Donald Trump is president and, along with countless others here and around the globe, I remain in a state of disbelief. President Obama, now Citizen Obama, told the many assembled to bid him farewell at Andrews that we should look at this moment as “a comma not a period”. Taking the long view, I think – truly hope – he is right, but that doesn’t change the enormity of the moment, or its danger. The oath was taken and power shifted from admired steady hands to ones of, at best, uncertainty. It remains hard to believe – please tell me it isn’t true – and I can’t erase its enormity from my conscious; it still disrupts the peace of my sleeping hours.
Trump’s brief inaugural was both underwhelming – it certainly won’t make the list of memorables either in words or delivery – and very disturbing. Not surprisingly, it was totally consistent with his negative campaign and its dystopian view of America. It reflected a man who remains untouched and unmoved by the awesome responsibility that comes with taking the oath. He shows no sign of growth. Aimed squarely at his base, the speech failed to reach out to all of us. Indeed, it did just the opposite. Moreover, he actually seems to have narrowed his own base by dissing all existing officeholders, the majority of whom are Republicans, as “all talk and no action”. In that, it was fully consistent with the transition that showed no sign that he had moved from campaign to governing mode. That continues to be the case.
To me, the most concerning part of the speech came around midpoint. “We assembled here today”, he declared, “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.” It’s not the first time the idea of America First has been put forward and it has never been a positive thing. It speaks protectionism which can have huge economic consequences, but suggests much more. For sure It can impact on our national mindset, but more to the point is seems to line up precisely with Trump’s psyche. America first is an egotistical construct voiced by the prototypical supreme egotist. Before and since the election he has exhibited what is an almost clinical, and thus unnerving, case of paranoiac egotism. One can hear a petulant child within: “me first, me first” when anything is on offer.
Beyond all else, America First driving policy implications is “so yesterday”. Say what you will about globalism and the assumed cost of trade agreements, we live in an interconnected world. There is no way to go it alone, certainly not successfully. In the long run, deniers notwithstanding, the climate alone mandates a less selfish mindset. The globe has become too small for that as we are headed for diminished resources as the population grows. We are all dependent on the same air and are ultimately drinking from a common well. Both are likely to become scarce. Trump my shout America first, but he can’t change the reality that everyone of us has become accustomed to source the world for goods we use every day. It may be true that companies produce abroad to lower costs and maximize profits, but we too look for and depend on bargains. Reversing all that is far easier said than done, not to mention that bringing it all “home” is likely to have an inflationary impact. Trump voters in the heartland will feel an uptick in prices more than anyone else.
Last weekend’s great march was impressive. That so many moved into the streets in protest was encouraging. We will all need to activate ourselves. We dare not sit on the sidelines at such a critical time. Nonetheless, ultimately much more than going to the streets will be needed. Whether Trump can carry through his agenda will depend on the support he gets politically, specifically the votes he has when proposing his agenda. At the moment, he commands a majority on the hill and in many states. Legislators may be moved by protest, but moving them out by vote is what probably will be required. Ultimately existing majorities in Congress and in legislatures around the country will have to be challenged, Trump’s support undermined. The first opportunity to do so is only two years away and we need to get working.
Beyond that, as David Brooks suggested in the Times, we need to think and focus beyond the issues that are important to us and address the core issues of those who were moved to vote for Trump. The economic pain and sense of losing place is real and, despite winning the popular vote in November, we ultimately can’t move forward without those who feel left behind or ignored. That is true nationally, but more so on the local and state level, both our current Achilles heel and the sole battleground for 2018. Any rebuke of Trump at the polls must be decisive, making it more difficult to deny.
But that’s two years off and much can and undoubtedly will happen before we get there. Looking at the content of his inaugural and what has happened in the very first days of his tenure should alarm us all. That probably begins with his fragile psyche and his need to be seen as a winner even when he’s not. That he should still be talking about millions of fraudulent votes by unauthorized immigrants ominously points to an undermining of the democratic process, a suggestion that votes don’t count or can’t be taken as legitimate. That’s the kind of talk one hears from autocratic dictators and that seems to reflect the tone and substance of his nasty campaign. Alarming too is that dissing of office holders which suggests that only he can save us. While he avoided the overuse of “I” in the inaugural one only has to think back to his convention speech last summer to see from where he was, and continues to be, coming. And finally, that America First theme evokes an arrogance of self and a “rest of the world be damned” direction. Unlike John Donne, he does seem to believe that he and we are an island unto ourselves. That simply is not the case on this small planet. It can’t be let to stand if we are to move forward.