Denis Staunton: Donald Trump to govern the way he campaigned
Graceless, angry and dystopian address extols doctrine of protectionist politics
President Donald Trump salutes during the presidential inaugural parade in Washington, DC. Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
US president Donald Trump speaks at his inauguration in Washington DC: “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.” Photograph: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
Donald Trump has started his presidency as he campaigned for it, with angry, divisive rhetoric, a dark view of America and the world today and a deep undertone of menace. Unusually for an inaugural address, his speech at the Capitol had no soaring language, no classical or historical references and just one, fleeting mention of the Bible.
There was no articulation of American values and no endorsement of the liberal, post-war, global order which the United States shaped and led. Instead, Trump told the rest of the world that America would from this day forward look inwards, and that the concerns of its allies would hold little sway with him as president.
“We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first,” he said.
He left no doubt about the practical impact of this new doctrine, promising that “every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs” would be made to benefit Americans. And he heralded a dramatic break with the US foreign policy tradition which has held sway for the past 70 years. America would not seek to impose its way of life on other countries, but would respect the right of every nation to put its own interests first.
After the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in view of the grim, blood-drenched history of US meddling in the affairs of others, many will welcome Trump’s rejection of interventionism. But in his explicit embrace of protectionism, Trump has brought closer the prospect of a trade war, perhaps with China, which could easily escalate into a more dangerous stand-off.
Trump may have turned his back on liberal interventionism but he has promised to spend more on defence and he vowed on Friday to “eradicate radical Islamic terrorism from the face of the earth”.
It is not only America’s adversaries, but its allies too, who should feel anxious, as Trump blamed much of his country’s impoverishment on its generosity towards friends abroad.
“For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidised the armies of other countries, while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military. We’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own. And spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. We’ve made other countries rich, while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon,” he said.
This passage implies a threat that America could abandon its Nato allies in Europe if they fail to spend more on their own defence. It also confirms that the new president will follow through on his promise to punish US firms which move manufacturing overseas and keep profits offshore. Among the companies in his sights are some with major operations in Ireland and others who use Irish tax rules to avoid paying tax in the US.
Perhaps the most striking feature of Trump’s inaugural address was the unremitting pessimism of its view of the state of the nation. Politicians in Washington had stolen America from its people, he said, enriching themselves at the expense of ordinary citizens.
It was an open rebuke to the former presidents – Barack Obama, George W Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter – standing a few feet away from him, and to both parties in Congress. They had, he said, wrought “carnage” on America, which it fell to him to end.
“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 unrealised potential,” he said.
Trump’s emphasis on inner-city poverty, drugs and gangs was a repackaging of his campaign rhetoric about African-Americans, characterising them as hopeless victims of deprivation and crime. It is dismissive and insulting, as well as being inaccurate, and his feeble call for racial unity in a spirit of patriotism will have done nothing to mute its dog-whistle impact.
Throughout the campaign, political commentators predicted again and again that Trump would pivot away from his harsher rhetoric and policies. He didn’t pivot before he was elected and he made clear in his inaugural address that he will not do so as president.
Friday’s inauguration was greeted with scattered protests in Washington, and Trump’s critics hope to stage an impressive display of strength in Saturday’s women’s march on Washington. Trump lost the popular vote in the election and his popularity has slumped further in recent weeks, encouraging opponents to hope that they can sustain a popular resistance which will keep him in check.
America’s friends and allies around the world need to be equally vigilant, and alert to opportunities for common action to curb Trump’s more dangerous excesses. His graceless, angry and dystopian inaugural address should at least serve one useful function in eliminating any remaining doubts about how America’s 45th president intends to govern.
As he put it himself: “The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action.”