Beware the delusions of an aggravated man. Of all the fantasies perpetrated in Donald Trump’s joyless rant of an inaugural speech, none was more preposterous than the self-casting of the man in the golden elevator as Defender of the People. The president’s crusade for Joe and Jane Sixpack will commence with an immense tax cut for the rich and, should Family Sixpack have any pre-existing health problems the insurance companies deem unviable, they will see their healthcare disappear. With friends like that . . .
The custom of inaugural speeches, as the warm-up introduction delivered by Senator Roy Blunt reminded the crowd, is uplift and reunion. Abraham Lincoln appealed to “the better angels of our nature” in 1860 even as the republic was on the edge of civil war. In 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt reassured an anxious America that it had “nothing to fear but fear itself”. Ronald Reagan promised “ morning in America” after soaring inflation and the national humiliation of the Iran hostage crisis.
This president, however, sees it as his job to make sure America knows how miserable it was before his advent, even as the facts point in the opposite direction. “American carnage” might be unfolding in gangland Chicago but nationally the crime rate is the lowest it has been in decades. The economy he represents as blighted by outsourcing is in full employment and the Dow Jones is touching record highs. In Barack Obama’s second term manufacturing jobs have been coming back to America not the other way around. Those that won’t return are largely the result of automation and robotics and short of the locking up chief executives until they consent to lower productivity, they will not be coming back.
Have you heard all this before? You bet. The 45th President is not only a cantankerous man but despite his protestations that he will work “for the people” with every last breath of his body, he is also a mentally lazy one who cannot be bothered to read daily intelligence briefings and whose speech was a barely defrosted abridgment of the acceptance tirade at Cleveland. This was a red rag of an address stitched together from other people’s rhetorical cast-offs. “America First” was coined by Woodrow Wilson in 1916 just before he changed his mind and took America into the war; then recycled as a xenophobic banner for Pat Buchanan’s campaign of 2000. “Make America Great Again” was Reagan’s slogan in his 1980 campaign; the “forgotten man” is outrageously purloined from the 1932 campaign of FDR. Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, may think he’s restarting the New Deal’s investment in infrastructure but if historical memory serves, Roosevelt didn’t actually start with a massive tax break for the top one per cent.
In all likelihood the president will not be sweating the small stuff, emerging from the sand trap every so often to snarl and bludgeon frightened executives with taking away their toys unless they repair immediately to Duluth and open a widget factory. The actual heavy lifting will be delegated to his cabinet which largely conforms to what the Greeks called a “kakistocracy”: government of the least-qualified.
There are those who have prohibitive ethics problems, like Tom Price nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, trading in stock of industries they were legislating in Congress. Then there are the merely incompetent, with no experience or knowledge of the departments they are supposed to lead. This is fine with hard right Republicans since the whole mission of this presidency is the auto-destruction of the public sector. But when it’s a matter of Rick Perry, nominated as energy secretary not knowing that his department is responsible for America’s nuclear stockpile, incredulous derision turns to red alert.
Something else has happened here. A minority vote has, through the anachronisms of the electoral college, imposed the priorities of rural and small town America on the great, populous, cosmopolitan cities. Of all the budget cuts proposed in President Trump’s draconian contraction (including the flatlining of the National Endowments of the Humanities and Arts, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) you can bet your life that bloated subsidies to big agribusiness will not feel the blade.
The rest of the world might feel inclined to greet this swerve into isolationism, the arrival of a smaller, narrower, not a greater, America, with a shrug, were it not for the fact that however much President Trump wants to decree it away, global interconnectedness is an unavoidable fact of life in the 21st century. A contracting America can leave a black hole of peril for the rest of the world, whether by a drift into trade wars; the abandonment of climate control agreement or most dangerously of all, the disintegration of NATO and the Pacific alliances. All of this makes Russia feel really great again. Having intervened in American politics to see his obliging pal installed in the White House why would Vladimir Putin not begin moving troops to the Baltic frontiers? Mr Trump’s repeated declaration of NATO’s obsolescence, and the doubt he has cast over the treaty’s obligation to treat an attack on one member as an attack on all, is tantamount to an invitation to Russian adventurism.
The abandonment of the America of the Marshall Plan, of the Atlantic Charter and NATO; of the America which under FDR, Eisenhower, John F Kennedy and Reagan, took the liberty and security of Europe and the rest of the world as intrinsic to its own sense of democratic obligation, is not just a shameful but a terrifying prospect. It has of course been greeted by ultranationalists and fascists from in Europe with the kind of manic glee displayed by beach bullies kicking in the sandcastle. Yet if they imagine a world of discrete and disconnected nation states they are themselves living a dangerous fantasy. But unless they are stopped in tracks their dreams will become all of our nightmares.
“The time for empty talk is over. The time for action is here” the President proclaimed. The American majority, multitudes of whom look on his proposals with dismay and revulsion should now take those words to heart.
The writer is an FT contributing editor
Sample the FT’s top stories for a week
You select the topic, we deliver the news.