When I came home on Inauguration Day shortly after 12 p.m., I noticed my television on mute. The dog-walker, not willing to listen to Trump, had turned off the audio (she would later claim that listening to the festivities had caused our greyhound to vomit).
Even with no sound, I could easily discern the tenor of Trump’s speech. His gestures, his stern face and lecturing quality all reminded me of his “Midnight in America” convention speech. His posture mirrored Mussolini. While Trump talks about “Making America Great Again,” his wardrobe — excessively long red tie, white shirt that accentuates his orange hue, and large suit that hangs off of him — suggests “Make America Dress Like 1982 again.” The whole image evoked a regressive quality: without knowing anything of Trump’s forthcoming executive orders, one could easily sense a break from the progressive agenda driven by the youthful guy right behind him.
I’ll admit the above characterization can appear somewhat petty and superficial. I shouldn’t judge a speech by postures, wardrobe and gestures — so I rewound my DVR and listened to the whole speech with the sound on this time.
Unfortunately, my impression of the inaugural address only worsened. As I suspected, the speech hardly departed from the darkness of his convention speech; he sounded no more inclusive than his campaign rallies; his demonization of those sitting behind him echoed the latter stages of his campaign; his declarations rang hollow against his actions during the transition. Kellyanne Conway might have labeled his speech “elegant,” and Trump advisors might have suggested JFK’s inaugural as a template. But, then, one look at Kellyanne’s dress — http://www.cbsnews.com/news/kellyanne-conway-inauguration-outfit-coat-gucci-design-london-inspired/ — tells me I should take everything she says with a grain of salt.
Below is my quick reaction to parts of Trump’s speech.
1. Trump — never one for humility — starts his speech by acknowledging the historic nature of his inauguration: “You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement, the likes of which has never seen before.” But, really how historic is Trump’s ascendancy? Is it as big a game-changer as the first African-American assuming power in 2009? Or the Reagan Revolution in 1981, which coincided with a 10% popular vote margin and dramatic 12- and 34-seat Republican swings in the Senate and House, respectively? Unlike Kennedy and later Clinton, Trump ushered in no generational shift.
Surely, nothing is particularly historic by the vote: Trump lost by 3M votes and his 46% share of the popular vote ranked as the lowest level since 1992 (when the vote was split three-ways) and third lowest since 1912 (a four-way race). Trump received only 2M more votes than Romney’s losing effort in 2012. One could argue that every president possesses something unique and historic — we have had only 45 presidents after all. But, looking at it this way, Trump strikes me as no more historic than most of his predecessors. As with other things Trump and his cadre utter, just repeating the same thing over and over again does not make it so.
I suspect Trump’s obsession with the singular and historic nature of his presidency caused him to feel so injured by reports of meager inaugural crowds. After all, shouldn’t such a historic, never-seen-before figure command the biggest crowds?
2. Trump never shied away from divisive rhetoric during the campaign and he made few modifications for his inaugural speech. As with his convention speech, Trump painted a grim portrait of a country ravaged by “crime and gangs and drugs” — all things normally associated with the minority-populated urban core. He culminates his evisceration by exclaiming that this “American carnage stops right here and now.” The term carnage serves as a needlessly loaded term — more evocative of Aleppo than, say, Atlanta (John Lewis’s district) or Chicago (not to mention many other urban areas undergoing something of a renaissance). It also indicts Trump’s predecessors for presumably causing this “carnage.” Finally, if today we’re witnessing carnage, how would Trump categorize 2009 when Obama assumed power? Back then, payrolls fell at a ~600K monthly pace and had plummeted by 3.6M in the previous year; banks had frozen lending; and consumer confidence had sunk to its lowest levels since the Carter Administration.
