Ryan LaRochelleJanuary 20, 2017

By Simon Goodacre | Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Earlier today, Donald J. Trump took the oath of office to become the 45th President of the United States. We spoke to Ryan LaRochelle, PhD'16, an alumnus of the Politics department and 2015 Dissertation Year Fellow, to share his thoughts on the inauguration speech and its implications. Dr. LaRochelle studied American political development, and his dissertation, "The Community Action Program and the Transformation of American Social Policy, 1964 - Present," traced how liberal reform efforts in the 1960s led to shifts in American public administration and examined how social welfare programs affect low-income individuals’ civic participation. He is a visiting lecturer at Brandeis this year.

What did you think of the speech? Did anything surprise you? 

I was initially struck by how different this speech was from his address on election night, when he seemed gracious, empathetic, and spoke quite highly of his challenger, Hillary Clinton. He said during that speech, “For those who have chosen not to support me in the past, of which there were a few people, I'm reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country.” There was a brief time in the immediate aftermath of the election when Trump seemed to try to adjust his demeanor and behavior, but that moment seems to have passed. His address today was not about reaching out for guidance or asking for insight and input from his opponents, but about laying out his vision for the country and pushing forward to implement it.

I was particularly surprised by how dark Trump’s inauguration speech was. Previous presidents have typically used the inauguration as a moment to heal divisions, chart a new path, and reach out to those whose support they may not have garnered throughout the campaign. But Trump’s speech seemed more fitting for a campaign rally or convention. He painted a very dark and dismal picture of America in 2017 – mothers and children trapped in inner-city poverty, “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones,” the prevalence of crime and gangs, a broken education system, “American carnage” – that has sapped the nation and its citizens of their full potential. It was striking to hear an incoming president speak in such disparaging terms. He also linked many of these outcomes to the very individuals he was sharing space with on the dais, whom he portrayed as corrupt politicians who are more concerned with protecting and enriching themselves than with doing what’s right for the American people. His critique of politicians being “all talk and no action” was pointed directly at the individuals whom he will soon be working with. This struck me as a rather stark departure from past addresses. 

Voters on both sides of the political aisle pointed to inefficiencies and problems with the current state of US politics, and part of Trump’s outsider appeal was that he would do something different and potentially upend the political establishment. I think that he and his advisers viewed that as a key component of his victory, and he used his speech today to reinforce that message.

Many campaign themes were represented in this speech. Repeated references were made to "the forgotten men and women of our country," whom the President claims "will be forgotten no longer." Who is he referring to with these remarks, and what is he trying to convey to them?

This was a central aspect of Trump’s closing argument in the campaign, and it proved very effective. It is undeniable that American society has grown more unequal over the past several decades. A greater share of wealth accumulates to those at the top, and levels of mobility have declined as inequality has increased. In general, I think Trump is tapping into an anti-elite rhetoric that has mobilized populist movements across the political spectrum over the course of American history. He said this quite plainly today: “For too long, a small group in our nation's capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth.”

Washington and the “establishment” have grown disconnected and distant, in citizens’ view. I argue in my own research, and other scholars have also shown that the increasing disconnect between citizens and government and declining trust in political institutions is the result of changes in public administration. Public policies are increasingly “hidden” or “submerged” from view, and citizens are unaware of the multitude of ways in which government action improves their everyday lives. This poses significant problems for good governance, and it paved the way for an anti-establishment candidate like Trump. 

