Arc Digital
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Arc Digital

The Disappearance of American Carnage

Trump’s State of the Union resembled his Davos address far more than his Inaugural. This is a good thing.

Last year, Steve Bannon, the disgraced nationalist agitator who served as Donald Trump’s chief strategist during most of 2017, invited observers to compare two speeches. The first was from Chinese President Xi Jinping, who gave the keynote at the World Economic Forum’s 2017 retreat in Davos, Switzerland. The second, to be delivered days later, was Donald Trump’s inaugural address.

I think it’d be good if people compare Xi’s speech at Davos and President Trump’s speech in his inaugural. You’ll see two different world views.

Though Bannon has always been constitutionally incapable of interpreting episodes such as these in a measured, non-apocalyptic fashion, there was a ring of truth to his suggestion. Certainly, Bannon exaggerated the differences between Xi and Trump, yet it was undeniable that the two men represented divergent national strategies. It was true that the speeches, coming just three days apart, signaled a striking reversal for the two global superpowers.

Xi’s address, which marked a pivot away from China’s long-standing embrace of a totalizing nationalist orientation, made overtures to globalization’s capacity to deliver unprecedented economic growth. In contrast, Trump’s inaugural, which Bannon called “Jacksonian,” devoted lots of attention to announcing a break with globalist policies.

Bannon and senior adviser Stephen Miller conjured up for Trump a speech they hoped would signal a recovery of American greatness, and one they knew would be received as a biting denunciation of the internationalist world order. The cosmopolitan caste—starting with D.C. elites but extending to the entirety of the Davos class—was blamed for American struggles:

Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs.

Trump’s voters placed their hopes in his economic nationalism, believing it could reverse global capitalism’s trampling march, and his inaugural address reassured them he would govern as an opponent of the Davos-friendly approach of his predecessors.

But nothing clarifies quite like time.

A year removed from Trump’s inaugural, our assessment has to be that Trump’s implementation of the Bannon-Miller framework, the promised reversal of American carnage, has only partially been taken up. It certainly could have been more forcefully pursued.

For example, the specter of a global trade war between the U.S. and some of its chief trading partners has not materialized. On trade, arguably Trump’s most aggressively antiglobalist stance, Trump has ditched an agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that his two major Democratic opponents also vowed to jettison, changed his tune from wanting to abolish NAFTA to seeking its renegotiation, and imposed narrow, targeted tariffs—so far, only on washing-machines and solar-panel fixtures—as opposed to slapping them on entire industries. These actions hinder, but don’t ultimately destroy, our country’s commitment to a free-trade future.

On the other hand, the president’s deregulatory zeal, as well as the tax cuts he engineered alongside congressional Republicans, have gone very warmly received by Davos elites. Yet these never featured on Bannon’s list of political priorities—as a matter of fact, Bannon would have been a Democratic ally on taxes.

The reality is that, on economic matters, Trump’s neomercantilism (which Davos hates) has been wedded to Trump’s neoliberalism (which Davos loves), and the latter has been more consequential by a long shot. In fact, according to Trump’s supporters, his two most significant accomplishments in year one—after the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, of course—have been passing tax reform and rolling back Obama-era regulations.

That’s why it was always a stretch to imagine Trump would be unable to strike a conciliatory tone with the elites at Davos. Their differences were never substantial enough to keep the U.S. president from finding points of common agreement.

Obviously, Trump’s rhetorical inelegance, unrepentant vulgarity, and antiglobalist positions on trade and immigration really rankle the political and financial leaders assembled at Davos. But as I’ve pointed out, that’s not the whole story.

Which is why, on Friday, the last day of this year’s Davos retreat, Trump took the stage and delivered a speech, a kind of internationalist State of the Union address, that sounded importantly different from his inaugural just one year ago.

As president of the United States, I will always put America first, just like the leaders of other countries should put their country first also. But America first does not mean America alone. When the United States grows, so does the world.

Trump’s inaugural also outlined his America First approach, but it did so in a way that suggested the “America Alone” interpretation. Last Friday, before the crowd at Davos, Trump revised this interpretation.

The inaugural’s conception of America First was mercantilist—economic strength is a zero-sum game achieved by harnessing the nation-enhancing powers of isolationism and protectionism. The new version of America First, the one offered at Davos, is neoliberal—global flourishing is best achieved by America, as well as all the other nations, pursuing self-interested goals compatible with the success of the global economic system.

Compare the inaugural:

For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military; we’ve defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own; and spent 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 disappeared over the horizon.

One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions upon millions of American workers left behind.

The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world.

But that is the past. And now we are looking only to the future. 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 moment on, it’s going to be America First.

…with the speech at Davos:

The world is witnessing the resurgence of a strong and prosperous America. I’m here to deliver a simple message. There has never been a better time to hire, to build, to invest and to grow in the united States. America is open for business and we are competitive once again. The American economy is by far the largest in the world and we’ve just enacted the most significant tax cuts and reform in American history. We’ve massively cut taxes for the middle class, and small businesses to let working families keep more of their hard earned money. …

When the United States grows, so does the world. …

Together let us resolve it use our power, our resources and our voices, not just for ourselves but for our people, to lift their burdens, to raise their hopes and to empower their dreams. … It’s why America’s future has negative been brighter.

