Updated: March 13, 2018 11:50:52 am
President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address — technically, a joint session of Congress, since he has not yet completed a year in office, and cannot report on its events — has surprised his many critics with its evenness of tone and focus. The speech was shorn of the often rambling, sometimes violent, polemic by which the world has come to know him; there was long-overdue condemnation of the murder of an Indian-American engineer, and attacks on Jewish centres. Perhaps fittingly in a speech that appeared crafted to conciliate the establishment, the President wore a buttoned-up suit, rather than his trademark open jacket and low-hanging red tie. In substantial terms, though, President Trump conceded little. He reasserted his plans to curtail immigration, and to move to a merit-based system that would privilege élite, educated applicants over blue collar hopefuls. He reassured worried allies of his support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, but at once demanded they shoulder a greater share of expenses and operational deployments. He promised greater government spending on infrastructure, paid family leave and childcare support for working families, but also said he would expand military spending, twin aims that are hard to reconcile with his promise to slash taxes. He fanned fear, too, flagging rising violence in the US as a core concern — even though official data shows it has in fact been declining for years.
It is tempting, overall, to see President Trump’s speech as a pragmatist’s repudiation of his election-time baggage. The truth is, however, the address’ core was deeply ideological. Following 9/11, President George Bush had promised that the United States’ “responsibility to history is already clear: To answer these attacks and rid the world of evil”. That commitment, Trump suggested, had led the United States to spend $6 trillion in West Asian wars that had conspicuously failed. The United States, in this vision, is a victim, exploited by ungrateful partners.
This vision of the world is, as President Trump will likely realise, a profoundly ill-educated one: The treasure the United States has spent abroad has upheld a global system on which its wealth and prosperity rests. In years to come, Trump’s promises to revive domestic manufacturing and jobs are likely to be tested, too; many experts believe the real challenges come not from foreign workers, but inexorable processes like automation. As Trump’s plans to usher in a blue-collar renaissance in rust-belt America unravel, it is more likely than not that his supporters will be tempted to again unleash the xenophobic forces that helped sweep him to power. Before taking too much comfort from Trump’s first testament, the world should beware that it is not his last.
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