At the close of his inauguration speech, Trump stood in front of the US Capitol Building and raised his right fist in the air. In keeping with a speech that combined bombast and fury, he appeared at that moment more conquering king than elected president. Indeed all that was needed to complete the image was a giant sword in his left hand.
As to the contents of his speech, we had classic right wing tropes of national renewal seasoned with a populist leftist tinge in the form of a pledge to prioritize the interests of American labor. “America First” was the overarching message of one of the most remarkable inauguration speeches the American people have ever been treated to, one that began with a declaration of war against the Washington establishment on behalf of ‘the people’, thus ramping up rather than tamping down the populism that had fueled his election campaign.
For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished — but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered — but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.
It was a message designed to resonate with America’s once mighty industrial heartlands, giving hope to millions of benighted workers denied a place a table at the banquet of neoliberalism. Restoring lost manufacturing jobs and replenishing the country’s crumbling infrastructure were consistent themes throughout his campaign for the White House, and during his inauguration speech Trump re-emphasized it, to the point where you could almost hear the clash of hammers on metal and roar of factory furnaces in the background. Actually achieving would entail taking the path of protectionism, which is where perhaps his calculated decision to opt for peace with Russia and confrontation with China is at least partly located. But more on that later.
What should not be underestimated is the fact that millions of people across America still refuse to accept Donald Trump as their president. Hundreds of thousands of them attended protests across the country, including at the inauguration in Washington itself, while globally millions participated in women’s marches, protesting what they perceive to be the Trump’s misogyny and sexism. It is worth making the point here that there were no such protests when Obama was bombing Libya in conjunction with Washington’s allies in 2011, bombs that killed Libyan women along with men and children. Then there are the women killed during Obama’s drone war, the women slaughtered in Syria and Iraq at the hands of ISIS, which exploded across the region under the previous president’s watch.
The hypocrisy goes without saying.
On foreign policy, Trump railed against trade deals that in his view had benefited other countries at the expense of America, while also lambasting Washington’s self-appointed role under his predecessors as the world’s policeman.
For many decades…we’ve 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.
At this point you could almost hear the gnashing of teeth at NATO headquarters in Brussels and in capitals across Eastern Europe and the Balkan states, where anti-Russian feeling has combined with the projection of cold war nostrums to polarize relations between Moscow and Washington in recent years.
Staying with foreign policy, Trump continues to shift seamlessly between lucidity, incoherence, and recklessness. In shorthand he is offering peace and partnership with Russia but hostility and rancour towards China and Iran. China in particular is being held up as a bête noire, which given Beijing’s good and close relations with Moscow is certain to pose a challenge for all concerned in the months ahead.
China’s phenomenal economic growth relative to the US is not the product of currency manipulation, as Trump alleges, but rather the wholesale outsourcing of production by US and Western multinationals to China in order to exploit lower labor and production costs. It is important to recognize that China and the United States have long been engaged in a symbiotic if not harmonious relationship, involving Beijing as the largest holder of US foreign debt, and with the US the largest market for Chinese exports. The US trade deficit with China in 2015 was $367 billion, which tells its own story when it comes to relative US economic decline. Without the dollar as the world’s international reserve currency, the US economy would have tanked way before now. However with China eager to establish the yuan as a competing global currency, areas of tension between both countries going forward are clearly delineated.
Despite this, Trump has entered the White House absent of any overarching project or design when it comes to reshaping the world in America’s image, heralding in this respect a significant break with the status quo. It is reflective of the strategic defeats the US has suffered since 9/11 in Iraq and Afghanistan, the disaster of its actions vis-à-vis the conflict in Syria, and a crisis in Ukraine and Eastern Europe brought to us courtesy of the end of history fantasies of neocon hawks.
Unlike the Washington establishment, Trump would appear to understand that US hegemony and unipolarity are no longer sustainable. He also knows that US economic decline relative to its rivals, in particular China, is approaching the point of critical mass. What he apparently fails to understand though is that US economic growth has long been predicated on unsustainable hyper-consumption, benefiting an ever more bloated Wall Street – the real enemy of American workers – to the detriment of the real economy. If the rhetoric is to be believed, he has arrived in Washington intent on making the enemies of American labor his enemies.
It is why history may well record that on January 20th 2017, the 45th President of the United States of America declared war not on the country’s enemies abroad but on its enemies at home – in other words on Washington itself.
Yet in the process of doing so he has unleashed ugly anti-migrant and anti-minority sentiment in the land. It is why despite making references to uniting the country during his inauguration speech Donald Trump begins his time in office as possibly the most divisive American president since Abraham Lincoln.
At least Lincoln had the excuse of being elected on an anti-slavery platform.