The first inaugural address I remember listening to was Dwight Eisenhower’s in 1957. My parents took me to see his first inauguration in 1953, but I was too small to get much out of it. I can only remember seeing the tips of the flags going by in the inaugural parade. Over the years, I have liked some of the speeches more than others, but I can honestly say that President Trump’s was the worst inaugural address I have ever heard. For future historians, it should mark a low point in American politics from which I only hope we recover.
The address presented a grim view of America, a country of unemployment, poverty, ignorance and crime. “Rusted out factories scattered like tombstones,” families “trapped in poverty in our inner cities,” and an educational system that leaves students “deprived of all knowledge.” None of these things is actually as bad as it was in the fairly recent past (remember 10% unemployment?), but Trump is not one to let inconvenient facts get in the way of the story he wants to tell.
Why is the country in such terrible shape? Well, for two reasons, in Trump’s view. First, “a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have bore [shouldn’t that be “borne”?] the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth.” And second, “we’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon.” We’ve given too much in military and non-military aid to other countries, while allowing our own military power and infrastructure to deteriorate. American has gotten poorer and weaker, while Washington politicians and foreigners have gotten rich and powerful.
The solution is as simple as the problem: “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first.” Trump’s vision of a great America is a country with the strongest military (which he doesn’t admit we already have), a good transportation system (lots of room for improvement there), and strong borders to protect against foreign labor and goods. “Buy American and hire American….Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.”
I have read the speech over and over, asking myself if I’ve missed anything. But that’s really about it. There’s nothing else there besides this simplistic view of our problems and economic nationalism as the solution.
No lofty vision here
Other presidents have identified American problems, and many have criticized specific domestic or foreign policies. But they have generally framed their issues within some overarching positive vision, a vision of democratic government, the free-enterprise economy, and/or international cooperation. Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” was one in which government worked to abolish poverty and racial injustice. Ronald Reagan’s more conservative vision was based on a faith in free markets to create prosperity for all. And every president since Franklin Roosevelt has accepted America’s leading role in promoting global democracy, peace and prosperity.
Such lofty goals are conspicuous by their absence in Trump’s address. He ascends to the presidency at a time when much of the public has lost confidence not only in government, but in free markets and global democratic progress as well. Trump and his hard-core supporters seem to want to throw in the towel on building a better world, and just revert to a nineteenth-century nationalism in which each country just looks out for itself. That nineteenth-century nationalism ended badly, by the way, in the world wars of the twentieth century. American global leadership in the postwar era was supposed to prevent that from happening again. Trump’s neo-nationalism appeals to the most reactionary elements in Europe, especially to autocratic leaders like Putin, who prefers old-fashioned nationalism to international cooperation led by the world’s strongest democracy. Similarly, Charles Lindbergh’s “America First” in the 1930s suited Hitler just fine.
What Trump leaves out of his short address is as revealing as what he includes. He does not mention human rights, social justice, environmental protection, or racial and gender equality. For a man preoccupied with economic problems, he has surprisingly little to say about economic inequality. In his simplistic story, the enemies of working families are Washington politicians and foreigners. He fails to mention that we have the greatest class inequality since the Gilded Age. I guess he has no problem with that, which is why he can staff his administration with billionaires and Wall Street bankers. His extraordinary hostility to the political establishment coexists comfortably with an extraordinary complacency about the corporate establishment.
Building up, or just tearing down?
If we are to move forward in solving our problems, we need a new vision for the global, postindustrial era. We will need to find the right balance between government and markets, between nation states and emerging global institutions, between new technologies and human labor. Reactionary economic nationalism cannot provide that vision.
Without a positive but realistic vision of the future, this administration is likely to accomplish little besides undoing what governments have been trying to do. President Trump can tear up trade agreements, weaken NATO, encourage the breakup of the European Union, halt Obama’s clean energy initiative, repeal the Affordable Care Act, abolish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and so forth. He can select administrators with little respect for the agencies they are appointed to lead, such as an EPA head who opposes most environmental regulation, a Secretary of Education who doesn’t support public education, a Secretary of Labor who places a low value on working-class labor, or an Attorney General with a narrow view of justice. All of this has the potential to aggravate rather than alleviate social problems.
Attacking government is easy. What is much harder is getting it to work better for the ordinary people Trump claims as his constituents. He says, “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families.” That would be wonderful if it turned out to be true, but just trashing the federal government won’t be enough to make it so. On their first day in office, Trump and his spokespersons demonstrated their willingness to use “alternative facts” (formerly known as falsehoods) to portray the inauguration as a more successful event than it was. Whatever Trump does, he will probably assure us that it’s the greatest, assert some “alternative facts” to support that, and attack anyone who says otherwise.
America is better than this, and deserves more in a president.