Donald Trump
Credit: Michael Vadon/Flickr

Donald Trump’s inaugural speech was filled, bizarrely and predictably, with dystopian falsehoods. His reference to “American carnage,” a reprise of his oft-repeated and utterly backwards claim that the country faces a violent crime epidemic, was an instant classic in authoritarian fear-mongering.

But that was not the most important moment in Trump’s inaugural. Singling out the most outrageous lie from any string of Donald Trump utterances is, of course, a bit like trying to pick the best Beatles album. But for my money, the heart of yesterday’s speech was Trump’s theory about why regular Americans aren’t prospering: because Washington politicians and foreign governments are stealing all their money. Here’s the key section:

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. Politicians prospered—but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.

A few moments later, he added:

The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world.

This is a master class in scapegoating and misdirection, an astonishing example of chutzpah even by Trump’s historically awesome standards. There really is a group of people that has been sucking up the economic gains that should be going to the middle class, and the Trump Administration is basically its all-star team. Of the executive branch nominees picks so far announced, five are billionaires (as Trump claims to be himself, of course). At least a dozen more are multimillionaires. Andy Puzder, the fast-food magnate and Trump’s nominee for labor secretary, has talked openly about his plan to replace restaurant workers with robots. Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary nominee, is a former Goldman Sachs partner who has already run into trouble for hiding $100 million in assets from the Senate Finance Committee. If middle and working class Americans watching Trump’s speech wanted to know who has been getting rich while they struggle to get by, they should have simply watched on mute. It’s the guy with his name on buildings.

The devastating irony of Trump’s promise to end Washington corruption is that he appears single-mindedly bent on using the presidency to enrich himself and his family to a degree not seen since the nineteenth century, if ever. If the master salesman can keep getting Americans to buy his narrative of ending Washington kleptocracy even as he personifies it, it will represent the colossal —and inexplicable—failure of the Democrats to rally voters around fighting economic inequality.

That failure is perhaps best distilled by the Hillary Clinton campaign’s early riposte to Trump’s campaign slogan: “America is already great.” It’s actually not great that real wages stagnate year after year even as the economy grows consistently. It’s not great that the richest 1 percent of Americans—people like Trump Cabinet picks Betsy DeVos and Wilbur Ross—control more than a third of the country’s wealth. But Clinton proved either unable or unwilling to address income inequality and its causes in all but the most perfunctory way during the campaign. Meanwhile, the unseemly riches she and her husband pulled in on the speaking circuit, while by no means corrupt, fit all too neatly into the narrative of Washington elites enriching themselves while the middle class barely gets by.

Bernie Sanders, of course, built his campaign on a theme of addressing inequality, which is why I think people who considered him unelectable in the general election—including me—were wrong. Yet his relentless focus on breaking up the big banks still missed the larger picture. It’s not just the financial system. The story of rising inequality since the 1980s is largely the story of regressive changes in tax policy and abandonment of antitrust enforcement combining to allow more and more wealth (and power) to accrue to fewer and fewer people and corporations. This magazine has told the latter aspect of the story over and over and over again.

This isn’t all that complicated. It isn’t even new. And Democratic politicians used to know how to talk about it. Consider this excerpt from Franklin Roosevelt’s speech accepting his re-nomination for Democratic presidential candidate in 1936 and defending his New Deal (and thanks to Mark Popham for tweeting it):

Throughout the Nation, opportunity was limited by monopoly. Individual initiative was crushed in the cogs of a great machine. The field open for free business was more and more restricted. Private enterprise, indeed, became too private. It became privileged enterprise, not free enterprise.

An old English judge once said: “Necessitous men are not free men.” Liberty requires opportunity to make a living—a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.

For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor—other people’s lives. For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.

Somehow, during today’s new Gilded Age, the party of Roosevelt lost the rhetorical war over economic hardship to a cartoon version of a heartless tycoon. Or, perhaps more accurately, refused to fight it. (As my boss, Paul Glastris, wrote in October, Clinton did give a speech attacking corporate monopolists—but it was too little, too late.) Trump’s inaugural address reinforced what his campaign has proved all along: he understands the power of giving people someone to blame. That power has taken him to the White House. If his opponents don’t learn to harness it themselves, it will keep him there.

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Follow Gilad on Twitter @GiladEdelman . Gilad Edelman, a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is a politics writer for WIRED.