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Opinion On inauguration day, presidents always took the high road. Not Donald Trump

And lo, it came to pass. As prophesied by The Simpsons – though not, as some believe, by The Book of Revelation – Donald J. Trump became President of the United States.

Even the haters and losers memorialized in Mr. Trump's tweets hoped that the noble mantle of the presidency would make him, on this monumental day, presidential. That he would put his hands on Lincoln's Bible, summon the better angels of his nature from the cave to which they'd been banished, and rise to the occasion. Perhaps, we hoped, a fairy tale transformation would occur at the stroke of noon, and a sexist bully would magically transform into a man of grace and compassion, who would unite his fractured country.

It was not to be. Fairy tales are for multiplexes, not for the steps of the Capitol, where three former presidents sat and listened, and one watched his legacy begin to slip away. Mr. Trump's speech, by the standards of inaugural addresses, was astonishingly dark and menacing, free of any of the poetry or joy that his 44 predecessors had summoned to inspire their citizens. Eighty years ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt used his second inaugural address to ask, "Have we found our happy valley?" No, Mr. Trump answered: We're on the road to hell, and I'm the one who can save you from it. This lie is told by populists throughout the ages – the road has crumbled, but I can show you a safer path. Just close your eyes and believe.

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Against all empirical evidence, he suggested that America was crime-ridden and busted. He referred to "this American carnage," which sounds like an NPR show hosted by Mad Max. He railed against the government elites that had ruined the country: "Washington flourished – but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered – but the jobs left, and the factories closed."

I wondered what Jimmy Carter thought of that, sitting behind Mr. Trump. I wondered if he cast his mind back 40 years to his own inaugural address, when he'd said, "if we despise our own government we have no future." That was 1977, when the country really was in the dumps. Mr. Carter, too, was an outsider, a long shot, but he didn't spend his inauguration complaining about the thieves and meatheads in Washington. Instead he praised his high school teacher, and asked that the country "learn together and laugh together and work together and pray together, confident that in the end we will triumph together in the right." It's enough to make you long for a return to the '70s, even if we would have to listen to the Osmonds.

George W. Bush, 43rd president, sat on the stage too, although his father, number 41, was too ill to attend. Having waged a campaign that was as bitter as Mr. Trump's, with his victory cast in the same shadow of illegitimacy, Bush Jr. might have addressed the American people with the brutality and paranoia Mr. Trump showed: Instead, his inaugural address was a model of conciliation. He used the words "civility" and "compassion" four times each – possibly more than Mr. Trump has used those words in his life.

"I will work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity," Mr. Bush said, and even if that failed to materialize, he at least honoured the idea it might matter. The number of times Mr. Trump referred to the concept of "justice?" A big fat zero. (Yes, I'm stunned to feel nostalgia for Mr. Bush, but I've just seen Clarence Thomas swear in Mr. Trump's Vice-President, so nothing surprises me any more. I already feel like I'm having an acid flashback. I expect to feel this way for the next four years. Please send orange juice.)

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Traditionally, the new president has used his inaugural address as an opportunity to take the high road, and view the country from above – battered, perhaps, but united by its best and highest ideals. "We are the heirs of the ages," Teddy Roosevelt said in 1905, and then elaborated on it: "Upon the success of our experiment much depends, not only as regards our own welfare, but as regards the welfare of mankind." Mr. Trump's message, so seductive to so many voters, could not be more different: He claims to see a country fallen "into disrepair and decay," having to steel itself against "radical Islamic terrorism," where marauding drug gangs hole up in rusting factories while children fail at school. Or something like that; I was starting to get my apocalyptic plot lines mixed up at that point.

America is a magnificent project, held aloft by optimism and resilience. For more than two hundred years its presidents have marvelled at the delicacy and value of the entity that's been put in their hands. They admit to trembling at the terrible responsibility. They don't start by saying the thing is broken, or at least they didn't until today. If they did, it would suggest that it is not the country that's broken, but the person doing the speaking.

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