But one of the things that I think has been overlooked over the course of Trump’s rise has been his ability to validate citizens’ concerns. I've seen some research since the election that Trump's vote shares were highest in counties hit hardest by drug overdoses and rising mortality rates. Some of the rust belt states that were key to Trump’s Electoral College victory have seen the greatest decline in levels of economic mobility. On several occasions, Trump made it a point in his speeches to talk about these issues in surprisingly heartfelt ways, referencing his brother's struggles with substance abuse. And again today he mentioned the hollowing out of American manufacturing in his address. I was constantly reminded of an interview I did during my dissertation research. I was analyzing whether individuals’ experiences at community action agencies (CAAs) – which are anti-poverty agencies that started during Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty – had any effects on their civic or political engagement and attitudes. I spoke with an individual who had struggled with alcoholism, substance abuse, and mental illness, and he frequently remarked upon the fact that the staff at the CAA were the first people he could ever remember who were willing to listen to him without judgement or without looking down upon him. I think Trump tapped into a very similar type of psychological process. There are wide swaths of the American public that feel left behind, disconnected, judged, and belittled, and Trump was able to connect with those folks and turn them out to vote.  He echoed these claims in his address, noting, “That all changes starting right here and right now, because this moment is your moment. It belongs to you. It belongs to everyone gathered here today and everyone watching all across America. This is your day, this is your celebration, and this, the United States of America, is your country… Jan. 20, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”

While there are legitimate concerns that many citizens have about declining opportunity, stagnant mobility, and rising inequality, I am concerned that Trump is also validating certain sentiments that tap into racial, ethnic, and gender resentment.

We’ve heard Trump and some of his political allies (for example, Maine’s Republican governor Paul LePage, and Ben Carson, his pick to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development) criticize the “special treatment” that they believe certain groups have received under the Obama administration and the Democratic Party, particularly racial and ethnic minorities, women, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, etc. There have been recent polls showing that Republican men, for example, think it is a better time to be a woman than a man.  Trump echoed this during a victory speech in Cincinnati last month: “I hate to tell you men, generally speaking, they’re [women] better than you are. Now, if I said it the other way around, I’d be in big trouble… Everything in general is in favor of a woman. No matter what happens in life, it seems like the man’s always at fault.” When Trump speaks to the “forgotten man and woman,” I think he is tapping into and validating forms of resentment that are motivated primarily by race, class, and gender. That, to me, is very troubling.

Another theme was the United States’ relationships with other nations. The President said "We've made other countries rich while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon." He went on to say that "From this day forward, it's going to be only America first. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families." What will be the policy implications of these positions? 

Trump’s “America First” rhetoric is a stark break from past precedent. There has been agreement since at least the aftermath of World War I from both Democratic and Republican administrations on the need for international cooperation. The US role in the world over the past 100 years has combined self-interest, cooperation among “great powers,” and the promotion of democratic values. While different administrations have placed greater emphasis on some of these factors over others at different points in time, US foreign policy has aimed to build alliances, develop regional or global frameworks to address global crises, and undermine key aspects of sovereignty in the pursuit of a shared, global sense of the common good. This progression has not come without setbacks or failures, of course, but Trump’s rhetoric strikes me as a return to nationalist sentiments of the 19th century. This vision views individual state interests as paramount. What’s interesting is the way that Trump links the past century of global cooperation to his vision of “American carnage.” Breakdown at home, in Trump’s vision, is the result of bad trade deals, a focus on globalism at the expense of national pride and production, and permeable borders which allow for importation of cheap labor, drug trafficking, crime, and welfare fraud. We have seen politicians on the right echoing these claims across the globe over the past year and half. 

The policy implications of this vision will be increasingly isolationist, which may pose problems for international institutions such as NATO and the UN, global agreements on climate change, and America’s alliances abroad. Transforming Trump’s “America First” rhetoric into specific policies may undermine rather than reform or repair international institutions, agreements, and alliances.

Towards the end of the speech, the President issued a call for solidarity, saying "When your heart is open to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice." The Obama years and the 2016 election has been one the most divisive eras in living memory. Is it possible for our new president to unify the country under these circumstances? 

I don’t think partisanship or polarization are going anywhere any time soon, and I don’t think Trump made a very real effort to unify in his inaugural address. He also comes into office with historically low favorability ratings, with most polls finding that roughly 40 to 45% of Americans view him favorably, which pose challenges for any effort to unify the country. 

