Sunday, January 22, 2017

Putin on the Ritz: Trump’s Inaugural is a Kremlin Smash

Steve on the Trump Inaugural address...

Much has been made of Donald Trump’s unpredictability and inconsistency, but give the man his due: he has consistently and predictably refused to learn anything from history. Historically, newly elected presidents have used their inaugural address as the critical moment to heal the wounds of divisive presidential campaigns, to articulate a vision for the future that binds Americans in common purpose, and to send a message to the world of America’s unceasing role as champion of democracy and freedom. Above all, it is their moment to signal their understanding that they have made the leap from candidate to president.

I suppose I would have been pleased had Trump given his best shot at any one of these messages individually, but I must admit to disappointment – though not surprise – when he whiffed on all four.

If Donald Trump had any historical perspective that Inaugural Addresses are exercises in unification and elevation, he ignored it.

Rather, the 45th President of the United States viewed his inaugural address as the epic finale to the multi-city stadium tour that was the hallmark of his campaign. He viewed the Capital building as, like, wow, an awesome venue in which to wrap up this season of The Donald, Live! Trump’s inaugural address was the stale fish wrapped in yesterday’s tweets. The only real news was that the isolationism, anger, and ignorance that got this man elected would now be cast forth as the official policy of the United States of America.

Somewhere in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin was hoisting a vodka to his world-class team of hackers, and toasting that the new United States – isolationist, defensive, belligerent to friend and foe alike – was the glorious outcome of their long efforts. Why, Putin probably noted with his customary KGB charm that he couldn’t have written Trump’s speech better himself.

And for all we know, he did.

What more could Putin have possibly wished for? The new President bluntly sent forth a message to the international community that the United States had too many ugly problems of its own to waste its time or money trying to fix everybody’s else’s messes.  That the people of the United States were sick and tired of getting screwed in global trade by all the nations on earth.  That the United States spent too much time worrying about the borders of other countries and not enough on its own.  That we were going to rebuild our military so we could hastily fix any thorny, complicated, and nuanced global hot spot the good, old-fashioned way. In the Donald’s own words:

“We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it's going to be America First. 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 great prosperity and strength.”

Note carefully how our new President has lumped our longest and most loyal allies in with every banana republic, dictatorship, competitor, and hostile adversary in saying that his new decree will be heard in “every foreign capital.” Hey, you – Beijing, Mexico City, and you, too, London, Paris, and Berlin -- listen up! We are tired of getting beaten up by you sleezeballs!

Could Putin have possibly wished for more? Here was the President of the United States announcing to the global community that its citizens were tired, laid low, and desperately in need of protection from conquering hordes, that its infrastructure was collapsing, its educational system hopelessly dysfunctional, and that it was simply not rich enough and needed to institute policies in order to keep more of the world’s wealth to itself.  Das vidanya! The new President even ended his speech by essentially conceding that America is not all that great… that it needs to be made great again!!

As fate would have such things, I was actually sitting in one of those “foreign capitals” – Vienna, Austria, to be precise – when Donald Trump launched his presidency with his aggressive and unapologetic “America first” inaugural address.  Most puzzling to my hosts that evening was the message that the United States of America was the grievously weakened nation the new President described. Most people had the sense that by traditional measures – the stock market, unemployment figures, steady economic growth – the United States was once again surging if not nearing new heights. They seemed to say that had Trump’s speech been delivered in 2009, there might have been a relevant context, but that the notion of a terribly vulnerable America --an America routinely pillaged if not brought to its knees by shrewd and unprincipled international competitors – simply did not square with the reality so easily observed and so readily apparent.

Please, let me take a moment and be clear about what I am criticizing. Donald Trump said some things we all welcome… notably a desire to dramatically improving our infrastructure, which he lustily declared was a superior investment to wasting billions of dollars overseas.  I could hope that his reference was to the idea that George W. Bush wasted billions of dollars initiating war on a phony pretext in Iraq, and we should have used that money instead to fix our schools, interstates and hospitals. While one could have inferred that this was in part what the man said, there is the wholly separate matter of the gestalt of what domestic and global audiences heard.  Rather than appear to be a comment on the wisdom of the ways we spend money overseas, Trump’s words seemed to be an indictment of the wisdom of spending money overseas, period.  The theme line “America First” did little to mitigate this implication.

All of which why it is so important to think about Donald Trump’s inaugural address through the lens of his own perception of the unique context in which it was written and delivered.

In fact, the circumstances at the moment he placed his hand on the Bible have never been witnessed in American politics: the Russian hacking scandal, the rogue actions of the FBI Director, and a shockingly large deficit in the popular vote have, in concert, created a profound question about the very legitimacy of his presidency.  I am not suggesting for a moment that action should be taken or even contemplated to address the underlying issue of his legitimacy. But there can be no doubt of widespread anxiety in the American population that nefarious forces have, in concert, shifted the outcome of the election in such a way that this President does not reflect the majority will of the nation.

Were Donald Trump a man of stature and vision, he could have startled us all by acknowledging this very fact in his inaugural: that his Presidency was narrowly won in a divided electorate and then challenged by a swirl of controversy. Imagine how impressed we’d all have been if he had announced that his very first goal to assure the nation that he intended to win the faith and trust of all citizens.

But this man, Nixonian in the manner that he is riddled by insecurity and feels routinely belittled by the press, desperately needed to begin his Presidency with a re-assertion of its validity. There should be little surprise that he felt a need to go back on the campaign trail and finish the job once and for all at just the moment that he needed to begin his journey on an entirely new and higher path.

Inherent in the need to re-litigate the case was the need to re-enter his closing arguments into testimony. So Donald Trump went back to the applause lines that played in the stadiums. He invoked the concerns about our borders, the worries about immigrants, the loss of jobs to foreign nations, and he painted a picture of a hopelessly flawed and failing nation.   While no government on earth, at no time on earth, has ever been fully immune from sharp criticism about its ability to fully meet the needs of his citizenry, Donald Trump painted a picture of a nation in calamitous free-fall at a time when its economic vitality and global stature were robustly rebounding from the disasters of the Bush presidency.  

As he had throughout the campaign, Trump found it convenient to blame the rich and privileged moneyed class and career politicians for the plight of the unemployed and underemployed, somehow not quite squaring his outrage with the reality that these numbers now stood at historic lows. But blame he did – blame those billionaires who don’t pay their share of taxes, who hire undocumented workers, who don’t pay their bills and who game the system to make a buck off the little guy. You know…. People like, uh, Donald Trump.

In the end, all we witnessed yesterday was a cheap rhetorical trick.

Donald Trump needed to fabricate a benchmark so low that his own presidency would be measured favorably.  

He needed to frame a situation so dire that he could claim a mandate for radical change… be it in our immigration policy, our trade policy, domestic security, or our willingness to act in concert with other nations to address the dangerous disputes and rivalries that fester around the globe.

He needed America to look bad to serve that far more critical purpose of making The Donald look good.

Ah, irony. Trump does not need to invent reasons why America does not look good right now in all those foreign capitals.

After all, we elected Donald Trump.

And, yes, there’s a guy in Moscow who figured this all out a long time ago.

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