Today, January 20, 2017, Donald J. Trump was sworn in as President of the United States. His inaugural speech offered surprisingly few novel thoughts, instead echoing stump speeches of his campaign. Some of the perhaps grander moments of the speech aimed for a lofty nationalism as the umbrella for a unified US. Politics aside, the bloody images in the speech offer a surprisingly clear vision of how Trump conceives of the nation.
Do not allow anyone to tell you that it cannot be done. No challenge can match the heart and fight and spirit of America. We will not fail. Our country will thrive and prosper again. We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the earth from the miseries of disease and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow. A new national pride will stir ourselves, lift our sights and heal our divisions. It’s time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget — that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots.
Trump’s call for unity of purpose and determination finds a religious metaphor in the birth of a new age together with a a sci-fi inspired utopian motif. Arguably in contradiction to these grander themes beyond national borders, the President seems to think that this will result in a revival of nationalistic fervor, which in turn will somehow overcome the splits in the nation. The end of that passage then makes an abrupt turn from grand, soaring, galactic-divine goals to the “old wisdom” of soldiers, that all humans bleed not only red, but “the same red blood of patriots.”
Evoking tradition and legacy is, perhaps, meant to anchor this flight of fancy to the appeal to the common man and yeoman ideals that carried Trump across the Electoral College finishing line. However, this supposed wisdom seems oddly placed in a paragraph describing the coming of a new age. While Christian theology and science fiction both offer visions of struggles overcome and a horizon of a new age, the feeling is not one of overcoming all boundaries, but a falling back, a crash into the trenches where soldiers bleed in the name of the nation.
Trump has used references to blood and fighting in past speeches–even going so far as to repeat the infamous tales of ritual defilement of the corpses of Muslim enemies–so this comes as no big surprise. Nor is he the first or only President to refer to the bodily fluid in an Inaugural speech. [I included a selection of Presidential mentions below for those interested.] Wilson, Bush II, and Reagan, for example, emphasized the lack of common heritage and unity under the umbrella of the nation’s civil religion in a way that seems similar to Trump’s idea, but without the abrupt shift to warfare and bloodshed as the central unifying quality.
Other Presidents who spoke of bloodshed on the battlefield did so with a feeling of regret and dogged determination, never more perfectly expressed than Lincoln’s famous warning that “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” Jefferson likewise assigned the need for bloodshed to the wrongs the Britain had inflicted on the nation, giving the US the blood of heroes to remember and venerate. Obama found that the “blood of generations” lay the foundations for a future of peace and international cooperation.
Trump does not act at a moment of war–though of course the constant bombing campaigns and military engagements of all kinds around the globe leave us with the question that cannot be answered here, namely what constitutes a war–and therefore does not have the blood of battlefields to refer to. Well, he could, by referring to the recently ended military efforts of the US armed forces, or the blood running in Syrian cities, in Yemen, in so many places. Furthermore, he does not to consider particular heroes of Revolution, World Wars, Civil War, or any of the other frequently mentioned engagements.
Trump does something quite different. He invokes a unique post-racial USAmerican identity that emerges from the blood shed by ordinary soldiers, presumably in battle. There is no race if you are bleeding to death. This, however, is the unifying force in the promised land of technological-theological glory. Instead of offering the unity of diversity that a lack of common ancestry offers, Trump finds the validity in injury and death. While as much could have been said by way of reference to Shakespeare’s Shylock (The Merchant of Venice is potentially relevant to the Trump Presidency anyway), Trump finds the most obvious moment of unity in the bloodshed of patriotic fighters, in the soldier’s and perhaps the citizen’s ultimate sacrifice. Of course this leads us back to the question of patriotism and politics and blood, which I explored before.
This, however, suggests that this last sacrifice is the basis for all coherence in the nation, for the everyday life. Because there is carnage there is unity. Speaking in terms of political theory, that is an appeal to the state of exception, but as the state of normalcy. Live everyday as if you were in the trenches. Trump is not alone with this opinion, but it still sounds ominous as a fixed part of the ideal USA he paints.
Trump invokes an exceptional death that displaces the many real deaths that a President ought to be concerned about: the very real bleeding done in hospitals where persons without health insurance die of preventable diseases, the blood of back-alley abortion clinics, the blood on the dancefloor of the Pulse Club, the blood of Tamir Rice, the blood that seems to surround many police officers these days, the blood of soldiers die defending their leaders’ ignorance, the blood of the officers shot by Jerad and Amanda Miller, the blood of victims from Santa Monica to Charleston.
There’s a lot of bleeding going on, but President Trump seems to see this as part of the American Experience, as the final proof of the nation’s unity. Mortality, however, is not so much of an evidence as it is an indication of life, a life wasted, lost, gone. While Trump is not the first President to speak about blood in the Inaugural, he surely offers it as the bleakest symbol of nihilism I have ever encountered in such a speech. When death itself is the only sufficient proof for belonging, then life will inevitably be oriented toward it.
Here’s a collection of the Inaugural blood mentions by US Presidents.
