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opinion

Andrew Cohen, an author, professor and journalist, is a Fulbright Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C.

The inauguration of a president is a civic ceremony, a transfer of power in a democracy more than two centuries old. It observes not "a victory of party," as John F. Kennedy said in 1961, but "a celebration of freedom."

The inaugural address is traditionally a call to unity, a declaration of values, an affirmation of hope. While most addresses are forgettable, they have honoured these elements.

Donald Trump rejected all of that. Like everything else about him, his address was unconventional. Rather than offering Americans a pat on the back, he delivered a shot to the solar plexus.

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In his much-anticipated moment under leaden skies, Mr. Trump occasionally pumped his fist – a perfect manifestation of a fist-pump of a speech. It was stark in its language, harsh in its view of the status quo, defiant in its prognosis.

It was as confident as a politician's fist-pump. The tone was less an inaugural address than a campaign speech. It mentioned unity and solidarity, but this felt obligatory.

After all, since the election Mr. Trump has attacked his opponent, repeated his promise to repeal Obamacare and Barack Obama's executive orders and named no self-identified Democrat to his cabinet.

Mr. Trump's address defines the difference between his America and Mr. Obama's America. The world according to Donald Trump is gloomy, cold and joyless.

Factories are "rusted-out" and strewn like "tombstones" across the land; schools "deprive" students of knowledge; crime and drugs have "stolen lives and robbed the country;" infrastructure has fallen into "disrepair and decay."

Mr. Trump's stentorian statement: "This carnage stops right here and right now." This will become the signature of his address.

Abraham Lincoln offered malice toward none. Franklin Roosevelt spoke of having nothing to fear but fear itself. JFK asked Americans what they could do for their country.

Mr. Trump, let us repeat, calls his country "carnage." To him, this is the United States of Anxiety, and he views it as a failed state. He arrives less as torch-bearer than flamethrower, promising to burn down Washington like no one since the British.

The reality is different. Crime is falling. Poverty is ebbing. Incomes are rising. Unemployment and inflation are low. Standards of education are rising.

But if you are the captain of chaos, you need calamity. If it does not exist, invent it. President Trump sees a country with an existential problem and makes himself its saviour. The worse things are, the more we need him.

So he is Hercules cleaning out the Augean Stables. Or Huey Long redistributing wealth. Or Andrew Jackson denouncing the "Corrupt Bargain."

That Mr. Trump won 2.9 million fewer votes than his opponent does not matter. Nor that he enters office with the lowest popularity of any president since the question was asked.

In Trump, he trusts. And why wouldn't he? It got him this far, didn't it?

Here was Mr. Trump as populist, promising to return power to the people. He spoke of "the establishment" even as its leading members sat all around him on the stone steps of the Capitol. It is those politicians whom he will need to pass the legislation he wants to "rebuild and restore" America.

Here he was nationalist, at once ethnic and economic, speaking of "America First" (capitalized in the speech text). He was unfazed (or unaware) that this was a byword for prejudice and nativism in the 1930s.

Here was Mr. Trump as isolationist and protectionist, speaking of the outside world more as a danger than an opportunity. America will no longer subsidize other armies, he says, no longer make other countries rich, promising to pursue the national interest in immigration, trade and foreign affairs.

Beyond the sternness, there was little grace. No soothing bromides about sunlit uplands. No salute to Hillary Clinton, who sat a few feet away. No grace notes at all, other than to the Obamas, whom he declared had been "magnificent."

Intense though the tone, the words were pedestrian. It was a screed less than a speech, an extended, angry, endless tweet, punctuated by emotional exclamation marks.

In rejecting rhetoric, Mr. Obama's cherished instrument, President Trump was delivering a final repudiation of his predecessor, whose legacy he now promises to dismantle as he builds his own – independent, radical and dark.

Watch U.S. President Donald Trump's full inauguration speech in Washington, D.C.