Just as important, how will Trump react if this “carnage” in fact worsens? Our 4.7% unemployment rate and evidence of people jumping from jobs suggests we’re approaching full employment. The stock market has soared to record territory. Consumer sentiment hovers near the highest levels since the dot.com crash in 2000. Crime — while seeing a slight uptick last year — has fallen consistently over the past 20 years. In short, this “carnage” could just as easily worsen as abate.
3. As in his campaign speeches, Trump emphasized “America First” — “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.” While the sentence construction might resemble JFK, the “America First” slogan harkens back to Charles Lindbergh and his quixotic admiration of Nazi Germany prior to World War II. Trump’s borrowing of such an expression points to his ignorance of history (perfectly plausible) or conscious decision to parrot such a controversial phrase. Given the influence of Stephen Bannon and Trump’s support among the alt-right, the use of this phrase hardly feels coincidental, though.
a. It’s telling about our times that Lindbergh destroyed much of his once-proud legacy advancing “America First” while Trump embraces the same slogan in his successful quest for the presidency.
b. Trump might picture himself as an American original, but he likes to lift slogans off others: in the way that “America First” did not emanate from Trump, “Make America Great Again” sprang from Reagan’s 1980 campaign.
c. It’s not hard to imagine an inherent xenophobic and even anti-Semitic quality in rehashing “America First.” This anti-Semitism fits with the rash of anti-Semitic violence in the wake of Trump’s election — http://fortune.com/2016/11/17/anti-semitism-donald-trump-jews/ . And it points to a glaring contradiction. Trump has done little to speak out against the anti-Semitism and xenophobia unleashed by his campaign. Yet he has proven extremely accommodating to Benjamin Netanyahu’s aggressive stance in Israel — evidenced by Trump’s appointment of hardliner David Friedman as U.S. Ambassador to Israel; his unstinting support of Israel during the campaign; and his vow to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In a certain way, Trump appears more concerned with the well-being of Jews outside the U.S. than inside.
4. Alongside “America First,” Trump implored “We will follow two simple rules; buy American and hire American.” At the surface, the words sound reassuring: who is against American goods or American workers? But these words also serve as a superficial answer to structural problems that bedevil us and contribute to intensifying income inequality: automation; the ravaging opiate epidemic; an ever more interconnected world; hyper competition due to the Internet; escalating real estate prices that price people out of marquee cities. Hiring American will not populate an empty factory floor shaped by robots and computers. Meanwhile, buying American will not help many businesses that cannot succeed in an increasingly “winner-takes-all” business environment (in which platforms like Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft capture outsize market share).
Trump’s simple rules reflect a rather top-down mercantilist economic order more in common with those of Stalinist Russia or Mao’s China (the “Great Leap Forward” of 1958–62) — as opposed to Trump’s pledge to liberate the economy from Obama’s regulations. Trump’s words reek of protectionism — the same type of economics that led to the Smoot-Hawley tariff that exacerbated the Great Depression. Nor, is it clear that Trump’s missive will help the forgotten man or woman. Many of these people — the white working class, for instance — depend on cheap goods sold at places like Wal-Mart and manufactured in countries like China. How will rising import costs or trade wars help these people?
Lastly, not all jobs get created equally. Trump pines for rather commoditized jobs of yesteryear — simple manufacturing jobs that even Ivanka Trump’s company prefers to manufacture in China. But technology, green energy (including blue collar jobs in solar panels and wind mills) and other education/creative driven jobs offer a large number of higher paying jobs. Trump offered no vision of expanding these jobs or creating the environment — e.g. education, a tolerant populace, a clean environment — in which these jobs can flourish.
5. Akin to his campaign skewering of the evil moneyed axis of Lloyd Blackfein, Carlos Slim and Janet Yellin, Trump lashed out against the Washington elite. Trump intoned, “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.”