Warren G. Harding
Friday, March 4, 1921
“Surely there must have been God’s intent in the making of this new-world Republic. Ours is an organic law which had but one ambiguity, and we saw that effaced in a baptism of sacrifice and blood, with union maintained, the Nation supreme, and its concord inspiring. We have seen the world rivet its hopeful gaze on the great truths on which the founders wrought. We have seen civil, human, and religious liberty verified and glorified.”
Second Inaugural Address
Monday, March 5, 1917
“It has been hard to preserve calm counsel while the thought of our own people swayed this way and that under their influence. We are a composite and cosmopolitan people. We are of the blood of all the nations that are at war. The currents of our thoughts as well as the currents of our trade run quick at all seasons back and forth between us and them. The war inevitably set its mark from the first alike upon our minds, our industries, our commerce, our politics and our social action. To be indifferent to it, or independent of it, was out of the question.”
James A. Garfield
Friday, March 4, 1881
“The supreme trial of the Constitution came at last under the tremendous pressure of civil war. We ourselves are witnesses that the Union emerged from the blood and fire of that conflict purified and made stronger for all the beneficent purposes of good government.”
Second Inaugural Address
Saturday, March 4, 1865
“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.””
Second Inaugural Address
Monday, March 4, 1833
“Without union our independence and liberty would never have been achieved; without union they never can be maintained. Divided into twenty-four, or even a smaller number, of separate communities, we shall see our internal trade burdened with numberless restraints and exactions; communication between distant points and sections obstructed or cut off; our sons made soldiers to deluge with blood the fields they now till in peace; the mass of our people borne down and impoverished by taxes to support armies and navies, and military leaders at the head of their victorious legions becoming our lawgivers and judges. The loss of liberty, of all good government, of peace, plenty, and happiness, must inevitably follow a dissolution of the Union. In supporting it, therefore, we support all that is dear to the freeman and the philanthropist.”
First Inaugural Address
In the Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, March 4, 1801
“And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions. During the throes and convulsions of the ancient world, during the agonizing spasms of infuriated man, seeking through blood and slaughter his long-lost liberty, it was not wonderful that the agitation of the billows should reach even this distant and peaceful shore; that this should be more felt and feared by some and less by others, and should divide opinions as to measures of safety. But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.
About to enter, fellow-citizens, on the exercise of duties which comprehend everything dear and valuable to you, it is proper you should understand what I deem the essential principles of our Government, and consequently those which ought to shape its Administration. I will compress them within the narrowest compass they will bear, stating the general principle, but not all its limitations. Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none; the support of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against antirepublican tendencies; the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad; a jealous care of the right of election by the people—a mild and safe corrective of abuses which are lopped by the sword of revolution where peaceable remedies are unprovided; absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and immediate parent of despotism; a well disciplined militia, our best reliance in peace and for the first moments of war, till regulars may relieve them; the supremacy of the civil over the military authority; economy in the public expense, that labor may be lightly burthened; the honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of the public faith; encouragement of agriculture, and of commerce as its handmaid; the diffusion of information and arraignment of all abuses at the bar of the public reason; freedom of religion; freedom of the press, and freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected. These principles form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. They should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.”
George W. Bush
First Inaugural Address
Saturday, January 20, 2001
“America has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests and teach us what it means to be citizens. Every child must be taught these principles. Every citizen must uphold them. And every immigrant, by embracing these ideals, makes our country more, not less, American.”
Second Inaugural Address
Thursday, March 4, 1813
“They have not, it is true, taken into their own hands the hatchet and the knife, devoted to indiscriminate massacre, but they have let loose the savages armed with these cruel instruments; have allured them into their service, and carried them to battle by their sides, eager to glut their savage thirst with the blood of the vanquished and to finish the work of torture and death on maimed and defenseless captives. And, what was never before seen, British commanders have extorted victory over the unconquerable valor of our troops by presenting to the sympathy of their chief captives awaiting massacre from their savage associates.”
Second Inaugural Address
Monday, January 21, 1985
” Let us resolve that we the people will build an American opportunity society in which all of us—white and black, rich and poor, young and old—will go forward together arm in arm. Again, let us remember that though our heritage is one of blood lines from every corner of the Earth, we are all Americans pledged to carry on this last, best hope of man on Earth.”
Monday, March 4, 1929
“It is impossible, my countrymen, to speak of peace without profound emotion. In thousands of homes in America, in millions of homes around the world, there are vacant chairs. It would be a shameful confession of our unworthiness if it should develop that we have abandoned the hope for which all these men died. Surely civilization is old enough, surely mankind is mature enough so that we ought in our own lifetime to find a way to permanent peace. Abroad, to west and east, are nations whose sons mingled their blood with the blood of our sons on the battlefields. Most of these nations have contributed to our race, to our culture, our knowledge, and our progress. From one of them we derive our very language and from many of them much of the genius of our institutions. Their desire for peace is as deep and sincere as our own.”
First Inaugural Address
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
“Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake. And so to all the other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more.”