Rubin: Trump 'America first' speech won't reassure allies

US NEWS INAUGURATION 39 ABA
President Donald Trump speaks after taking the oath of office Friday in Washington.

President Trump could have used his inaugural speech to soothe the bitter partisan divide that is undermining our country. He could have followed the lead of George W. Bush, who — like Trump — lost the popular vote in a contested election.

In his first inaugural, Bush thanked Vice President Al Gore for “a contest conducted with spirit and ended with grace.” A verbal nod to Hillary Clinton, and to the 66 million Americans who gave her their vote, would have offered hope to those who fear he will damage the country.

Instead, Trump delivered a dark version of his stump speech addressed to “all Americans” but clearly pitched to his base. He thanked President Barack Obama, then denigrated his presidency, portraying a grim America preyed on by immigrants and gangs. He cited “the ravages of other countries” that have “ripped the wealth” from our middle class. This angry populism can whip up his followers but won’t deliver the goods — or heal partisan wounds.

Even more disturbing, his “America first” message to the world promised an aggressive brand of U.S. isolationism that will undermine our allies, and give adversaries a green light to expand their influence. This new Trump Doctrine could destabilize the entire world.

President Trump's inauguration: Our live blog replay.

These two strands of Trumpism — domestic and foreign — are interconnected. On the home front, Trump used classical populist rhetoric, proclaiming that Jan. 20, 2017, was “the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.” But who is “the people”? This kind of terminology is the stuff of authoritarian rulers. 

As Jan-Werner Müller writes, in his new book, What Is Populism?, the classic populist leader “must claim that a part of the people is the people” and that only he “authentically represents this true people. 

Trump’s admiration for autocrats such as Vladimir Putin and his hope to hold military parades on Pennsylvania Avenue give the impression of someone who sees himself as such a leader. So does his classically populist denunciation of the

Washington elite for despoiling “the people” (although, having stacked his cabinet with the wealthy, Trump’s blame game reeks of hypocrisy). 

So the lost opportunity for outreach in his inaugural doesn’t bode well for the future. A leader with the vision and political skill to heal the country’s festering divisions could move the country forward, with bipartisan cooperation, say, on issues like rebuilding infrastructure. But a divisive populist will weaken the country, at home and abroad.

Indeed, foreign leaders were watching Trump’s inaugural as closely as Americans for signals of what to expect from his presidency. Those signals were not reassuring. 

Trump’s mantra, “America first” — on trade, taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs — may sound sensible to many citizens. But his address made clear that the phrase has much more dangerous connotations for America’s economy, and its place in the world.

One of the more astonishing sentences in the speech was this: “Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.” But putting up tariffs and starting trade wars, notably with China, as Trump has suggested, has huge downsides. It will cost millions of jobs and jack up low prices for goods, a fact that Trump never mentions.

Nor did he ever refer, in his address, to the fact that whole categories of manufacturing jobs have been replaced by technology, not China. 

It’s fine to seek better trade deals, but dishonest promises to “bring back our jobs” will lead only to disappointment and create the need to blame someone for his own failures. A cycle of harsh rhetoric against China — let alone trade wars — could have harsh consequences. All the more so since Trump’s positions on China, and that of some of his appointees, have raised talk of potential military conflict with Beijing.

So protection will not lead to great prosperity and strength, but more likely to unforeseen consequences. Populist promises are usually false. 

Trump’s inaugural promises on foreign policy are nervous-making for other reasons. Those who complain that President Obama withdrew from global leadership ain’t seen nothing yet, if Trump’s mantra is, as he indicated, the heart of his foreign policy. Trump appears inclined to involve himself in global policy mainly when it comes to trade and America’s economic interests. 

Yet an American withdrawal from its historical role in world affairs will undermine the stability that this country has enjoyed for seven decades. Into that vacuum Moscow and Beijing are eager to move. Ditto for Iran. 

Yet, as the inaugural hinted, Trump has scant use for America’s traditional allies, with zero appreciation of the values they share with America and their crucial role in protecting U.S. security interests. He is ready to ally with Russia, in the (mistaken) belief that Moscow will help America eradicate Islamic terrorism. In his speech Trump said he would eradicate radical Islamic terrorism “completely” from the Earth’s face. 

Since such terrorism revolves around ideology, not just territory, that is a promise Trump will be unable to keep. 

What’s so scary about Trump’s speech is that it is so full of such promises. A populist has to blame someone when they fail, and the president's inaugural indicates a leader who will maintain a healthy list of enemies. Any hope that he might be a uniter rather than a divider looks dim after this speech.