President Donald J Trump. Even after he has taken up residence in the White House, it is hard to shake off the disbelief that Americans would elect such an unqualified, intemperate figure to the most powerful office in the world.
Nothing about Trump’s inauguration, nor in the days since – when he immediately engaged in a furious dispute with the media over the undeniable truth that fewer people came to see him sworn in than turned out for his predecessor – gives any indication that his new responsibilities have sobered him. The dangers inherent in his presidency were clear from his first speech as president, which painted a picture of a riven, declining nation turning in upon itself – ‘American carnage’, in his startling phrase. Here too he appeared to be disregarding the facts.
During Barack Obama’s two terms the US economy recovered from the verge of depression, posting stronger growth than most industrialised nations and bringing unemployment below 5 per cent. His successor’s image of American society plagued by drugs and crime is also at variance with the statistics. But Trump insists that America is in decline, and that the solution is a narrow nationalism which promises damaging consequences for the rest of the world, and for America itself.
In an address remarkable for how little reference there was to the rest of the world, Trump had this to say: ‘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 defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own.’ Starting with the fact that most US jobs have been lost to automation rather than globalisation, every claim in this passage is demonstrably false. Yet it is what the 45th president believes, and has persuaded millions of Americans to believe.
There was no better demonstration of the manner in which the world has turned upside down than the fact that, while Trump was proclaiming a new era of protectionism, the leader of Communist China, Xi Jinping, was defending free trade at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos. China’s economy grew 6.7 per cent in 2016, its slowest rate since 1990, according to official statistics, but analysts believe the true rate is slower, emphasising not only its vulnerability to the new US administration’s policies, but the risk of dangerous friction between the world’s two largest economies.
During his election campaign, Trump’s slogan was that he would ‘make America great again’, but his rhetoric on taking office implies the opposite. Not only could the US relinquish its leadership role as the world’s only superpower, but the ‘America First’ policy he outlined on the steps of the Capitol threatens to set off trade wars that will ultimately impoverish the international economy – a system that the US itself was chiefly responsible for developing since the Second World War. Internationally, the only leaders heartened by Trump’s victory appear to be authoritarians like Vladimir Putin in Russia and Marine le Pen in France, who are equally hostile to the post-war consensus.
There was an almost perfunctory reference in the inaugural address to seeking ‘friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world’, and a pledge to ‘reinforce old alliances and form new ones’, but it was punctuated with ‘the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first’. The only call for united international action was against ‘radical Islamic terrorism’, which Trump promised with typical hyperbole to ‘eradicate completely from the face of the earth’. How this squares with his isolationist tendencies is anyone’s guess.
Working out what Trump is for is much more difficult than discerning what he is against. His first actions in office were to dismantle as much of Obama’s legacy as possible through executive orders; how he was going to implement his sweeping promises to ‘drain the swamp’ of the Washington establishment or ‘bring back jobs’ for blue-collar Americans was much less clear.
Commentators have consoled themselves with the thought that things scarcely ever turn out as well or as badly as expected. Since expectations of Trump are so low, we may be pleasantly surprised. But even the most hopeful outlook for the next four years, with such an erratic presence in the White House, is bad enough.