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The Trump(et) Sounds

21 Jan 2017

Well, Donald Trump is now officially our president.  He delivered an interesting and a bit controversial inaugural speech yesterday, which I would like to try my hand at analyzing.  Before I do, may I mention others’ comments on it.  George Will called it “a most dreadful inaugural address” (National Review Online, January 21, 2017) and for reasons I will touch on.  The editors of NRO were less hard line, summarizing it this way:

“Trump’s inaugural address was successful in expressing nationalist values but not in setting forth a plan of action that would actually serve the nation. It will be up to conservatives, some of them in his employ, to ensure that the same is not true of his administration.” (NRO, January 21, 2017)

So there have been varying opinions even among conservatives.  Among liberals, the rhetoric has been predictable.  Chris Matthews of MSNBC said the speech possessed a “Hitlerian background.”  ABC’s Terry Moran told the viewers that Trump’s speech contained “anti-Semitic overtones.”  On the other hand some pundits also saw it as a brilliant and/or bold speech.  

Which was it, the epitome of a evil demagoguery or a bright vision of the flourishing future?  In my opinion, it was neither.  The speech was I thought well-delivered on the whole and whoever helped write it (or wrote it) knew exactly the right words to entice Trump supporters.  That being said, the speech was pretty thoroughly populist and nationalist.  But before some readers rail at me (some will rail at me for any opposite statement), I will say that populism and nationalism, or what I prefer to call patriotism, are not always unalloyed evil.  A proper sense in any democracy of the idea of the “consent of the people” is not a wrong-headed concept in itself.  We can see a long tradition of this idea, from John Locke to the Founding Fathers and beyond.  Of course democracy has its problems too, and that is precisely where populism also becomes problematic.  This has been well-documented and analyzed by many writers, not to mention even those who allowed for it to some extent at least, like James Madison or Alexis de Tocqueville, or later thinkers who saw the problems with mass democracy, first in Europe and then in America.  It seems pretty self-evident that what “the people” want is not always the best.  But Donald Trump did appeal to the angst and passions of a large segment of the “deplorables” and his inauguration speech would certainly have resonated with them.

One of those ideas that resonated was patriotism, expressed partially in the phrase “make America great again.”  Trump stated that he wished to promote the interests of America first and America only (Europeans and others using our funding must be a bit miffed right now).  This part of the speech will find expression in economics (protectionism and tariffs) and in foreign policy.  And though many of “the people” agree, the policies flowing from those economic and foreign policy shifts may not always benefit America in the long run–or be the right thing to do.  A proper sense of patriotism is healthy. We have no reason not to be proud of our nation taken as a whole in every way.  And we certainly must, for the good of the people, be careful about policies that harm or undermine its security and prosperity.  One can argue that when patriotism goes too far, it turns into nationalism, but I don’t tend to define nationalism as equivalent to a bad ideology that is always associated with totalitarianism.  Nevertheless, patriotism or nationalism can turn ugly and I hope President Trump doesn’t go too far.  And I do hope he understands the differences.

As for populism, understood as a kind of ideology similar to trends in the past, for example, in the late nineteenth century in the United States and in Europe at various times,  Populists are not always associated with mass democracy–in fact the populism of late nineteenth century America was  not the same thing as the move for mass democracy, the latter which touted by Progressives.  But still, as I said above, “the people” are not always right.  Just because some majority votes for or supports a candidate or issue does not of course mean that the aggregation of their preferences makes their collective conclusion objectively and morally right.  That ought to be obvious.  Therefore, every time Trump supporters agree with his policies will not translate into good policies.  Hopefully Congress will help check that sort of excess.  But, that does not mean on the other hand that the “people’s” preferences are always worse than the “political elite.”  In fact, the elite too often seem not to have the best interest of the common people in mind.

To add a quick point, the problems associated with nationalism and populism are to some degree, sometimes a great degree, ameliorated by the existence of a constitution–in this case, THE Constitution.  Such a document, though alterable by the people (and thus consistent with the principle of popular consent) is not easily alterable.  And while it allows for a democratic process, it limits the extent of democratic rule while at the same time limiting the scope of elite authority–the best of both worlds.

In the end, the rhetoric of President Trump’s speech was a bit too strident for me.  But neither was it an abomination.  It did communicate some important ideals.  But its potential excesses will be likely be restrained by other institutions.