Opinion: The unintended truth in Trump's farewell address: A loss of faith

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Sewell Chan
·6 min read
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President Trump is seen on a network monitor after his pre-recorded farewell speech was released, inside the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
President Trump is seen on a network monitor inside the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in his prerecorded farewell speech Tuesday. (Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

President Trump's farewell address — delivered via a video recorded Monday and released Tuesday, his last full day in office — is a strange document that risks being overlooked as his tumultuous term comes to a close.

As someone who has always taken Trump both literally and seriously, I tried to read these 2,800 words with an open mind. Following the calamities of 2020 and the shutdown of Trump's Twitter account, this speech was Trump's final, unfiltered message to the American people before he flies home to Florida.

Whoever was tasked with writing this speech — Santa Monica native Stephen Miller, perhaps — had no easy job. The farewell address is almost a paradox, the departing leader's first attempt at shaping history's verdict on his term. George Washington used his to warn against political parties and factions, as well as foreign alliances and entanglements. Dwight D. Eisenhower cautioned against the creation of a permanent military-industrial complex that would drive foreign policy. Less prophetically, and closer to our own times, George W. Bush defended his administration's response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and Barack Obama told his supporters: "I'm asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.”

Trump's farewell address is remarkable in several respects.

It is one of the only times in months that he has delivered remarks without making reference to his Big Lie — rejected by dozens of courts, including the Supreme Court — about a stolen election. While he didn't mention his successor, Joe Biden, by name, he acknowledged that a new administration was taking power and asked us to "pray for its success in keeping America safe and prosperous" — the closest we'll ever get to a concession speech from the world's sorest loser. And Trump again put on the record, however belatedly and grudgingly, a condemnation of the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol — a massive security failure directly inspired by Trump's calls to his enraged (and, in many cases, crazed) followers. "Political violence is an attack on everything we cherish as Americans," he declared. "It can never be tolerated."

Not all platitudes ring hollow, even if they come from the mouth of President Trump. As the nation reels from the entirely unnecessary tragedy at the Capitol — which left five people dead — perhaps Trump's condemnation of political violence may yet ward off some of his most extreme supporters, including those who believe in the conspiracy theory known as QAnon, from grabbing their guns.

But the broader significance of the address is Trump's appeal to American greatness. Asserting that he was "the only true outsider ever to win the presidency," he declared that he had managed to "make America great again," his original campaign vow, by putting "America First."

These slogans are unoriginal — "America First" was adopted by 1940s isolationists who resisted aid to our Allies fighting fascism in Europe, and "make America great again" was ripped from a 1980 campaign speech by Ronald Reagan — but have acquired insidious new meanings under Trump.

His interpretation of American greatness was one constantly framed by racially inflected grievances and a hazy nostalgia for some presumed American idyll from the 1950s, when white Americans were in charge, women largely stayed at home and U.S. power was at a zenith following World War II. His notion of "America First" derived from a mercantilist vision of the United States that might have been familiar to Americans of the 19th century but is inappropriate for the multilateral challenges of the 21st.

Yet perhaps the saddest part of his speech was this statement: “No nation can long thrive that loses faith in its own values, history, and heroes, for these are the very sources of our unity and our vitality.”

Trump was clearly referring to his 1776 Commission, a panel of hand-picked right-wing writers who concluded, in a bizarre report released Monday, that America was "the most just and glorious country in all of human history."

As in many of Trump's remarks over the years, there is some (no doubt unintended) validity to this claim. America has indeed lost faith in its "values, history and heroes," but not for the reasons Trump believes.

Values like representation, pluralism, balance of powers and checks and balances have been eroded by the Trump administration's relentless assault on the institutions of our democracy — culminating in the attack on Congress itself. We have not so much lost faith in history as we have been challenged to consider the deeply illiberal strands of our past, as opposed to a naive narrative of continuous progress and moral exceptionalism. To acknowledge that genocide and enslavement are central elements of the American story since even before its founding is not to hate America; it is, if anything, an essential prerequisite to helping us realize our ideals.

And, finally, heroes. One of Trump's final hare-brained ideas was to establish a National Garden of American Heroes. The White House released an expanded list of must-include honorees this week, one that to its credit includes some diversity — the abolitionist Sojourner Truth, the philosopher Hannah Arendt, and the Vietnam War hero Roy Benavidez made the list.

We all know this garden will never be built. Nor should it be. The best way to honor these American heroes is by reclaiming our democracy, which was rescued from the hands of an incompetent authoritarian populist by 81 million voters who booted Trump from office. If Trump's villainous presidency has taught us anything, it is that heroism lies in the acts and deeds of ordinary people: the first responders who have sacrificed their time, health and lives to deal with the pandemic; the Black Lives Matter activists who flooded the streets last summer to demand justice; the citizens and residents who will need to rebuild our democracy from the ground up.

Confidence in American institutions, traditions and leaders has been slipping for decades, due in no small part to the erosion of the middle class (a direct result of trickle-down fiscal policies and, more recently, automation and globalization) and of the traditional entities (churches, recreation leagues, youth groups, etc.) that used to hold smaller communities together. Rebuilding such confidence will be the work of generations; in no way can the Biden administration do it alone, and certainly not in four years. Few Americans have done more to erode confidence in our constitutional government than Donald Trump; voting him out was the first step in restoring our shattered faith.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.