Tawdry demagoguery, good first act

The first thing President Trump did in his new job was issuing an executive order to take apart Obama’s awful healthcare plan.

That has improved the bad taste left in my mouth by the vulgar inauguration ceremony and especially Trump’s cheaply populist inauguration speech. The former is unavoidable in a democratic republic: it takes at least a millennium of monarchic tradition to get pomp and circumstance right.

The latter, however, could have been avoided, but wasn’t. On the plus side, Trump’s oration didn’t include openly tyrannical statements, like those Kennedy made in his own inauguration address.

Amazingly, Kennedy’s promise of despotism is still regarded by many Americans as a great speech. Here’s the first such promise:

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Had so many Americans not had the critical faculty bred out of them (Alan Bloom describes this accurately in The Closing of the American Mind), they would have realised that Kennedy was issuing a commitment of eternally escalating imperialism – something, incidentally, that Trump promises to stem.

Then Kennedy thundered: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country!” Allow me to translate from demagogic into English: you are to serve the state, not the other way around. That pronouncement took us back to the politics of ancient Athens, except that a Plato or an Aristotle was nowhere in evidence. Nor, more to the point, was a Pericles.

If Kennedy’s speech sprang from the Enlightenment survival of statism, centralism and internationalism, Trump’s speech capitalised on another bequeathal of that pernicious period: jingoistic populism.

“We are,” declared Trump, “transferring power from Washington, D.C.. and giving it back to you the people.” This is nonsense – unless he meant he was declaring democracy null and void.

Beyond choosing which wing of neo-Enlightenment is going to lord it over them for the next few years, “the people” have considerably less control over their lives in a modern democracy than under the most absolutist monarchies of Christendom.

A ‘democratic’ state presupposes burgeoning centralisation, and a US president has infinitely more power over his citizens than, say, Louis XIV had over his subjects. If Trump doesn’t realise that, he’s ignorant. If he does, but still says it, he’s mendacious.

Trump exacerbated that dichotomy when adding: “What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.” One wonders how, say, a car mechanic in Mobile, Alabama, will exercise his control over Trump’s administration.

“A nation exists to serve its citizens…” Trump and, which is worse, even his advisers are clearly unaware of the difference between ‘state’, ‘government’, ‘nation’, ‘people’ and ‘society’. Such taxonomic ignorance used to disqualify people from high office, but hasn’t for over a century. That’s called progress, in case you’re wondering.

Then on to economics: “For many decades we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry… And we’ve spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay…”

Quite. Some of us have even created global business empires of 500-plus companies with equity investments and licensing agreements worth billions in dozens of countries, including some iffy ones.

China, Saudi Arabia, Duterte’s Philippines, Erdogan’s Turkey and Putin’s Russia spring to mind, but there are also many others where some US politicians have extensive business interests. Let’s not name names, let’s just comment in Franglais: “Hypocritical, moi?”

But let’s not be cynical; perhaps Trump meant his family will divest itself of its vast overseas interests when saying: “We will bring back our wealth, and we will bring back our dreams.” So far most of Trump’s own dreams of wealth have come true abroad – do we take this statement as a promise then?

“Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength,” was how Trump explained his ignorant take on economics. It won’t. It’ll lead to the exact opposite. An ideology, this time populist, shouldn’t trump reason and experience (pun intended).

“From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.” I wouldn’t put it past Trump to be ignorant of the pre-war America First Committee of Charles Lindbergh, Joseph Kennedy, JFK’s father, et al.

That group neatly combined isolationism with anti-Semitism and pro-Nazi sympathies. I’m not accusing Trump of harbouring the last two of these vices – in fact, he’s considerably friendlier towards Jews and Israel than his predecessor.

But if he didn’t mean to sound like a follower of the Ku-Klux-Klan and other nativist groups, which I’m sure he didn’t, then he should have chosen different words.

For example, “American before foreign interests” would have conveyed the same thought without evoking unpleasant parallels. It’s that ignorance again, casting doubt on the supposedly sterling intelligence of Trump’s advisers.

Trump ended with a de rigueur “God bless America”. Now God’s ways are unknowable, and He may well bless the first constitutionally secular country in Western history.

Also I’m sure God in His infinite mercy will even forgive vulgar platitudes and national self-deification. I mean, can you imagine a British PM finishing his maiden speech with “God bless Great Britain”? We only sing “God save the Queen”, and I do hope He does.

All in all, a C- for Trump’s speech, but an A+ for his first act. That gives him a head start on what in his country is called Grade Point Average. Hope he maintains it.

2 thoughts on “Tawdry demagoguery, good first act”

  1. That speech and the comment of Kennedy caused a lot of American young men to lose their lives in Vietnam. Military service was seen as the highest possible form of serving your country but for many the consequences became quite drastic.

  2. Alex,
    It’s John (Joseph Passarello) O’Rourke.
    I’ve permanently deleted Facebook, yet remain your loyal reader.

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