President Trump delivered a campaign speech, not an inaugural address, on Friday. That he and his staff do not understand the difference goes to the heart of his insufficiency as a leader. Addressing a shockingly sparse crowd, he painted a picture of a hellish America that can only be restored by turning inward, deciding the world is a burden and our allies are thieves.
The speech was really two separate ones slammed together.
In the first he repeated in different ways, over and over again, that “we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people” because, well, because anyone and everyone in government has turned America into a hellhole. “The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs.” In other words, the “establishment” that he now sits atop has betrayed the country. He did not say they were shortsighted or mistaken. He did not say they made progress but left work to do. He attributes unvarnished malice to the entire establishment, dividing it from the “people.”
He perfectly channels the resentment of the white working class. And in case you didn’t know how rotten a country this is, he described, as he did on the campaign trail, a dystopia bearing little resemblance to the real United States. (“Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted-out factories, scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge. And the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.”) You would not know that unemployment stands at 4.7 percent, crime is down and productivity up. He sees only blight. “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” he declared. Carnage. Take that in for a moment. Does he see America as a decimated, destroyed and weak country? Apparently yes — or he would like us to believe so in order to, in a year or so, declare how everything has improved.
The second part of the speech was a dark, ugly tribute to “America First,” the language of nationalism, nativism and protectionism. One cringes to hear the president use the phrase of the Charles Lindbergh, fascist-sympathizing set of the 1930s. He puts forth a demonstrably false narrative that we benefited other countries at the expense of our own. He sees no benefit from markets we have developed, from collective security, from the spread of democratic governments, from the prevention of violence on the scale of the two 20th-century world wars. Just as we are supposed to resent the “establishment,” he is telling America to resent the world. One would never know that we have continued to be the world’s only true superpower, that a couple billion people have been lifted from poverty and age expectancy has soared. He does not care to know. They’re robbing us blind, got it?
His language was the crude boasting of his campaign. (“America will start winning again, winning like never before. We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams.”) The overwhelming number of Americans are employed; the smokestack jobs are not coming back; wages are up; and Americans dream every day. You’d never know it listening to him.
What was missing was virtually any vision of what he wants America to be. The most we got was a promise to “build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation” and to get “people off of welfare and back to work, rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor.” Beyond that he cannot describe a renewed America. More opportunities? More productive? More understanding between segments of America?
There was one brief positive moment in the speech when he offered an olive branch to our allies. “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones and reform the world against radical Islamic terrorism which we will eradicate from the face of the earth.” He unfortunately followed it with a creepy statism in which we define our personal relationships through nationalistic loyalty. “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.” We actually have relationships, loyalties and bonds with one another that are the fabric of society and do not need to be redefined as an outgrowth of a new sort of nationalism. Conservatives who value civil society free from government should be horrified — if they have intellectual integrity.
There has never and will not be a better Trump. His vision is dark, false and frightening. He leads by stoking nativism, protectionism (which actually makes us poorer) and seething resentment. God help us all.