President Donald Trump prides himself on not reading books and it shows. One doubts if he has ever read a poem, or knew the pleasure of diction, the music of cadence or the alchemy of mixing disparate words and turning them into organic living images. If President Trump was not reading from a poorly prepared text, one would have been tempted to say that he was influenced by the dark skies hovering over his inauguration ritual, to summon his dark angels to help him paint a picture of America circa 2017 that is a replica of the ravaged universe depicted in the Mad Max movies: bleak, arid and inhospitable. In this American dystopia we see “ mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation…and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives..”
Trump, dramatically vowed that “this American carnage stops right here and stops right now”. In Trump’s warped vision, America is a vast wasteland and its people have been wandering for decades in search of a leader like Trump to restore water, grass and trees. Trump promised the American people instant deliverance from their pain , it is as if the complex effects of globalization on the economy of Middle America, the loss of jobs as a result of deindustrialization, which hastened social unraveling, a process that took decades in the making, can be reversed with one direct command uttered by the maximum leader.
President Trump’s inauguration speech was exactly him: bombastic, crass, lacking in grace, humanity, humility, subtlety and eloquence and totally devoid of poetry and magnanimityHisham Melhem
The awaited savior
President Trump spoke as if he is the long awaited savior of the American Union from the ravages of corrupt, ossified political elite at home, and a confederacy of freeloader allies fattening themselves at the expense of an ageing America. He projected himself as the strong leader that transcends political parties and special interest, the man of action who will enter into a direct compact with ‘the people’ over the heads of their representatives in Washington, thus “we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American people”. Thus, unabashedly spake Donald Trump.
President Trump’s inauguration speech was exactly him: bombastic, crass, lacking in grace, humanity, humility, subtlety and eloquence and totally devoid of poetry and magnanimity. He could not but look sullen in his moment of victory. He could not force himself to acknowledge the presence of his vanquished Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton who won almost three million votes more than him, and who sat stoically wondering what might have been. President Trump was not expected to act presidential, but his crudeness and rudeness knew no bounds. For a true outsider to rail against the entrenched political establishment and special interest groups in Washington is commendable. But for a deeply flawed and compromised man, who is an integral part of the financial establishment in New York, who brazenly abused the system to avoid paying taxes and to stiff his contractors, and a pathological liar with autocratic yearnings to boot, to claim the status of the outsider is to revel in a sea of hypocrisy. Donald Trump, who put his hand on Lincoln’s Bible and solemnly swore to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, is the same man who has been waging a relentless war on the American media, and by extension on our basic liberties enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution.
The few presidents that soared
Most American presidents use their inaugural addresses to soar in search of that political northern star to guide the country into new territories of prosperity, in times of peace, or reaffirming national unity and strength in times of war. But most of them, hard as they try don’t deliver, and that is why only a handful of presidents delivered speeches that stood the test of time and some of their lines have become our political hymns that we still recite solemnly. America’s third president, the visionary Thomas Jefferson had sought as the candidate of the Democratic-Republican Party who succeeded two Federalist presidents to heal the new political divisions in the country. In his first inaugural speech in 1801 he used 8 words to do that: “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
Two of the greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt served in times of existential wars, and in the case of Roosevelt a great depression. Lincoln’s second inaugural address (1865) of around 700 words was a literary masterpiece, containing the most eloquent and iconic paragraphs ever written by any American president. The hallowed words went a long way to heal the wounded country. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
In the midst of the Great Depression, Roosevelt‘s reassuring words in his inaugural speech of 1933 had a magical effect on a fearful and divided country: “First of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” In the post WWII era, President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address of 1961 stands out for its sweeping hopeful spirit: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” In 1981 and in 2009 both presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama who were elected in times of economic retrenchment and recessions used their inaugural speeches to stress national unity in times of peril and evoke that deep reservoir of optimism that exists in the country even in times of crisis, and both men delivered on their economic promises.
'Bland, cold and uninspiring'
President Trump’s inaugural address did not even attempt to soar to any heights. The language was bland, cold and uninspiring, and to the extent that one could talk about a vision, it was dark and even hostile. The austere speech was striking because it was unlike any previous address. President Trump incorporated some of the worn-out lines from his stump speech during the campaign, and he delivered his address in the tone and style of the perpetual campaigner, only this time he read it from a teleprompter. From the first few lines it became clear that the new president is still wedded to all the views he espoused during his long campaign. It was then that his audience realized that he will drag the United States (and probably the world) into uncertainty, maybe even dark territory.
