Last week, Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States. A man of a surprisingly blunt language and the one who is not shy to speak his mind on issues some regard as far too controversial, he managed to shock the “correct-thinking people” once more. His inauguration speech will not be remembered for its eloquence, nor for its relatively short length, but for the astonishingly direct and forceful way in which he denounced the political establishment as self-serving and corrupt. Yet instead of asking and discussing if Trump was right and correct in what he stands for; which is a task fitting for democratic societies, mainstream media resorted to denouncing him in a myriad of inventive ways.
As TV cameras captured the inauguration spectacle for the rest of the world to see, the Democratic and Republic grandees present on the same tribune as Trump were left gasping for air as the new President started speaking about “a small group in our nation’s Capital” that “[has] reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.” The speech broke many other taboos too as Trump expressed support for patriotism, putting “America First”, and returning power back to the people from Washington D.C. His speech was also full of action and strong, muscular pronouncements of the sort that have largely disappeared from the vocabulary of Western societies. Liberal commentators in a sort of reflexive snap reaction referred to them as “paternalist” or “authoritarian” or some combination thereof.
Donald Trump’s highly contested inauguration speech
Trump could hardly save himself from a harsh judgement even when he added that “whether we are black, brown or white, we bleed the same blood of patriots.” Bleeding and patriotism are certainly not two words that our delicate Western ears are used to hearing: we live in societies that are fine with sending drones and professional military to blow up people in other parts of the world, but we shy away from references to anything too primal and violent in our own backyard.
No country for old men (questioning the status quo)
So unsurprisingly, the thunderstruck reaction of the establishment to which Trump pointed out quickly followed. Ross Douthat at New York Times called Trump’s speech “populist and combative” and “eschew[ing] the rhetoric of liberty in favor of expansive promises of protection” (Douthat 2017) and “veering towards fascism” (Douthat 2017). Gary Younge in The Guardian was more poetic in saying that “fear and malevolence” and that “[t]he hands that once grabbed pussy now have access to the nuclear launch codes” (Younge 2017). The Guardian’s editorial chimed in to label it “a sham” and “a declaration of war on everything represented by these choreographed civilities” (Editorial 2017). Trump’s nods to lack of prejudice were called insincere (why?), his arguably bleak depiction that America is facing as “sketching dystopian landscapes”, and his lack of wishing good health to hospital-ridden George H.W. Bush and his wife as a proof that the man is “not capable of being magnanimous” (Abramson et al. 2017).
Meanwhile, others were more ingenious in pointing that “many lines in Trump’s address were unobjectionable by themselves”, yet “it was hard to take Trump seriously when he said them” (Larison 2017). The Washington Post then put the final nail in Trump’s ready made coffin: the new President was “furious and resentful” the first moment he walked into the White House (Parker et al. 2017).
In other words, the new President’s inauguration speech was branded as dumb, nationalistic, xenophobic, bigoted, populist, aggressive, or even white supremacist. Trump’s credo to put “America First” seemed to have taken particularly many hits as either “egoist” or plainly “malicious” (Pehe 2017). Neither the support for patriotism or giving back power to the people were spared this journalistic version of waterboarding treatment: commentators made a stunning revelation (!) that also North Korea celebrates patriotic devotion (and, “therefore”, Trump must be same as Kim Jong-un, right?) and that people’s champions are also Hugo Chávez, Reccep Tayyip Erdoğan and Viktor Orbán.
Let me be clear: what is staggering is not that politicians, journalists, or different commentators make these judgments or go to such depths in attacking Trump. Where freedom of speech exists, that is everyone’s perfect right and, for journalists, even a duty of exposing what they see as important for the public. The truly shocking thing is that a large majority of these authors express their opinion without any further qualifications or a semblance of analysis. Since what time is protesting against the power of elites “aggressive”, since when patriotism turns one into a North Korean dictator, and since when appealing to democracy is only an attribute of dubious demagogues? Where are the standards of balanced journalism, when Barack Obama, the only American President who was permanently in war during his two terms in the office and who regularly resorted to extrajudicial killings of American citizens by drone strikes, is regarded by the same media as a perfect embodiment of Western liberal democratic values? Is that not the clearest example of “disinformation” and propaganda that we have recently started blaming squarely on Russia?