But I’m not sure if any president, not just Trump, would be able to address these divisions. One of the things I teach in my course on the presidency is that Americans tend to have a sense of presidential fetishism—citizens’ views and expectations of presidential power far exceed their statutory and constitutional capabilities. A pair of quotes from two presidents is quite illustrative on this point: As Thomas Jefferson said, “I approach it [the presidency] with those anxious and awful presentiments which the greatness of the charge and the weakness of my powers so justly inspire.” And Lyndon Johnson noted, “The presidency has made every man who occupied it, no matter how small, bigger than he was; and no matter how big, not big enough for its demands.” Citizens tend to view presidential power as unfettered and uninhibited, but presidential power is far more limited. If citizens are truly concerned about polarization, division, and dysfunction, then I don’t think they should necessarily look to the presidency as a source of inspiration.

Are there any historical parallels to the rise of Trump and his brand of right wing populism? 

In many ways, Trump’s candidacy and his rhetoric tapped into several long-standing traditions in American political thought and history. Several right-wing populist movements over the course of US history have contended that there is a deeply entrenched alliance between elites at the top of the political hierarchy and various “low-class” nefarious groups – namely racial, religious, or ethnic minorities – at the bottom who are working in tandem to undermine and imperil the values and beliefs of “true” Americans. His call to “Make America Great Again” – again being the key word – calls for a return to an earlier moment in American history that was more pure, for various reasons. 

This brand of right-wing populism has given rise to several unsavory movements over the course of American history, often in response to dramatic and systemic changes in American political, social, or economic life. An influx of immigrants, particularly Irish Catholics in mid-19th century gave rise to the nativist Know-Nothing Party, who aimed to “purify” American politics by restricting immigrants who they believed were more closely aligned with papal supremacy than republican virtue and democracy. The profound economic inequality that characterized the Gilded Age fueled economic and racial anxiety among individuals who sought to restrict immigration from Japan and China, which culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  Populists in this mold charged that Japanese immigrants were spies who were relaying information back to the emperor. Racial nationalism gave rise to the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920. While we typically associate the KKK with overt racism toward African Americans, the KKK in the 20s also argued that Catholic and Jewish bootleggers to were aiming to undermine prohibition, which again hinted at a deep conspiracy between “wet” political elites and Jewish and Catholic immigrants. 

This strand of political thought molds its rhetoric to resist countless forms of social change—immigration, economic anxiety, racial integration, a global communist threat, or international terrorism. Social scientists have come to understand adherence to or support for this brand of racial nationalism through the lens of resentment, be it economic, racial, or cultural. Political scientists in recent years have argued that it is this resistance to change, which is fundamentally at the heart of this brand of racial nationalist populism, that explains the rise and growth of the Tea Party. Individuals who voice or lend support for these various movements over the course of history share a sense of resentment toward out-groups. They feel as though they – as true Americans – have been treated unfairly. Scholars see this in recent analyses of the white working class who feel left behind by globalization, free trade, automation, and economic disruption.  They are losing their jobs to immigrants, either in their own communities who work for lower wages or overseas to Mexico and China. This is also reflected in the urban-rural divide that was so crucial in this election. Analyses of rural Americans find that these citizens feel as though politicians “out in Washington” do not respect them, care about them, or understand them. I would argue that this is the strand of right-wing populism – which has persisted over the course of American history – that is most closely associated with Trump’s rise.

Do you have any final thoughts or comments? 

I think that this election will be a wake up call for citizens on both sides of the political aisle. In some ways, I think those on the political left over the past eight years focused too much of their energy and focus on the presidency, at the expense of state and local political organization.  Republicans during that time won thousands of seats in state legislatures, gained control of more than half of state governorships, and now control both houses of Congress. That is far more consequential than the occupant of the White House. Republicans now have more political power than any point in recent history. They are going to have to deliver on their promises and demonstrate that they know how to govern, not just obstruct. 

On the flip side, Democrats are on the defensive and the political left will need to regroup and reorganize if they hope to remain a potent political force. Democrats cannot simply sit back and wait for demographic shifts to usher in a new moment of Democratic dominance. This has been Obama’s message during his final days—calling for a renewed energy and mobilization on the left. History shows that “out parties” – those that do not currently hold political power – tend to focus more efforts on rebuilding and organization. The GOP was incredibly effective at the organizational level in the aftermath of Obama’s election, and if Democrats are committed to pushing back against Trump and the GOP’s policies, then I think they will need to focus more attention on organization-building and mobilization.