Whatever one thinks of the new President Trump or his expressed agenda or his often brutal rhetoric, he faces the same challenge that confronted all of his predecessors: he has just four years to demonstrate to his countrymen that he is worthy of their votes a second time. All the hand-wringing and cries of despair and political ennui emanating from the country’s establishment classes and liberal masses miss that fundamental reality of our presidential system. The four-year term, giving voters sufficient time to assess a president’s performance but not so much time as to permit any ongoing travesty of leadership to the breaking point, lends stability to the American polity. Thus can we relax.
For in such a repose can we best examine the 1,300 or so words of the new president’s inaugural address, beginning with his audacity. At the start of Barack Obama’s presidency, he frequently invoked the word “audacious” to convey his ambition to set the country upon an entirely new course. He failed, with the result that he presided over an ongoing deadlock crisis that perpetuated eight years of civic drift.
Now comes Trump with the words, “Together we will determine the course of America and the world for years to come.” Seldom have we heard such nakedly bold words in a presidential inaugural address. Yet they convey the same ambition harbored by Obama eight years ago—to set the country upon a new course so powerful that it would bring the world along with it.
But what is this new course? How to define it? Perhaps a key to interpreting it can be discerned in the next three sentences: “We will face challenges. We will confront hardships. But we will get the job done.” Leaving aside the cliché of the last sentence, Trump seems to be harking back to a day when America, restless and on the move, pursued greatness on its own terms and for its own ends. Confronting challenges and hardships but getting the job done—that seems to convey the nation’s history of westward expansion, taming an austere landscape for civilization, then busting out into the world with a big navy and strategically located coaling stations, transoceanic cables, colonial entities, and that audacious engineering marvel, the Panama Canal.
That was nationalist America. The more recent internationalist America extends itself around the globe for other nations and other peoples—or, as George W. Bush put it, “to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
That Bush formula, as tragically naïve as it was, served as the underpinning of American foreign policy throughout the post-Cold War era (though Obama sometimes seemed ambivalent about it). Trump rejects it utterly. “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone,” he declared, adding America will serve merely to “shine as an example” for other nations to follow if they wish.
But he extols American restlessness in behalf of American greatness. In a forthcoming book entitled The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream, bestselling author Tyler Cowen argues that America has lost what was once its signature restlessness, its zest for risk-taking and bold forays into the unknown. We have settled into a kind of national complacency. Even our recent military adventures reflect this, conducted as they are by an extremely thin slice of Americans sent back into dangerous combat zones again and again in behalf of high-sounding missions to which the vast majority of Americans pay casual lip service.
Trump, in his inaugural address, seemed to be harking back to America’s hot-blooded vibrancy of old. The country, he declared, “is totally unstoppable” when united. He admonished his countrymen to “think big and dream even bigger” because no challenge “can match the heart and fight and spirit of America.” The aim, it seems, is to rekindle a nationalist spirit to supersede the amorphous globalist thinking of the recent past.
This nationalism also is manifest in the new president’s declaration that he will put America first in the country’s foreign relations and trade policies. “The wealth of our middle class,” he said, “has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world.” Again the president is harking back to a long-ago past, when the Republican Party was the party of protectionism—and when its forerunner Whig Party was protectionist and the preceding Federalists were before that. “From this moment on,” he said, “it’s going to be America First.”
The key will be whether Trump can fashion a trade policy that follows generally what emerged during the presidency of William McKinley, probably the most starkly protectionist politician to emerge as president in our history. But McKinley devised a new concept for a new era of American productivity and pursuit of global markets. It was called “reciprocity,” and it called for negotiated agreements whereby no nation sought trade-barrier advantages over others. Trump believes it hasn’t been a level playing field for America in many recent trading relationships, and he vows to change that. But it is extremely tricky, given the prospects for trade wars stirred by protectionist policies.
Whether Trump can bring about a regimen of reciprocity without initiating beggar-thy-neighbor economic clashes will be a major determinant of his ultimate success as president.
Another major theme of the speech is seen in the promise of “transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the American people.” He attacked a “small group” in Washington that has “reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished—but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered—but the jobs left, and the factories closed.”
Thus did Trump embrace the most powerful recurrent theme of American political history—namely, give us back our democracy. It began with Andrew Jackson’s allegation that John Quincy Adams acquired the presidency through a “corrupt bargain” with House Speaker Henry Clay whereby Clay threw the election to Adams (after the outcome was tossed to the House of Representatives) in exchange for the job of secretary of state, then a stepping stone to the White House. There was never any evidence of an actual quid pro quo, but it looked bad and Jackson exploited it to propel his own journey to the White House. Clay never quite got rid of the taint—and never became president, though he tried three times.
That was small potatoes as a cause for populist outrage compared to today, with our elite institutions wielding power with more abandon that any Jacksonian could have contemplated. There is the managerial elite that has captured the federal government and many state governments as well. There are the big banks and financial institutions that have reaped huge riches under government policies since the Great Recession while small, Main Street banks have been thwarted and traduced. There are the public-employee unions, which have the power and money to fire their bosses (politicians) if they aren’t sufficiently solicitous. There are the big corporate lobbyists that maintain a tight hold on politicians desperate for their campaign cash.
“The establishment,” declared Trump, “protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. … That all changes, starting right here, and right now.”
This is a powerful theme, but only when it resonates. And it resonates only when large numbers of Americans feel that they have been left behind as the nation moves forward. Trump’s perception of this sentiment at the beginning of his campaign, and his willingness to attack that perceived problem vociferously, contributed to his political success. Now, like Jackson, he is promising to upend the nation’s fundamental power distribution. Talk about audacity.
Finally, another significant element of the speech was its hyperbole—flights of exaggeration and fancy that raise questions as to whether the president can fulfill his stated agenda. He said he represented a “historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before.” (Seldom does the world encounter much of anything it hasn’t seen before.) He talked about the “American carnage” in inner cities, factory towns, and schools. He promised to “eradicate [ISIS] completely from the face of the Earth.”
This tendency toward flights of language that go beyond reality could pose a serious problem for Trump as he struggles to match his words and promises with actions and results.
But in the end, it’s all about performance. In delivering a speech that emanated directly from his campaign, Trump chose to speak almost exclusively to those who voted for him and placed him upon that inaugural platform. But he can’t govern that way. Ultimately he will have to expand his base if he wants to govern beyond his current allotted four years. Campaigning is fun; governing is a fearsome challenge.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His next book, due out from Simon & Schuster in September, is a biography of William McKinley.