The Alcove

They, the People

A close look at Trump’s inauguration speech helps make sense of recent events and warns of things to come.

By Nathan Pippenger

After letting it sit unpublished for a few weeks, Matthew Sitman decided to run his perceptive essay on Donald Trump’s inaugural speech. By paying close attention to Trump’s subtle revision of the presidential oath—a declaration of fidelity to the Constitution that Trump’s speech recast as an “oath of allegiance to all Americans”—Sitman notices something about the “inner logic” of Trump’s style. His account helps make sense of an array of Trump’s recent outbursts, whether authoritarian:

Or ominous:

Or seemingly ignorant of the basics of an eighth grade civics class:

Or simply delusional:

What unites these statements is Trump’s apparent belief that his office is invested with a direct transfer of authority from “the people,” a group whose membership he imagines in selective terms. As Sitman notes, “it’s clear ‘the people’ means something specific to Trump; it does not literally refer to each and every American.” That’s an absolutely crucial part of Trump’s populism—what Sitman calls its “fundamentally anti-pluralist” character. It contracts, rather than expanding, the political community to which Trump casts his message and in which he bases his authority.

From these premises, it takes only one further act of imagination to inhabit the Trumpian mind. There must be the conviction that “the people,” so imagined, either constitute a numerical majority or, failing that, are so superior that only they can truly represent the nation’s identity and confer authority on its leader. Trump seems to have started his presidency believing the former (or at least wanting intensely to believe it)—hence his repeated emphasis on the supposedly awesome size of his inauguration crowds, and his flat statement that bad poll numbers cannot possibly be true.

In its reality-defying egotism and sheer delusion, this is frightening enough. But Sitman’s essay suggests that Trump’s belief in the cheering majority is actually the less threatening of the two alternatives. As recent events—especially his reaction to the ruling against his “Muslim ban” executive order—show, Trump is already laying the rhetorical and ideological groundwork for a transition to the second conception of his authority. He has already shown that he doesn’t understand, or doesn’t care, that the judicial branch is empowered to check the executive branch. He may yet go further, deciding that the supportive majority to which he once appealed doesn’t matter so much after all. Even his latest tweets dismissing “any negative polls” as “fake news” can be read as subtly preparing the ground for a shift away from claims of mass support for his policies: Notice his insistence that “people want border security and extreme vetting.” The virtue of Sitman’s essay is that it reminds us to ask, upon reading that claim: “Which people?” For even if large majorities came to oppose the President, and he could be convinced of that fact, it may turn out that on his understanding of “the people,” that simply won’t matter.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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