who are concerned with truth, but it should also signal the fact that we should be alert always to the fact that what is presented as facts would not always be factual, that is be true.
If that was true of Friday and the crowd of the inauguration, it was also true of the claims made about the protesters on Saturday. It’s simple to say there were massive crowds at both events. But as troubling as the whole idea of alternative facts might be, it’s also troubling to look at the front page of USA Today over the weekend, where the trumpeted headline was that there were protests that took D.C. by storm. And the lede paragraph said,
“More than 2 million people across the world, led by hundreds of thousands who overwhelmed the nation’s capital, protested the first full day of President Trump’s tenure Saturday.”
That number, over 2 million people. Only later in the article, actually on the inside of the paper do we read,
“According to a sister march webpage, an estimated 2.6 million people took part in 673 marches in all 50 states and 32 countries.”
So where did the number come from? The number came from organizers of the march. A war of worldviews, it turns out, is also a war of competing facts. And we should not expect this fight to be fair.