A Tale of Two Speeches
Absorbing the reaction to Donald Trump’s inaugural address yesterday, I thought about a famous passage from Act II of The Tempest. A few of the shipwrecked men are taking stock of their situation on Prospero’s enchanted island. It soon becomes clear that the island appears very different to different characters:
ADRIAN: The air breathes upon us here most sweetly.
SEBASTIAN: As if it had lungs and rotten ones
ANTONIO: Or as 'twere perfumed by a fen.
GONZALO: Here is everything advantageous to life.
ANTONIO: True; save means to live.
SEBASTIAN: Of that there's none, or little.
GONZALO: How lush and lusty the grass looks! how green!
ANTONIO: The ground indeed is tawny.
SEBASTIAN: With an eye of green in't.
ANTONIO: He misses not much.
SEBASTIAN: No; he doth but mistake the truth totally.
Friday afternoon, I wrote a brief piece about the inauguration for the Financial Times (requires registration) in which I described Trump’s address as “gracious but plain-speaking.” My, how the readers of the FT disliked that!
To be fair, the legacy media in America hated Trump's speech, too, as did — and this is the more interesting thing — the anti-Trump Right. The Chicago Tribune described the speech as “raw, angry and aggrieved,” “pugnacious in tone, pitch black in its color.” OK, par for the course. But Andrew Ferguson, writing in The Wall Street Journal, said that “the candidate who campaigned as a sociopath shows signs he may yet govern as one.” (“Sociopath”? Caligula was a sociopath. Donald Trump?) Sure, Chris “Old Reliable” Matthews, ready as ever with the Godwin Expedient, described the speech as “Hiterlian.” But just about every mainstream outlet from The Weekly Standard on down referred to the speech as “dark.” I was a bit taken aback to hear a politically mature friend describe the speech as “disgusting,” “nasty,” “borderline unAmerican” and then go on, listing Godwinwards, to invoke “beer halls” (you know what that means!) in connection with the speech.
So what do you think, is the ground tawny? Or does the ground look lush and lusty?
I said that Trump’s speech was gracious. Here’s how he began:
Every four years, we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power, and we are grateful to President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition. They have been magnificent.
“Raw”? “Angry”? “Nasty”? “Disgusting”?
Granted, that was merely the prelude. The rest of the short speech (it was only about 1400 words) is what I called “plain-speaking.” Trump negotiated the transition from gracious prelude to forthright substance with the word “however”:
Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning. Because today we are not merely transferring power from one Administration to another, or from one party to another – but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.
During the primaries, my favored candidate was Ted Cruz, partly because I thought he was the most serious about bringing the bipartisan, leech-like Washington gravy train to an abrupt halt.
At first, I regarded Donald Trump as just another big-government operator who would not reform Washington so much as find ways to exploit it for his own benefit. So far, I have to say, I have been pleasantly surprised. Sure, it is early days. But he has spoken of making staff cuts of 20% and a budget cut of 10%. And, in what is the real kernel of his inauguration address, he gives the rationale: his administration will not just be Washington business as usual, in which new leeches come to town to replace the old leeches, but will actually endeavor to alter the basic, perverted metabolism that has taken root in Washington. The aim, he said, was not simply to transfer power from one party to another — chaps with different hats but the same grasping hands and insatiable appetite for your money — but to transfer it from Washington to where Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson and the rest thought it should be, to We the People.
Will Donald Trump be able to accomplish this? I do not know. But I applaud the ambition.
Trump began with a few general observations:
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.
Which of those statements do you find “Dark”? “Nasty”? "Aggreived?" “Disgusting”? Or, more to the point, which do you find untrue?
Trump then came to the constructive part of his talk. First, a promise:
That all changes – starting right here, and right now, because this moment is your moment.
“What truly matters,” he continued, “is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.” Is that “dark,” or merely Madisonian?
“January 20th 2017,” he said, “will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”
Well, we’ll see about that. But let’s say it is. Would that be a bad, a “borderline unAmerican” thing?
Again, Trump reminded his audience that “a nation exists to serve its citizens.” At least, that’s the idea. But something has gone wrong. I’d say that a combination of bureaucratic metastasis combined with cronyism has upset the system. Trump used different words, but his diagnosis comes to the same thing.
“Americans,” he said, “want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves.” Any objections so far? No? How about to this:
But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.
That’s a dire diagnosis, maybe a “dark” diagnosis. But is it “disgusting,” “borderline unAmerican,” etc.? Again, is it, any of it, untrue?
Trump went on to say that “this American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” Many commentators took issue with the word “carnage.” But think about it. According to CNN, in 2016 Chicago saw 762 murders, 3,550 shooting incidents, 4,331 shooting victims.
How do you define “carnage”?
But now we come to the really contentious part of the address, the part where Trump declared that “from this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.”
Imagine that! An American president who puts America first! Can you believe it?
