President of the forgotten
There was a slight drizzle as Donald J. Trump delivered his inaugural speech before a rather enthusiastic crowd whose size became the subject of some debate on the first working day of the new US presidency. The skies were overcast. The slight wind made a cold day colder. All in all, there was a hint of the surreal in the day.
The new President’s enthusiasm did not seem undeterred by the murkiness of the day or the volume of dissent that gathered on the horizon. He spoke with his usual conviction. His eloquence was not compelling. The Boston Globe, for instance, described the inaugural speech as “not only mediocre, but stunningly bad.”
But his message was clear. President Trump repeated over and over for emphasis the phrase “America First.” It was the hallmark of his campaign. Now it will be the hallmark of his presidency. It has been the message that brought him here, before the nation’s Capitol, to assume leadership of what seems to be a nation divided.
“Hire America, Buy America,” Trump proclaims unrepentantly. It is a protectionist message sending chills to emerging economies across the globe. But for his base, it is a nationalist clarion call. It is the rallying cry as well as the formula for making America “great again.”
The United States is not about to be dislodged as the world’s strongest economy. Parts of America’s industrial base may have been rendered uncompetitive, but the nation remains the leader in high-technology goods, in the creation of content for all media, in financial services, as well as in design-intensive industries. However, the decline of the old industrial sector did produce an underclass of blue-collar workers. That underclass constitutes the hard core of political support for the sort of message that Trump articulates.
There may be two Americas: the thriving urban economies driven by new technologies and new lifestyles, pitted against “Middle America” composed mostly of white working-class people producing basic things like coal and cars. Trump is president of the latter America. He is seen as the savior of a faltering industrial economy, the one that would resurrect the Rust Belt and make it the engine for a nation that wants to be “great again.”
This is the reason Trump’s messaging may seem at least dim, if not outright dark, as the day the inaugural address was delivered. He needs to overstate the decline in order to emphasize his role as redeemer. This is why he visually compared the idled factories to tombstones lining the land.
Trump panders to his base. This is why, on the second working day of his presidency, he withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership even if it was Washington that spearheaded this free trade initiative. His base distrusts trade, and blames imports for America’s decline and immigration for the tighter competition for jobs.
We hope that after Trump reassures his base, he will begin reconciling with global realities. The world cannot afford an America staring at its navel. We are more comfortable with an America fully engaged with the rest of the world, shaping the large trends and defending the values we all abide by.
If America under Trump might be disinclined to engage with the rest of the world, the rest of the world will not want in trying to engage America. Germany’s Angela Merkel sounded positive when she said Europe would seek out opportunities to cut deals with Trump. The Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte was more than positive, inviting Trump to attend the Asean summit we are hosting.
No doubt, Trump strikes a nationalist chord in the policies he espouses. He is staunchly pro-American and that appeals to an important section of voters, especially among the white middle class that now feels vulnerable. He understands nationalism as limiting trade and minimizing America’s international role.
He can yet be convinced, however, that a nationalist can also become a patriot, one who recognizes that trade can be of mutual benefit.
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