Entirely predictably, a chorus of commentators was affronted that Donald Trump so brutally violated the convention for lofty platitudes or proclaiming change in stately code in his inaugural address. It was so much better in the days of boomer youth. But was it? .
JFK for instance, in Ted Sorensen’s imposing words of the famous inaugural of 1961, promised that American would “ pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty”.
Here Kennedy was in fact promising to close a so-called “missile gap” with the Soviet Union which in turned out didn’t exist. Weeks later the “burden” was borne not by Americans but by US supported Cuban exiles who landed to face disaster at the Bay of Pigs at the hands of the waiting forces of Castro. Khruschev as a consequence took Kennedy for a weakling and misjudged Kennedy’s resolve in the Cuban missile crisis which brought the world to the brink of nuclear confrontation the following year.
So even much admired inaugural speeches don’t always turn out so well.
There’s a certain exhilaration in Trump breaking all the rhetorical rules. The only surprise lies in the surprise of the mainstream media and Trump’s specific target, the Washington establishment of just about everybody already in politics, mourning for the grace of Obama and fearing loss of status in the digital avalanche of comment and fake news. Trump will try to cling on to the initiative by feeding his insomniac’s Twitter account from the bully pulpit of the White House –as he’s just promised to do.
It would be as well not to underestimate him, as Henry Kissinger the archpriest of realpolitik has just told the Times in his own uniquely stately language (£):
“Nixon was a very conceptual thinker and a student of world affairs, Trump is much more instinctual. And Trump beat 16 professional politicians to the nomination and pursued a strategy “universally decried as hopeless and prevailed. A person who can do that is a leader of some significance.
On foreign affairs which Trump virtually ignored apart from a promise to zap Isis, Kissinger says:
“We are teetering on the brink of a new world order. In the past eight years, the world, no matter what they thought of Obama, believes that America stepped back and in that stepping back, a great part of the world has discovered the importance of a role for America, even if they do not like every manifestation of it. So therefore, Donald Trump has an opportunity… The test of Trump will be to what extent he can use his intuition and the conditions he has created to build a new international order.”
Dr Kissinger envisages a grand bargain with Russia but, most important of all in his opinion, will be Mr Trump’s dealings with China. This, he says, will be “the most critical relationship for peace and progress in the world”.
Tim Garton Ash describes the China factor somewhat less phlegmatically.
“The risk of an accidental naval or air confrontation somewhere in the South or East China seas is far from negligible. And then the question would become: do Trump and Xi have the wisdom, statecraft, sound advice and, not least, domestic political elbow room to step back from the brink?
This is where Trump’s irascible, bullying, narcissistic character could be such a liability. On the other side, the personally much steadier Xi has staked so much of his legitimacy as “core leader” of China’s party-state on his “China dream” (ie making China great again) that he would be under pressure not to back down. Whether the cause is psychological, political or both, so-called strong men often feel they can’t afford to show weakness.
The fear of confrontation is nothing new; it was orthodox through the cold war, whether the president was rhetorically appeasing like Carter or challenging like Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan.
On the dominant domestic side, the liberal Washington Post identifies “ five policies Trump might get right, “tax reform , less offshoring by US conglomerates, greater choice in education to up standards, more defence spending and the big one, massive investment in America’s long neglected creaking infrastructure, “to get America back to work.”
Aside from the little matter of his narcissistic temperament Trump the president is hard to categorise. A big spending programme on infrastructure is pure Rooseveltian New Deal. If it delivers big it could earn him a favourable place in history. On the other hand his incantation of “America First” is pure anti-Roosevelt isolationism and border-line fascist.
Richard Nixon was, yes, a crook but a highly sophisticated foreign affairs operator. Nixon told Kissinger to deploy “ the madman theory” about his boss’s temperament to impress upon the Soviets to deal with him when the going was good, – for later, you never know what he’d do..
So there’s a precedent for believing that Trump’s very unpredictability can be either disastrous or strategic. Time as they say, will tell.