I apologize for these dashed-off thoughts below. I’ve been traveling all day and unable to get online. I’ve got a dinner to get to shortly, and I want to get something up. I heard the Inaugural Address on the radio while driving. Here’s what I think.
TAC founder Pat Buchanan didn’t get to give a Presidential inaugural address, but he lived to hear a new US president say what he would have said had he been given the chance. I was roadtripping when I heard Trump’s speech, and thought it was remarkable in a number of ways – some good, some bad.
First, the good.
I was astonished, really astonished, by how forthrightly anti-Washington and anti-Establishment it was. I imagine all the Republican Congressional members were almost as uncomfortable with it as the Democrats (to say nothing about the former US presidents attending the ceremony). He basically read them the riot act. I liked this part, to be honest. Somebody on NPR commented on this, saying in effect, “He remembered who sent him to Washington.” Yes, he did.
I was also pleasantly surprised by his economic nationalism, and shocked to think that a Republican president was speaking those words. We haven’t heard language like that at the executive level since … well, have we ever? It was a blistering repudiation of Reaganism and globalism. Did you ever imagine that a GOP president would say words like these? For that matter, a Democratic president? I may end up regretting this, but as a paleocon wet, I liked hearing those words.
Now, the bad.
His hyperbole was awful. “Carnage”? Really? You would think that we had been living out a long national nightmare of Mordorian intensity. It rang false, as did Trump’s grandiose promises to bring all the factories back, eliminate Islamic terrorism,
heal the planet, and so forth. He’s raising expectations unrealistically high. When this stuff fails to materialize, is he going to blame “Washington”?
Also, I agree with him that it’s time to draw down American troops around the world, and I suppose I don’t mind him saying that other nations have bled out military dry if that rhetoric is how he manages to sell it to the American people. But there is no sense in which our military has been bled dry. We spend vastly more on our military than anybody else in the world. Trump given the impression that foreign welfare queens have looted the Pentagon is a con man’s line.
Overall, though, this tweet from Michael Brendan Dougherty resonated with me:
So now I get the pleasure of watching a manifest dolt and con-artist make all the ideas I believed in uglier and more menacing. Cool.
— Michael B Dougherty? (@michaelbd) January 20, 2017
… and here’s why: because that was not the speech of a man who is capable of leading a government that he does not command. Many people have faulted its dark quality, but for a pessimist like me, that’s not necessarily a fault. The country really does have big problems, with no easy solutions, if they can be solved at all. That said, he really does seem to be a menacing figure, chiefly (to me) because he has a hot temper, no self-control and no fixed principles. And it is unnerving to watch a US president deploy rhetoric to ramp up fear and manipulate his listeners into thinking that only he can save us.
I’m a lot more disposed towards Trump than David Brooks, but he really gets it right in this passage from his column:
The very thing that made him right electorally for this moment will probably make him an incompetent president. He is the ultimate anti-institutional man, but the president sits at the nerve center of a routinized, regularized four-million-person institution. If the figure at the center can’t give consistent, clear and informed direction, the whole system goes haywire, with vicious infighting and creeping anarchy.
Some on the left worry that we are seeing the rise of fascism, a new authoritarian age. That gets things exactly backward. The real fear in the Trump era should be that everything will become disorganized, chaotic, degenerate, clownish and incompetent.
The real fear should be that Trump is Captain Chaos, the ignorant dauphin of disorder. All the standard practices, norms, ways of speaking and interacting will be degraded and shredded. The political system and the economy will grind to a battered crawl.
Trump is very good at demolishing things. He smashed the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. But can he build anything other than resorts, casinos, and towers? Megan McArdle nails it here:
We are at a fragile moment in the history of our republic. Our political order is weaker than it has been at any time in living memory, and possibly weaker than it has been at any time since 1860. There may be those who welcome the decline of the political order, because they consider it corrupt, ineffective and hostage to special interests. And, well … it sort of is all those things. But I don’t welcome its decline, when no one is offering a better alternative to take its place. It is very easy to identify the flaws with an existing order, but much harder to put something better in its place, as the communists found out to the sorrow of millions of people.
Liberal democracy is an uneasy truce worked out after centuries of vicious religious wars in Europe, a compromise in which we all agreed to commit to a peaceful process for resolving our most fundamental disputes, even if we hated the normative propositions that process ended up endorsing. Why did we do this? Because the alternative to living with sin is shooting the sinners. And being labeled a sinner. And being shot.
Hey, I’m a guy whose cultural vision is so gloomy that he promotes a limited withdrawal from the mainstream for the sake of building institutions and practices capable of pulling Christianity and the Western tradition through a new Dark Age. So who am I to be somewhat unnerved by Trump’s darkness? The answer is because Trump does not bear the light, or hope. At least he hasn’t convinced me that he does. He’s not the solution to our civilizational crisis, but a symptom of it.
I hope I’m wrong, and I really will pray for him, as I have prayed for all presidents. I did not vote in the presidential race last year, but Donald Trump is my president, just as Barack Obama and George W. Bush were my president, and all those who came before them in my lifetime. Even though I cheered for some of Trump’s lines, and I’m eager to see him dismantle the postwar globalist consensus, the tone of today’s Inaugural Address did not sound like the words of a strong man. They sounded like the words of a strongman. I have a bad feeling about this.
Finally, a word for Hillary Clinton. It must have been extremely difficult for her to show up today, but there she was, and they say she was smiling the whole time. If Hemingway was right, and courage is grace under pressure, Hillary Clinton was the bravest person in Washington today. That needs saying.