These attacks, though, ring hollow considering Trump’s cabinet. Trump draws heavily from Washington insiders — Reince Priebus, Jeff Sessions, Elaine Chao, Ryan Zinke, etc. In addition, Trump has embraced the extremely wealthy for his cabinet — Steven Mnuchin, Wilbur Ross, Betsey DeVos, Andrew Puzder, Rex Tillerson, Gary Cohn — all of whom strike me as quite divorced (or at odds with) the forgotten man or woman. In certain cases — Mnuchin with his foreclosures at IndyMac Bank or Puzder with his anti-labor positions — these nominees have explicitly enriched themselves at the expense of the “people.”
A tendency exists on the right to limit the “establishment” to just those living on the coasts (Manhattan, San Francisco, Boston, etc.); who attended Ivy League or similar colleges; and work in certain industries (e.g. media or banking). This rigid definition ensures a convenient foil for conservatives: they can always denigrate this liberal group as a way to deflect their own shortcomings. But, a conservative “establishment” can just as easily exist — wealthy business executives, career political figures steeped in conservative orthodoxy and alumnus of right-wing think tanks (e.g. Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity). Trump has chosen this establishment for his cabinet. Liberals do not have a monopoly on the idea of an “establishment.”
At the same time, Trump’s inherent conflicts of interest vis-à-vis the Trump organization open the possibility that Trump can enrich himself while President. In particular, Trump’s refusal to divest himself of his Washington hotel creates an ethics landmine.
6. Trump has always considered himself something of a servant for the people; during the campaign he declared himself a martyr — “I take all these slings and arrows gladly.” And indeed in his inaugural address, Trump saw himself as simply an appendage of the public will: “Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning…we are transferring power from Washington D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.” Later, Trump declared “That all changes starting right here and right now because this moment is your moment, it belongs to you.”
However, these words fall like empty bromides. Compared to other administrations, how has Trump moved to make his administration closer to the people? What specific rules or legislation has Trump proposed that will facilitate this goal? Does not every administration emphasize how it will look out for the average citizen or some version of the forgotten man or woman? Just proclaiming the same lines over and over, does not make it more so. Just as important, the “you” Trump mentions is not one monolithic body. ~3M more people for Clinton over Trump and millions marched against Trump the day after his inauguration. Trump’s actions so far do not suggest he will return power to these people.
7. Trump imagines himself a doer and not a thinker. And in this speech he did not disappoint: “We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action, constantly complaining, but never doing anything about it.” This canard of the whiny, do-nothing politician served as a common theme during the campaign, spewed out during the debates to tar Clinton. And Clinton never really challenged him on it, letting this attack stick.
But just as Democrats do not have an exclusive on the “establishment,” Trump does not own “action.” Think back to the first two years of the Obama presidency and all that he accomplished: the mammoth stimulus bill, restructuring the auto industry, the Lily Ledbetter Act, Public Land Management Act, Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, Fair Sentencing Act and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Many of these policies got enacted within Obama’s first year.
One could easily disagree with these policies — especially Obamacare and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” But, it is hard to say that these acts weren’t consequential; many have said that Obama in his first two years accomplished more than any president since Lyndon Johnson during his Great Society and Civil Rights crusades. So when Trump belittles those behind him as “all talk and no action” he’s really limiting “action” to policies with which he agrees.
Of course, Obama’s productivity tapered off considerably after the Republicans regained the House in 2011 — although Obama still accomplished a lot through executive order. But this decline in productivity owed itself not to lack of effort by Obama, but the stubbornness of a Republican Congress. Trump may face this same inertia as he tries to push things forward against an almost evenly divided Senate, low approval ratings or potentially depleted congressional numbers after the 2018 mid-terms.
Just as important, Trump’s actions since the election suggest he’ll be more talk than your typical politician. Trump’s obsession with crowd size or illegals propping Clinton’s popular vote margins supplants actual policy in his speeches and the public debate. His constant Twitter feuds repel potential allies in passing legislation. Instead of looking forward, many of Trump’s speeches follow memory lane — nostalgically rehashing his election as he did before the CIA. Like a musician unable to turn out something new, Trump seems stuck with his greatest hits.