Trump’s inaugural week of caring about nothing but himself.

A Morally Empty Man Gave a Morally Empty Speech. This Is Who He Is.

A Morally Empty Man Gave a Morally Empty Speech. This Is Who He Is.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 20 2017 9:43 PM

This Is Who He Is

A morally empty man gave a morally empty speech to cap off a morally empty campaign.

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers his inaugural address on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC.
President Donald Trump delivers his inaugural address on Friday in Washington.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Kellyanne Conway promised Donald Trump’s inaugural address would be self-effacing. “He actually will convey today, I predict, that this is not about him,” she said Friday morning on Fox and Friends. “And that’s a very non-Trumpian thing,” she blurted, inadvertently telling the truth. Hours later, Trump read the whole speech from the teleprompter. Deprived of ad-libs, he used the word “I” only three times.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Offstage, however, Trump couldn’t restrain himself. The night before the inauguration, he spoke at a dinner for Republican donors. “We have a speech that I wrote, and worked on with Stephen Miller,” he told his guests, referring to the aide who was assigned last month to write the speech. On Twitter, Trump posted a photo of himself with a pad and pen. “Writing my inaugural address at the Winter White House, Mar-a-Lago, three weeks ago,” the tweet said. In the photo, preposterously, Trump fixed a steely gaze on the camera while holding the pen as though writing.

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A normal president doesn’t do this. He doesn’t assert authorship of speeches and fake a picture of himself writing them. At what ought to be the apex of his popularity and grace, Trump is still groping for praise, even for a speech that was supposed to be about other people.

Compare Trump to the last Republican president, George W. Bush. Like Trump, Bush came into office after losing the popular vote. Unlike Trump, Bush used his transition to reach out to Americans who hadn’t supported him. At a rally in Texas three days before his inauguration, Bush spoke of humility, diversity, bipartisanship, and the nobility of politics. “I’ve never been a cynic about public service,” he said. “My dad taught me in the way he lived that life is more than personal gain.”

Bush praised Democratic politicians by name. He called for “putting aside all the partisan bickering and name-calling and anger.” In Texas, he explained, “The respect among elected officials is an extension of the values and diversity of our state. When you talk about Texas today, you’re talking about people from so many different backgrounds, different cultures, and different languages. Any conflicts that once divided us now belong to history. We’re all Texans, and we’re all Americans.”

Two days before his inauguration, Bush addressed a meeting of the Republican National Committee. He challenged his party to become more “inclusive” and to “accept new faces and new voices.” He spoke in Spanish: “El sueño American es para todos. The American dream is for everybody.” Despite the partisan setting, he called for an agenda that would “help people regardless of their party.”

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On the eve of his inauguration, Bush went to a concert at the Lincoln Memorial. He spoke with awe of the Great Emancipator. “Whatever your political party, thank you for taking part in this great tradition,” said Bush. He joked that the crowd had come to see his running mate, Dick Cheney. Bush spoke for just three minutes. He was equally brief and modest in a series of “candlelight dinners” for inaugural donors that night.

Bush continued this emphasis on humility in his inaugural address. He introduced America as a “slaveholding society,” a land of “flawed and fallible people united across the generations by grand and enduring ideals.” He warned of the persistence of “hidden prejudice.” He praised mosques for cultivating humanity. He said America’s role in the world was to “protect but not possess, to defend but not to conquer.” He rejected the notion that “our politics can afford to be petty.” He stressed the importance of “private character,” “civic duty,” and “unhonored acts of decency.”

Trump’s week has been nothing like that. On Twitter, he insulted NBC, CNN, “the Democrats,” and the director of the CIA. He branded Hillary Clinton a criminal. He called Rep. John Lewis, who was beaten for his courage in the civil rights movement, a liar who’s “all talk … no action.” (Trump also said Lewis should stick to fixing “crime infested inner-cities.”) Meanwhile, Trump retweeted a picture of himself as “golfer-in-chief” and quoted a supporter who said it’s not Trump's fault that America is divided.

On Tuesday, speaking to Fox News, Trump escalated his attacks on Lewis. On Wednesday, in what was supposed to be a tribute to Vice President–elect Mike Pence, Trump bashed Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin (“He can be really nasty”), Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas (“a little late to the plate”), and Republicans who had formed the #NeverTrump movement (“They’re really right now on a respirator”). He even razzed Pence for having supported Cruz.

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Like Bush, Trump spoke at the Lincoln Memorial on the eve of his inauguration. But he showed none of Bush’s modesty. Trump bragged about the crowds he had drawn during the campaign. He complained about the media: “The polls started going up, up, up. But they didn’t want to give us credit.” After the event, Trump falsely claimed he had broken the record for crowd size at a Lincoln Memorial concert: “They never had so many people.” He accused the press of failing to acknowledge his “very good speech.”

The night before he took office, Trump, like Bush, spoke at a candlelight dinner for donors. He boasted that he had trounced the Democrats: “The entire country, practically, other than a couple little points, was red!” He joked, “The other side is going absolutely crazy.” He predicted he would win re-election. He heaped scorn on the media: “All of those live television cameras, I can’t stand ’em.” He summoned Conway to the stage and extolled her prowess against TV interviewers: “She just destroys them.”

The donors applauded Trump’s jibes. But anyone watching his performance with unclouded eyes could see that his ego left no room for loyalty to party, much less to country. Trump mocked donors who hadn’t given to him until after the election. He claimed that his incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, had favored him in the 2016 primaries—the way a coach helps his favorite player, Trump said—when Priebus was chairman of the Republican National Committee. Far from crediting previous nominees or presidents, Trump declared: “I outworked anybody who ever ran for office.”

Trump’s narcissism and cynicism seemed boundless. He said blacks had stayed home on Election Day “because they liked me.” He implied that the agency in charge of enforcing immigration laws had supported his candidacy: “ICE endorsed Trump.” He suggested that Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative activist who died last year, had endorsed him out of sheer opportunism. Trump, speaking of himself, paraphrased Schlafly this way: “I don’t care what exactly he is. He’s like an unknown quantity. But he is gonna win.” Trump said Priebus had made the same calculation. In Trump’s mind, these people didn’t care what sort of person he was. They just wanted power. And he admires them for it.

On Friday, a morally empty man gave a morally empty speech. There was no talk of humility, no acknowledgment of enduring prejudice, no plea for decency. Instead, Trump railed against foreigners and “a small group in our nation’s capital” that “has reaped the rewards of government.” In place of Bush’s praise for mosques, Trump spoke of Islam only as a source of terrorism. The man who ran on a platform of “take the oil” fumed that American wealth had been “redistributed all across the world.” He accused countries of “stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.”

This is why Trump is unworthy of your respect. It’s not because he didn’t win the popular vote. It’s not because of his party or his policies. It’s not because of Russia. It’s because of who he is. For all his faults, even those that turned out to be disastrous, Bush was a decent man. He believed in something greater than himself. Trump doesn’t.

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