Let’s clear up one red herring immediately. Donald Trump’s ambition to resuscitate American industry, benefit American workers, revitalize the American military has nothing but a verbal connection with the America First Committee, the non-interventionist group that militated against America’s entry into World War II from September 1940 until the bombing of Pearl Harbor (it was dissolved on December 10, 1941). Elaborate ghost stories have been spun around Trump’s use of the phrase “America first.” But as far as I can see, the dreadful tales are nothing more than desperate fantasies promulgated, repeated, and elaborated by people who have made a large psychic investment in regarding Trump as a monster.
“America First”: what, specifically, does Trump mean by that?
Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.
Is that a bad thing, “raw,” “dark,” “nasty,” etc.?
We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.
“Protection” was another word that caused pain: Does Trump want to start a trade war? Impose tariffs? Return us to a protectionist isolationism?
Well, that is not how I read it. There is, first of all, a difference between “protection” and “protectionism.” I’m not just playing with words. “Protectionism” is a ideology. The sort of “protection” Trump is talking about, as I understand it, is about self-defense.
But what about free trade, the free movement of capital, cheap labor, etc.? Again, I think those issues, though important, are largely a distraction in the context of Trump's ambitions. Trump is speaking as president of the Untied States and he is saying that his first obligation is to us, the citizens of the United States. I find that refreshing after eight years of a transnational progressive at the helm.
Trump's point is this: We may all be part of the family of man, but we can best serve our sisters and our cousins and our aunts (apologies to W.S. Gilbert) if we ourselves are strong. How can we accomplish that? Trump said that “we will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth.” That’s a start, surely. And then: “We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation.”
How are we going to pay for that, you might ask, and that’s a good question. But, I would submit, in the context of an aspirational oration such as an inaugural address, that is a secondary consideration. The main thing is the ambition and the program, which, says Trump, can be distilled into “two simple rules: Buy American and Hire American.”
A lot of people really hated that. They found it “raw,” “dark,” “nasty,” etc. Do you?
Trump is not, he hastened to point out, seeking a splendid isolation.
We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world – but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.
That sounds good to me. Do you find it “pugnacious in tone, pitch black in its color”? I don’t. I find it merely healthy and realistic.
What was genuinely, I’d say gloriously “pugnacious,” however, was Trump’s attitude toward terrorism. The administration of Barack Obama studiously avoided even mentioning the word “Islamic” in a sentence that contained “terrorism.”
Donald Trump, refreshingly to my mind, stated the obvious: “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones,” he said, “and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.”
Now, Donald Trump may underestimate the difficulty of that task, but I for one applaud the ambition and prefer his attitude to the namby-pamby “it-has-nothing-to-do-with-Islam” ideology of the last eight years, actually, more than eight years.
James Fitzjames Stephen, the great critic of John Stuart Mill, saw deeply into the reality of Trump's "America First" exhortation in his book Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: "The man who works from himself outwards," Stephen observed,
whose conduct is governed by ordinary motives, and who acts with a view to his own advantage and the advantage of those who are connected with himself in definite, assignable ways, produces in the ordinary course of things much more happiness to others . . . than a moral Don Quixote who is always liable to sacrifice himself and his neighbors. On the other hand, a man who has a disinterested love of the human race—that is to say, who has got a fixed idea about some way of providing for the management of the concerns of mankind—is an unaccountable person . . . who is capable of making his love for men in general the ground of all sorts of violence against men in particular.
I can imagine a story by Borges in which we learn of the influence of Donald Trump on Stephen.
Critics saw many malevolent things in Trump’s speech. I discerned a generous spirt tempered by realism about the way the world works and a sound appreciation of human psychology. “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America,” Trump wrote, “and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.”
One of the most poisonous features of contemporary social life has been been the insinuation of political correctness into the academy and politics. It has stifled honesty and transformed principled disagreement into rancid heresy that must be stamped out, not argued with. Trump explicitly challenged that toxic development, insisting that “we must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity.”
As he neared his conclusion, his tone became hortatory: “We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the Earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow.” And then came this dollop of poetry:
It is time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American Flag.
And whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the windswept plains of Nebraska, they look up at the same night sky, they fill their heart with the same dreams, and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty Creator.
Donald Trump has set out to “make America great again.” His real offense is to attempt to do so behind the backs of the vast network of established interests from both parties. I had my doubts that Trump would come to Washington and “drain the swamp.” But on the evidence of his behavior as president-elect and his less than two days as President, I am convinced that he will make every effort to do just that. Look at the "top issues" that appeared on the White House website within minutes of his address:
Trump may fail, of course: no one should underestimate the strength of the opposition he will face. But I suspect he is part of a worldwide movement of revulsion against the sclerotic utopianism of political correctness. We are doubtless in for a wild ride. But I cannot think of a moment, at least not since 1980, when a current of burgeoning self-confidence was so powerfully asserting itself.