After a campaign defined by the size of his personality, President Donald Trump finally found a room he could not fill.
That’s not to say that he couldn’t draw a crowd. The masses assembled for the inauguration of the 45th president looked plenty vast on TV. (And, anyway, a debate about numbers with a new President who was convinced he was on NBC’s number-one show long after its ratings slid is not a debate worth having.) As television, the inauguration showed the degree to which Trump dims in voltage when alienated from the particular tools of his trade. A persona that lit up the stage during debates, arena rallies, and press conferences looked overmatched by this occasion. Trump, after all, is a TV star whose power and charisma comes from his showman-like willingness to sow chaos. The inauguration is a stage show defined by its rigorous adherence to formula, and so Trump seemed less vivid.
The new President’s inaugural address had turns of phrase that were familiar from his campaign—”winning like never before,” “I will never, ever let you down.” And yet their resurfacing here brought to mind a low-fi cover band doing its best to reprise an old standard. Trump’s power on TV, during the campaign and on his post-election tour, derived from the sense of boundless possibility that arises when he opens his mouth. His stem-winder of a convention speech last summer, for example, bore almost no resemblance to what voters had seen in that context before. To be sure, there were times during the campaign when Trump played it safe, sticking to the teleprompter, but these were quickly overshadowed by the next shock.
This time, rather than breaking through cant, Trump made the decision to be as close to a standard politician in style as he could. The end result felt airless and tense, light both on policy specifics and on signature style. When he was not speaking, Trump bore a grim expression, pursing his lips and staring directly into a live-feed camera. It was impossible to guess what he was thinking, and his speech, defaulting to familiar language joylessly, gave no hint either. During the run-up to the speech, audience members could be heard to shout anti-Hillary Clinton slogans like “Lock her up!,” but Trump brought none of the expected red meat to throw their way.
It would be understandable if Trump felt a bit chastened: The two Senators who spoke before Trump, Roy Blunt of Missouri and Charles Schumer of New York, both made charismatic addresses that seemed to directly address one aspect or another of the Trump phenomenon, from the peaceful transfer of power as greater than personal ambition (Blunt) to the sacrifice of an American soldier at Bull Run (Schumer). Of course, these readings may well have had nothing at all to do with Trump. But with the new President as an inscrutable closed circuit, it was hard not to seek some insight somewhere in the day’s events.
It’s worth noting that, overall, the star wattage of this inauguration was also dimmed Particularly in comparison to the two immediately previous, swearing in President Barack Obama. The national anthem was performed by an off-key Jackie Evancho, not Beyoncé; the inaugural concert featured Toby Keith and the Piano Guys, not Usher and Shakira. And yet, as much as this was used to needle Trump in the months preceding the event, it seemed correct for Trump to be the biggest star in his constellation. Unlike Obama, who used adjacency to celebrity to boost his own brand, Trump seems ill-at-ease around genuine stars. Still, the absence of star power led to an austere and jarring tone, as though the event were pressing in on Trump, alone in the spotlight.
And it stumbled into being on-message, too: Trump pledged to return power to “the people.” An amalgamation of superstars, had they been willing to appear, in the nation’s capital would have landed in a place far from what Trump supporters voted for. Trump, speaking lines his fans expected and not veering from script, vowed to shrink the power of D.C. Minimized by the moment, he seems to have begun with the role of the chief executive itself.