"This speech was a call for a form of collectivism somewhat at odds with America’s traditional, if not entirely accurate, idea of itself"by Andrew Stuttaford / January 23, 2017 / Leave a comment
In his first inaugural address Ronald Reagan described how “idle industries” had “cast workers into unemployment, human misery, and personal indignity,” and in his Barack Obama lamented “[h]omes…lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered.” With the US in the grip of the Great Depression, Franklin D Roosevelt lamented the “dark realities of the moment” and lashed out at “unscrupulous money changers.” Donald Trump’s talk of “American carnage” may have been startling—if less so to many of those who had voted for him—but there is no rule that a new president’s debut has to be sweetness, light and harmony.
Nor is there any convention that, in his first speech, a new president should shy away from signaling radical change—both Reagan and Obama promised nothing less—or even proposing a shift in the country’s underlying order. FDR “hoped” that the existing balance between “the executive and the legislative authority” would be enough to deal with the crisis (one, it must be noted, infinitely greater than anything the United States currently faces, at least for now). But if it was not, he was prepared to ask for “broad Executive power” to do what was needed. “Essential”—interesting adjective—democracy would be fine, but the American people “have asked for discipline and direction under leadership,” and Roosevelt was ready to provide it.
As incoming presidents also tend to do, Trump sketched out his own vision of (to borrow from Churchill and Brexit) the sunlit uplands, in his case, a united land where nationality transcends ethnicity and the “forgotten men”—a phrase Americans associate with the Depression—“and forgotten women of our country will be forgotten no longer.” The route to this happy destination would owe little to existing party dogma: “What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.” Populist language certainly, populist blather maybe, but with powerful resonance in a nation that takes pride, if not always legitimately, in its rejection of hierarchy. But it contains at least the germ of an unsettling question: who is it who then decides what the people really want?
Take a guess.
Like many inaugural addresses, Trump’s—shorter than most, but, to be fair, far longer than a tweet—was more mood music than manifesto, but it merited careful watching—the stern face, the clenched fist at the end—and careful listening. The prospect of an infrastructure bonanza (“we will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation”) will alarm Republican budget hawks. Meanwhile, despite the conscription of God (who will, alongside possibly more reliable “military and law enforcement,” be acting as one of America’s protectors) there was little about the address, other—paradoxically and not—than the man making it, to delight the religious right. Then again, with Planned Parenthood already in the crosshairs…
Small government types noted just the one reference to “freedoms” (by contrast, the f-word made eight appearances in Reagan’s first inaugural address), even if they were praised as “glorious,” and none at all to liberty (although both Freedom and Liberty lent their names to, well, Inaugural balls). This speech was a call for a form of collectivism somewhat at odds with America’s traditional, if not entirely accurate, idea of itself. Americans must, said Trump, pursue “solidarity” (dread word), an objective not so comfortably reconciled with the Declaration of Independence’s emphasis on “unalienable” individual rights including “Life, Liberty” and, yes, the pursuit of “Happiness.” In a not dissimilar vein, Trump called for “a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.”
Total allegiance: Walter Olson of the libertarian Cato Institute observed that Trump made no reference to the Constitution or to rights, except in the latter case, to “the right of all nations to put their interests first.”
And this is just what the new president intends the United States should do. As unattractive and exaggerated as Trump’s imagery of a nation taken for a ride by wily foreigners undoubtedly was, he landed some effective hits. Too many of America’s NATO allies—most unforgivably, arguably, Germany—have not being paying their fair share. For Trump to hint—more than hint—as he has done in the past that America’s NATO guarantee might no longer hold good, at least for those members that do not fulfil their financial commitments to the alliance, is, as the GOP’s restless hawks are rightly pointing out, to play with fire. But so too will be future decisions by NATO members to scrimp on their defence budgets. Angela Merkel’s recent announcement of plans to sharply increase Germany’s spending on its armed forces is long overdue, and wise.
But whatever Berlin does, it’s evident that Trump wants the US to take several steps back from the international role it has played since 1945. The world’s policeman is not exactly packing away truncheon and drone (“Radical Islamic terrorism will,” Trump said, be “eradicate[d] completely from the face of the Earth”), but it will follow a more narrow, nationally focused agenda. America will, declared Trump, lead by example, but will “not seek to impose [its] way of life on anyone”: The lessons of Iraq endure, reassuringly so, but so do the risks of continuing the dangerous retreat from global leadership that Obama had already begun. Risks that Trump, less reassuringly, seems willing to continue to run. In his inaugural address, John F Kennedy pledged that America would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” That pledge has been withering for a long time. Now it is dead.
But the most striking sign of a retreat behind the ramparts could be heard in Trump’s pronouncements on doing business with the rest of the world, a definitive breach with what is left of America’s badly shredded consensus on free trade, and a brutal disappointment to those last optimists hoping for a Trump “pivot” to economic orthodoxy. The Donald sees himself as the master of the deal, and in almost every deal, as he sees it, there is a winner and there is a loser, a view that colours his perception of trade as, in many respects, a zero-sum game: “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.”
And if that wasn’t clear enough: “We will follow two simple rules: Buy American and hire American.”
So what now? The immediate aftermath of the inauguration was a characteristically self-destructive squabble over how many people had showed up to attend it, a relatively modest crowd compared with the throng that had turned up to see Obama sworn in. Sean Spicer, the new White House Press Secretary, Baghdad Bobbed reality to claim that it had been “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.” This pointless braggadocio—Trump’s remarkable election victory is surely achievement enough—only hurt Spicer’s credibility and acted as a damaging reminder that Trump’s decades-long battle with the truth is not over. Meanwhile on Saturday, more than a million people across America (and many beyond its borders too) participated in a peaceful, sometimes self-congratulatory, sometimes carnivalesque, sometimes deadly serious “women’s march” (although plenty of men showed up as well) against the new administration, a preview of the challenges faced by a populist who won a minority of the popular vote and of the rifts in a country profoundly divided by politics, demography and culture.
Other battles are also underway. The defeated Democratic Party may be in some disarray, but the attack by its more resilient leaders and surrogates in the media, not only on Trump’s policies (to the extent that anyone knows what they will be), but also on the very legitimacy of The Donald’s presidency (claims that it was Putin wot won it, grumbles about the way that the Electoral College thwarted the popular vote) and, more broadly, his fitness for office. For its part, the GOP is torn. On the one hand there’s satisfaction that the party controls the White House (sort of, just a bit), the Congress, and, in all likelihood, the Supreme Court. On the other hand, some Republicans fret that they have a Captain Queeg at the helm, with catastrophic consequences that they could expect to answer for to an already sceptical electorate: Trump’s transition approval ratings are (easily) the lowest enjoyed by any incoming president since Gallup started measuring this in 1992/3. Other more principled Republicans can be expected to balk if Trump launches the assault on many of their core beliefs that he has promised. I would not expect John McCain, for one, to go gentle into the night.
As I walked among the demonstrators at Saturday’s women’s march in New York City, I took time to listen to the Lesbian & Gay Big Apple Corps, a marching band dapper in white Stetsons paused somewhere off Lexington Avenue. After some hesitation and false starts, they launched into a slow, mournful and glorious version of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the greatest anthem of an earlier, even more divided America.
There was nothing reassuring about it.