Today, I am inviting all of you to become part of this incredible future we are building together.

The concept of America First is unmistakably present in both speeches, yet the first is a turning away from the global and economic world order and the second is a turning toward it, albeit with conditions.

This shift is understandable. Populism, after all, is a better campaign strategy than it is a governing strategy. The same revanchist frenzy that galvanized the masses, offering a vision of elites toppled and country reclaimed, disappears into the wind as the populist comes to rely on the institutions he once despised.

But a case can be made that, even as a campaign strategy, populism is in decline. If its vibrancy depends on a widespread feeling of economic dislocation, as well as a lack of faith in our political institutions, then it’s possible its best days are behind it.

As Peter S. Goodman notes for the New York Times:

A decade after the world descended into a devastating economic crisis, a key marker of revival has finally been achieved. Every major economy on earth is expanding at once, a synchronous wave of growth that is creating jobs, lifting fortunes and tempering fears of popular discontent.

No tidy, all-encompassing narrative explains how the world has finally escaped the global downturn. The United States has been propelled by government spending unleashed during the previous administration, plus a recent $1.5 trillion shot of tax cuts. Europe has finally felt the effects of cheap money pumped out by its central bank.

In general terms, improvement owes less to some newfound wellspring of wealth than the simple fact that many of the destructive forces that felled growth have finally exhausted their potency.

In the United States, though bitter partisan wars rage on and institutional dysfunction remains, Trump and his fellow Republican leaders are looking at 2018 as an opportunity to secure major bipartisan victories. The administration’s immigration proposal, which charts a pathway to citizenship for “dreamers” in exchange for increasing border security and enacting changes to existing immigration policy, contains concessions the White House would have never accepted during its earliest days. Infrastructure will be pursued along the same lines, while more contentious issues, such as deep entitlement reform, have been shelved.

With the 2018 midterms around the corner, Republicans want to tout the country’s economic strength while pointing to concrete examples of the GOP’s governing achievements. That hardly lends itself to populist packaging.

In Europe, while an undercurrent of anti-E.U. sentiment remains strong, populism’s prospects have taken a hit. The refugee crisis is no longer the issue it was, major terrorist networks have been weakened, and, most important of all for bolstering faith in the E.U.’s institutions, economic conditions are significantly improving. As Peter Nixon points out in the Wall Street Journal, economic growth and falling unemployment is correlated with rising trust in, and support for, the E.U.’s institutions.

With these trends in place, and with the Davos political and economic consensus ascendant, the result was always going to be an America First posture modified to include significant globalist prerogatives. Yet the Davos speech was not meant to be a rhetorical or thematic one-off.

The White House spent the days prior to the State of the Union promising a more uplifting, optimistic approach from the president. Adopting this posture makes sense—the president’s 2018 goals are different from his 2017 ones. Ahead of the midterms, the focus is no longer on draining the swamp but on preserving it in place. Trump knows that if the Democrats wrest control of the House or the Senate away from the GOP, he can kiss his agenda goodbye.

While it was always going to be impossible for a State of the Union address, especially from this president, to be free from partisan emphases, Trump delivered an address that had fewer instances of populist talking points.

In a piece published the day after Trump delivered his State of the Union address, the Atlantic’s David Frum, who is about as anti-Trump as a Republican can get, said that Trump has “moved sharply toward his opponents’ position on immigration.” The New York Times’ Ross Douthat, another #NeverTrumper, reads Trump’s remarks as signaling a desire for a “reset.”

Does this seem like the guns-blazing, anti-establishment, jingoistic screamscapes that Trump treated us to on the campaign trail and during press conferences?

Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve.

Over the last year, the world has seen what we always knew: that no people on Earth are so fearless, or daring, or determined as Americans. If there is a mountain, we climb it. If there is a frontier, we cross it. If there is a challenge, we tame it. If there is an opportunity, we seize it.

So let us begin tonight by recognizing that the state of our Union is strong because our people are strong.

And together, we are building a safe, strong, and proud America. …

This is our new American moment. There has never been a better time to start living the American Dream.

So to every citizen watching at home tonight — no matter where you have been, or where you come from, this is your time. If you work hard, if you believe in yourself, if you believe in America, then you can dream anything, you can be anything, and together, we can achieve anything.

Tonight, I want to talk about what kind of future we are going to have, and what kind of Nation we are going to be. All of us, together, as one team, one people, and one American family.

We all share the same home, the same heart, the same destiny, and the same great American flag.

Of course, we’ve seen this before from Trump. In a joint address to Congress last year, he sounded the same conciliatory notes.

In the aftermath, we saw that the idea of a Trump tamed was a farce all along. Trump proved too instinctual, too undisciplined, to let the dullness of a reasonable political message flatten his irrepressible childishness.

But the political facts on the ground are different this year. The heralding of a strong economy, and the bipartisan initiatives Mitch McConnell and—more reluctantly—Paul Ryan have set forward for the upcoming legislative year call for a less combustible attitude. These emphases naturally lend themselves to a more unifying posture rather than a combative one.

Is Trump rational enough to notice this? In the span of five days, the president has given two speeches that invite us to imagine the possibility of this president stripped of his most controversy-generating impulses.

Still, the likeliest outcome is that, the high-minded speeches aside, Trump still gonna Trump.

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