Trump quickly disposed of any illusions that may have been entertained by some in the establishment that he will mellow or moderate some of his stark views or shed some of his sharp edges. Trump made it clear that he will not rule according to customs nor will he be constrained by political traditions and assumptions. Typically, the new president exaggerated his diagnosis of the problems facing the nation, be they economic, political or strategic, just as he embellished his ability to solve them. But what was most astonishing in the speech was Trump’s brazen comprehensive indictment of the whole political establishment in Washington since the Second World War, including the work of all his Republican and Democratic predecessors most of whom sat few feet away from him, along with the entire leadership of both parties in congress. Trump barely mentioned his immediate predecessor Barack Obama, but he ignored his democratic opponent and never mentioned any previous president, and did not try to reassure those who did not vote for him that he will be their president too.
Trump barely mentioned his immediate predecessor Barack Obama, but he ignored his democratic opponent and never mentioned any previous president, and did not try to reassure those who did not vote for him that he will be their president tooHisham Melhem
The scene in front of the capitol was unprecedented: a 70-year old president the oldest ever to start a new term, who had never previously been elected to any political position, nor served in the armed forces (he got military deferments to avoid serving in Vietnam), delivering a speech that amounted to a coup against the political establishment in Washington and the economic/strategic legacy that the US had built in the world following its victory in WWII, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization NATO, an organization that Trump denigrated repeatedly before and after his election.
The speech contained exaggerations, untruths and lies that Trump and his supporters have been repeating since the beginning of his campaign. Trump’s description of a crime ridden America is inaccurate, since crime rates according to many studies have been declining in the last two decades. Trump’s claims that the US have been enriching foreign industry at the expense of American industry is wrong, since America’s major corporations have been reaping great profits from globalization, although American workers have seen some of their jobs migrating overseas. However, automation and increased technical efficiency are the main reason for the loss of many American jobs. Ironically these technical innovations increased America’s industrial output to heights never seen before. President Trump’s assertion that America has gutted its military capabilities is baseless, given that the US spends about $600 billion a year on its military, more than the next seven largest world militaries combined.
President Trump did not dwell much on specific foreign policy issues or conflicts, except stating that we “we will reinforce old alliances and form new ones - and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.” The reference to old alliances could be interpreted as a vague assurance to those who fear that Trump will weaken or even abandon NATO, and the reference to new alliances is probably a message to Russia. Trump’s use of the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” is to draw a distinction with President Obama who avoided these references because he thought that they would reinforce the narrative of the terrorist groups in Muslim countries. But certainly uniting “the civilized world” against such groups will touch a raw nerve in Muslim majority countries since it could be interpreted that these countries may not be seen as part of this civilized world, given Mr Trump’s overt hostility towards Muslims, and his opposition to their entry into the US.
Throughout his campaign Mr Trump made the phrase “America first” a central theme in his foreign policy. He made it the unifying vision of his America in his inaugural address. The ‘America first’ theme has deep roots in American isolationism and anti-Semitism going back to the 1930’s when a movement sympathetic to Nazi Germany known as The America First Committee was established to put pressure on president Franklin Roosevelt to keep the US neutral in the war. Although Jewish organizations asked Trump to drop the phrase, he refused.
Candidate Trump, maybe because of his obsession with ‘America first’ and the need for the country to pursue first and foremost its economic interests, never invoked the principles that animated other American presidents of spreading and defending human rights abroad. President Trump stressed that point in his inaugural speech very clearly. “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example. We will shine for everyone to follow.” His admiration of autocratic leaders like Russia’s President Vladimir Putin reinforces his lack of interest in advocating the values of human rights abroad.
If president Trump implements the ‘vision’ he announced in his inaugural address, he would be conducting a transformational coup against most of what his predecessors have built or supported since the end of the Second World War particularly the system of military and economic alliances including NATO, the European Union and the special relations with countries like Japan and South Korea. Trump’s ambivalence towards the EU, which borders on hostility, and his constant questioning of NATO’s validity and viability including his strange refusal to recognize NATO’s role in helping the U.S. in Afghanistan, and his apparent acceptance of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and ambivalence towards German Chancellor Angela Merkle, all fit perfectly with president Putin’s hopes and plans. We may see a new entente emerging between the US under Trump and Russia’s Putin, we may enter a new period of uncertainty where old assumptions are shattered, and where old allies could become disenchanted, neutral or even adversaries and old adversaries turned new allies or warm friends. These scenarios and possibilities could become the realities in Trump’s world. To get a sense of these stark possibilities, compare the triumphalist and festive mood in Russia following the ascension and inauguration of President Trump, with the mournful atmosphere engulfing the capitals of the European Union. This may be a new world, but certainly it is not a brave new world.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem