David Coates

Unpacking the Inaugural Address of Donald J Trump

The Trump Inaugural Address last Friday was so full of Kellyanne Conway-type “alternative facts”1 that the bulk of the intellectual energy subsequently devoted to it by its progressive critics has been directed towards fact-checking – questioning the new president’s claims on drugs, crime, manufacturing, and the leakage of American wealth abroad.2 And what energy that has not been so directed, has largely been directed instead against the tone and color of the Address – against its invocation of carnage, its dystopian image of the current American condition, and its proximity to a stump speech that divided rather than united the country.3

All that is essential work, but it must not distract us entirely from examining the actual argument of the Address itself. Being a Donald J. Trump speech, that argument takes some unpacking, but at least its major themes were clear at the outset of the Address. They were themes that then framed everything that followed.4

The first was that 2017 must be treated as a watershed moment in American politics because, as the incoming President put it, “we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, we are transferring power from Washington D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.”

“For far too long,” he then told his audience, “a small group in our nation’s capital have 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.”

“That all changes right now.” On this, he was adamant. “January 20th 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became rulers of this country again. The forgotten men and women of this country will be forgotten no more.”

The rest of the address, as was widely reported, then assailed past failures to protect American jobs, American education, American inner-cities, American infrastructure, and American interests abroad. The sources of those failures were not specified – it was an Inaugural Address after all – but the implication was strong that the political class in Washington D.C. bore a heavy responsibility for them. And the Trump solution was clear enough. By putting America’s interests first, by hiring Americans and by buying American, “America will start winning again, winning like never before.” ‘Together,” as he said at the end of the address, “we will make America strong again. We will make America wealthy again… proud again… safe again. And yes, together we will make America great again.”

I

So what could all that possibly mean? Does it mean that the new president sees America’s domestic and international problems as the product of defects unique to Washington D.C. and to the federal government based there? Or does he see those problems as anchored in defects in the American political class more generally, such that business practices rather than political ones should prevail? Or does he understand the problem to be that of elites excluding the “forgotten people” from power, such that a Trump-led “draining the swamp” will usher in a new age of ultra-democratic politics?

If he means all three of those things simultaneously, clearly confusion reigns. But if he means just one of them, we would do well to determine which. Because each problem-specification brings with it a different set of policy-outcomes; and the only important thing that those different outcomes share – at least from a progressive point of view – is that each will be truly appalling in its consequences.

Take the notion first that the problem lies in Washington politics and in the excessive ambitions of the federal government. If that understanding prevails – it is one, after all, that is very popular among Tea Party activists in the Republican coalition that Donald J. Trump now formally heads, and on whose political support in Congress he entirely depends – then the solution seems obvious. It is take power out of Washington and give it to the states. The main undiscussed problem with that, for Donald Trump and his supporters at least, is that red states receive more federal aid per head than do blue states. Cutting off the flow of federal funds to state programs will block the underlying function of those flows under previous administrations – namely that of transferring tax revenues from progressive voters to those wanting a better life by voting for Donald J. Trump. Republican rhetoric may pretend that state government is more democratic than federal government, and closer to the people. But the reality is that voting turnout in state-level elections is appallingly low; that many state seats are so gerrymandered as to be essentially voter-proof; that voter suppression is rampant in many Republican-controlled states; and that the quality of (and resources available to) state legislators is currently so modest that of late Republicans, in particular, have relied on ‘shovel-ready’ legislative drafts prepared by elite groups of conservative intellectuals. (They have relied, for example, for drafts of right-to-work legislation, or anti-abortion provisions, from organizations like ALEC). The paradox here is striking. The alt-Right likes to treat American democracy as something corrupted by secret elite control. Devolve power to the states, and the alt-Right will have its elite manipulation alright – just manipulation that this time the alt-right may actually like.

Alternatively, the Trump critique may be more anti-statist than that –it may be an argument about the need to shrink government in general and to hand over more-and-more of its functions, not to state legislatures, but to private enterprise and to the workings of the market. This kind of argument is likely to have enormous appeal for a man like Donald J. Trump who prides himself on his business expertise, and who early in his campaigns derided the intelligence, as well as the honesty, of the Washington political class.5 Certainly, the construction of his cabinet suggests a propensity to go in this direction – actually welcoming (and citing as a strength) lack of political experience, and success in business, as a criterion for selection to senior positions in his Administration. The main problem with that, for the “forgotten people” who voted for Donald J. Trump in large numbers, is that you end up with a cabinet of millionaires and billionaires, many of whom either inherited their wealth or, if they did not, acquired it by ruthless business practices that added to the misery of Trump’s “forgotten people.” Republicans like to claim that markets work better than elections in signaling people’s policy preferences, because when people spend their money they can see the opportunity-costs of their decisions (they can see the things they are not buying) whereas in elections – including this one – people vote on hopes, unable to be certain of the benefits (or costs) of how they spend their vote. But that is true – markets are democratically sensitive to consumers – only to the degree that each consumer has the same degree of purchasing power. In the markets of contemporary America, that basic equality is missing. Income inequality in America is currently at a level not seen since the 1920s. Markets respond to those with money. If you want to be really forgotten in the markets of modern America, start out poor – and many of Donald J. Trump’s “forgotten people” are exactly that.

