Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the US of A, in ceremonies the pomp and pageantry of which, televised as it were to the entire world, was a majestic show of America’s imperial air.
One wonders though whether the new American president impressed the rest of the world with his brave words. Did he impress Xi Jinping enough, or Vladimir Putin? Did he strike fear into the cruel hearts of the heartless terrorists he vowed to annihilate?
One of course hardly expected soaring rhetoric reminiscent of John F. Kennedy, or of more recent vintage, Barack Obama’s. That would not have been in character with the man America’s electoral college declared their duly elected president.
President Trump was true to himself with the words he spoke. He was still in campaign mode, never for a moment deviating from addressing the constituency that believed him enough to choose him over the politically savvy Hillary Clinton.
There was no attempt to sound more presidential. Unlike the Kennedy speech which many still remember to this day, there was no attempt to address the world, be they friend or enemy. It was purely America-centric. And under his watch, he vowed, America will be more inward-looking.
It will be “America First.”
To stop the “carnage,” which is how he described the plight of the American people under successive Washington-centric administrations, he would stop subsidizing “the armies of other countries while allowing the very sad depletion of our military,” (stop) defending other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own (too bad for Mexico) and spending trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.”
“We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.”
That’s very true, America. Twenty-five years ago, China was exporting only Christmas ornaments to your homes to light up your holidays. Today, you owe the Chinese three and a half trillion dollars. Add to that 1.7 trillion to the Japanese.
(As a result), “one by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores…the wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world.”
“But that is the past…from this day forward, a new vision will govern our land…From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.”
And then the dreaded (by the nabobs of globalization and the free market) segue: “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to greater prosperity and strength.”
“We will follow two simple rules: Buy American and hire American.”
Those fighting words surely warmed the cockles of every unemployed American’s heart. But for how long?
Obama’s face was stern while his successor railed and ranted against the “bad old order.” It must not have been because he did not subscribe to it, but because he worried over the direction Trump’s America would follow. Can he pull it off? Can Trump move back the hands of time?
It was America which led the globe into following a new international economic order based on the law of comparative advantage. It was to the benefit of America’s business that the economic order they foisted upon the rest of humanity assembled, eventually manufactured, the products the American consumer bought.
America became rent-dependent, a landlord exacting royalties from their technology, their creative ideas, their brands, which their big business found more economical to farm out to the “cheap” labor in the “inferior” countries.
Now the countries have prospered; the tables have been turned. And Trump wants to reverse the clock. Will he succeed?
Europe trembled, though their nationalist fringe were excited. Pursued to the max, Trump could begin the breakup of the European Union. It began with Brexit; now Trump will deal the ‘coup de grace.’
But Russia is unperturbed. They have never taken part in these marriages of temporary convenience; they were always considered outsiders by the Europeans anyway. So they will just flex their muscles elsewhere, and with their oil and their gas, they will survive American protectionism.
Japan is worried, and understandably so. Shinzo Abe has been to Washington to be reassured by Trump. Now the inaugural address trumps all the assumptions.
And China? It has a 1.5 billion base of domestic consumers. It has reached out to Asean, and its neighbors to the north and west, even beyond, to Africa and South America. Quietly, it has consolidated its sphere of influence. And America owes it plenty.
I would not be surprised if the Chinese central bankers have been quietly buying gold as a hedge to their dollar holdings. That gives them enough flexibility in playing the currency game they have been winning against the American dollar, the competitive edge Trump hates most.
The world will be in tenterhooks from this day forward.
But at the end of the day, will Trump’s populism triumph over the economic order his America has authored? Can he, as earlier asked, reverse the hands of time?
Will inward mean onwards? Or will it mean backwards?
As his own supporter, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, remarked after listening to the less than 20-minute speech: “If he can deliver the jobs, he will be re-elected. If not, that’s trouble.”
Quintessentially traditional. It’s the votes that count, for a president who won by the skin of his electoral college teeth. But the elections are over. This is the stark reality of an international economic order, and Trump will now have to confront America’s seemingly irreversible pivot to it.