s advertised, Trump’s inaugural featured a strong promise to put America first, without really articulating just what that means. The original America First movement in the late 1930s was dedicated to staying out of war with Nazi Germany. Whether Trump wants to stay out of any war, or disengage from the multiple wars we’ve been fighting since 2001, is far from clear (and mostly goes unaddressed). Nothing Trump says smacks of isolation, and his opening sentence addresses the “people of the world.”
The next sentence can be read as a warning to the people of the world: that Americans are rebuilding, restoring America’s promise, and together “will determine the course of America and the world for many, many years to come.”
The New York Times, in its own annotated version of the inaugural, calls Trump’s opening “a hopeful message designed to appeal to all Americans,” without taking any note of how American dominance might not appeal to all the people of the world. But the Times’s annotations don’t pretend to offer any serious critical analysis. In this instance, presumably, the Times has no objection to an exceptional America continuing to try to determine the course of the world. The annotations that follow pick up on points the Times skipped over it its effort to be a polite fact-checking courtier.
“We will face challenges. We will confront hardships, but we will get the job done.”
Is this a conscious echo of President Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural promise in Cold War hyperbole: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” This is the philosophy that, most obviously, sustained the US support for corrupt military dictatorships in South Vietnam (1955-1975) or corrupt elected governments in Afghanistan (2001-2017). Four years ago Trump tweeted: “Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.” Now the “America First Foreign Policy” page on the White House website is silent about specific countries or wars, as Trump was in his inaugural.
“… we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people…. January 20, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”
Is there ANY possible truth in this promise from a candidate who lost the popular vote, the vote of the people? What mechanisms have Trump even hinted at that would provide for greater local government control anywhere? Trump’s determination to cut back on regulations is designed to empower corporations, not local governments, and certainly not individuals. Trump’s denial of climate change only makes it harder for the American people, and the people of the world, to defend themselves against almost unthinkable future devastation. This is a shell game in which the people never get to see the pea. Millions marched against the con the day after the inaugural. They know that they are not “the rulers of this nation again” any more than they ever were. The Republican Party despises most of what the majority of Americans want and Trump has named a cadre of government officials not known for their inclination to surrender one iota of power to anyone. How long can the true believers go on believing they have any real chance to find the pea?
“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now”
This is the most arresting, and strangest line in Trump’s very odd speech. Taken literally, it is instantly false. Taken metaphorically it’s opaque to the point of meaninglessness. (The Times in its manic sobriety noted here that “The United States remains far safer than it has been in generations.”)
The context in which Trump delivered this line makes it even more unhinged. After talking for a paragraph about “mothers and children trapped in poverty,… rusted-out factories,… an education system flush with cash,… and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential” Trump then says, “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” How? What interest has Trump shown in mothers in poverty, never mind children? More jobs? Rolling back child labor laws? And an education system flush with cash, where is that? Crime, gangs, drugs are mostly issues past their peak. In that sense, Trump is declaring an end to American carnage that is already in decline.
But there is a new American carnage about which the new president has long been silent. He has no objection to police shooting unarmed citizens, especially black ones. He offers to shelter, no hope to millions of homeless people (even though they are now among “the rulers of this nation again”). And he promises no end to the American carnage visited on wedding parties and funerals by presidential drone assassinations. He promises no end to the American carnages visited on the populations of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and all the other countries the US attacks directly and indirectly. He promises no end to the American-Saudi genocidal war in Yemen. American carnage promises to go on flourishing at home and abroad.
“For many decades we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry, subsidized armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military.”
It is pure wonderland to speak of “foreign industry” and “American industry” in an age of corporate globalization of which Trump is an active participant.
Subsidizing armies of other countries is mostly a mirage. With US military forces deployed in roughly 140 countries, that’s a “subsidy” that comes at a pretty high price tag for the supposed subsidee.
Talking about the “depletion of our military” is simply delusional. Granted, it’s a longstanding Republican delusional talking point, but delusional nonetheless. (Even the Times tagged this one, noting that the US military budget is about $600 billion a year and that that amount is more than the combined military expenditures of the next six largest military spenders combined. The Times does not note that it’s actually the next SEVEN military budgets, or that they are, in declining order, China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, UK, India, France, and Japan (together about $567 billion in military expenditures). US military spending represents more than one third of what the rest of the world spends on the military.
The new “America First Foreign Policy” page does not acknowledge that America is already first by a huge margin. Instead it says: “Next, we will rebuild the American military. Our Navy has shrunk from more than 500 ships in 1991 to 275 in 2016. Our Air Force is roughly one third smaller than in 1991. President Trump is committed to reversing this trend, because he knows that our military dominance must be unquestioned.” Who thinks American military dominance is questioned?
The Trump administration is still trying to make the same dishonest budget cuts the Reagan administration wanted to make. The dishonesty lies in ignoring half the budget – the military half – while doggedly going after economically meaningless peanuts like Planned Parenthood, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (the latter three cost about $741 million a year, or about one tenth of one per cent of the military budget). These are not intended to be meaningful economic cuts made in good faith. They are the usual savage culture war cuts designed to cause social and intellectual carnage.
“Together we will make America strong again. We will make America wealthy again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And, yes, we will make America great again.”
This concluding litany is a fair measure of the confusion the country faces.
America IS strong by almost any measure. America is so strong that it remains comfortable being inhumane by important social measures such as infant mortality, health care, food insecurity, and the futility of pursuing happiness even at its most reduced level.
America IS wealthy. (The Times acknowledges that “America has never been wealthier.”) Even on a per capita basis, America is the ninth wealthiest country in the world (behind Qatar #1, Luxembourg, Singapore, Kuwait, Brunei, UAR, Norway, and Switzerland). Here’s the rub, according to Fortune Magazine: “America is the richest, and most unequal, country” in the world.
America IS proud, sometimes absurdly so, perhaps exceptionally so.
And America IS safe, relatively speaking. Domestically, there are random dangers from citizen shooters and rogue cops. In 2014, 55 soldiers were killed by terrorists, 269 killed themselves. Veterans commit suicide at twice the national rate. Life has always been inherently dangerous and unfair, but it’s less so now in this country than it is in most of the countries we’re busy “protecting.” Internationally, there is no serious threat from any country, and not even a near-threat from any country that we are not provoking. For Americans, the “terrorist threat” comes mostly from the fear-mongering mouths of politicians.
So it’s clever, what Trump has done, promising to make America strong, wealthy, proud, and safe, when we already pretty much are all of those things. He has set himself a low bar in some ways, although it won’t be that easy for him to achieve something to make us deservedly proud. And the wealth thing – which requires addressing wealth inequality, of which he and his appointees and his pals are primary beneficiaries – what are the odds he’ll get very far on that?