There is a third alternative, of course: namely that the “forgotten people” have been forgotten because of elite indifference, and the disproportionate influence on democratic politics of corporate wealth and billionaire greed. But there is nothing particularly Trump-like about this argument. On the contrary, it is an argument developed in the last election cycle by Bernie Sanders as much as by Trump; and in tackling it, the arguments of the Democratic Left seem infinitely more potent than those of the Authoritarian Right.6 As Robert Borosage correctly put it yesterday:

Trump talks about returning government to the people, but his focus isn’t on empowering workers. He’s not for distributing the wealth that has been captured by the very few. He’s not for strengthening unions, lifting the minimum wage, curbing CEO abuses, taxing financial speculation, ending perverse executive compensation schemes that reward executives for plundering their own companies. He isn’t talking about strengthening public education and making college tuition free. And he’s surely isn’t pushing to strengthen the democracy, curb money in politics, end voter suppression or gerrymandered districts.”

Tax-cutting to generate trickle-down wealth, of the kind proposed by Donald J. Trump, will only enrich the already rich, and leave the forgotten people behind once more. Deregulating corporate America will not bring good jobs back – it will simply leave decisions in the market-place ever more firmly ensconced in the hands of the 1 percent of already overpaid American CEOs. Being tough with American business by using tariffs to end outsourcing will only put up prices here, an inflation that the forgotten people will experience as yet more financial pressure. And being tough on outsourcing American companies by developing a strong federally-driven industrial strategy (of the kind now being forced on the British conservative government by the rigors of Brexit7) will simply not be acceptable to the Republicans in Congress on whose co-operation Donald J. Trump entirely depends. There will be no draining the swamp – just an endless challenging of the media’s accuracy as it accumulates real, rather than alternative, facts. “Together,” he said, “we will win;” but with whom exactly will he be “together”?

II

Donald J. Trump likes to blame the problems of his ‘forgotten people’ on gridlock in Washington D.C. and on self-serving politicians there. He rarely – possibly never – gives a party label to those most guilty of this self-serving. Yet in truth, the opposition to the use of federal powers and capacities to help middle-class America has been almost exclusively Republican since 2010, and indeed much earlier. The first major economic initiative that the Obama Administration made, over and beyond dealing with the immediate requirements of the financial crisis it inherited, was the appointment of a middle-class task force headed by Vice-President Biden and charged with finding ways of easing the financial and social burdens of ordinary working Americans. That task-force reported in 2010, although its report has recently vanished from the White House website!8 Many of its proposals could easily fit into a populist Trump-led economic strategy: but they were blocked then, and will be blocked now, by a Tea-Party led Republican Congress wedded to the other two themes in the Trump Inaugural Address – stripping Washington of power, and private markets of regulations. For in this, as in so much else, the Emperor has no clothes. What lies before him, and us, is nothing short of a complete failure by the Trump Administration to genuinely return power to the people. If “the people” want the power returned to them, therefore, they had better look to a different, and more progressive, political formation.

David Coates’ blogs on the second Obama term, gathered as The Progressive Case Stalled, are available on Amazon.9

For something entirely different, and much more fun, see Lying Close to the Sky.10

1 See Rebecca Sinderbrand, “How Kellyanne Conway ushered in the era of ‘alternative facts,” The Washington Post, January 22, 2017: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/01/22/how-kellyanne-conway-ushered-in-the-era-of-alternative-facts/?utm_term=.984787e24614

2 Glenn Kessie and Michele Ye Hee Lee, “Fact-checking President Trump’s inaugural address,” The Washington Post, January 20, 2017: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2017/01/20/fact-checking-president-trumps-inaugural-address/?utm_term=.a482d19ed2ce

3 See, for example, Juan Cole, Translating Trump’s Inaugural Speech from the original German, posted on Facts & Arts, January 21, 2017: available from http://www.commondreams.org/views/2017/01/21/translating-trumps-inaugural-speech-original-german

6 Robert Borosage, Trump’s Perverse Populism, posted on OurFture.org, January 23, 2017: available at https://ourfuture.org/20170123/trumps-perverse-populism

7 Kate Allen, “May’s industrial strategy to back ‘new, active role’ for government,” The Financial Times, January 23, 2017: available at http://en.worldmoneygrid.com/2017/01/23/mays-industrial-strategy-to-back-new-active-role-for-government/

8 The Annual Report of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class, February 2010 is no longer available on the White House website, all reference to it having recently been removed!

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David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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