The much lauded objective journalism of the mainstream Western media, often contrasted to “fake news” of RT or Sputnik, thus seems to favour throwing around labels and accusations without evidence, publishing defamation reports written by private contract agents that did not pass intelligence vetting, and ad hominem attacks that regularly depict Trump as an unstable raging monster. If one regularly reads these reports, one has to wonder how such a man can even hold a pen for two minutes without drooling from his mouth, firing an aide for being the wrong colour of skin, or ordering to build a high wall here or there; because it is just in his despicable nature to be an aggressive xenophobe. Inevitably, the underlying assumption is that “such a brute” could have been elected only by the same kind as him.
Is the only alternative to liberalism really a dystopia?
Seemingly, there is a deeply ingrained conviction among the liberal elite that Trump‘s words about the rotten establishment are lies, vulgar, or both. It is as if some believe that direct naming and shaming is not appropriate for an inauguration speech, that if at all present, it should be wrapped in the thick plastic of polite phrases and nice words, and that only mild references should be made to “problems” “we are currently dealing with”, but in no way question the nature of the system. Because that is impolite, that is not correct to the reality, in one word, that is populist. Or is it not? Is it not the purpose of politics, and even more so of democratic politics, to speak to the people and with the people in a frank language that is understandable to all? In other words, build a link between voters and speak in a manner that directly identifies the problems that a society is dealing with? Trump’s critics should get this one absolutely clear, since by attacking him for his remarks in the inauguration speech, they are attacking many democratic and republican values (in small capitals!) as well. It only seems many have forgotten such values exist, because they got so much used to liberalism being the only set of ideals repeated on the public channels.
Very few critics stopped and asked if there is actually anything problematic per se with Trump’s key promises to return power from Washington and with putting “America First”. Do they really mean anything but a belief that the chief American politician should make the interests of his citizens the main priority, before any other private, sectoral, or foreign interests? Should this not be the role of every politician, to represent the people who elected him or her to the office? Have we not diverted from these fundamentally democratic values, have we not channeled too much power in the hands of the far too few and this caused the popular backlash? In the anger unleashed at Trump, there are far too many ideological assumptions to be tackled one by one. What seems clear to me is that we should question whether making the interests of one’s citizens the main priority automatically means jingoism and egoism on the international stage, whether patriotism cannot also strengthen society rather than just exclude people, and whether pointing the elites for greed is demagoguery or just telling what is necessary and evident.
Contrary to the great orator Obama, Trump is blunt and rejected American exceptionalism
It is clear than in any Western country, Trump’s open and unabashed strike at the elites and their interests in his first address as President would cause an uproar. In the United States, it represents nothing short of a political thunderstorm. Presidential inauguration speeches in the United States are traditionally highly ceremonial and it is presumed that the new President will “embrace” the whole nation and “heal” political divisions after the previous year’s campaign. Thus even from Trump, most commentators expected a more conciliatory tone than the one he had adopted during his tub-thumping presidential campaign. Secondly, there are certain recognisable symbols that traditionally make America “the America”, which people anticipate in an inauguration speech, and which can be roughly summarised as the values of American exceptionalism. Together, this makes for a broad consensus that the content of such address should be positive, forward-looking, and America-leading, in other words, in line with the American Dream that is about better future for all who work hard enough.
Barack Obama, ever an excellent and polished orator, fulfilled these expectations perfectly. While his 2013 inauguration speech is vague on political priorities, it is uplifting and interwoven with references to Bible, the Founding Fathers, Civil War, equality for all, eradicating poverty, or spreading democracy from “from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East”. There is hardly a single negative statement that would not be subsequently beaten by Obama’s vision for a brighter future.
Trump made very little of that and he was rather plain and simple in his promise to return power to the people from the establishment as well as put „America First“ and in belief that „nation exists for its citizens“. He also spoke in darker tones about crime, problems with financing education, worker layoffs, unfavourable trade deals, or lack of border control. And crucially, he abandoned the concept of American exceptionalism and spreading democracy abroad, which represents a revolution in American foreign policy without a precedent in the last 80 years. Instead, Trump explicitly mentioned that while standing up for his country‘s interests first, it is the “right of all nations to put their nations first”.
Trump therefore broke from the usual presidential tradition both in content and in the manner of its delivery. But note this is exactly what his electorate demands and what he was elected for. Should he break that promise and become “a nice speaking liberal politician”, as many people seem to demand? For the American citizens who chose Trump, the plain and crass speaking real property magnate is “tribune of the people” and his uncouth style is precisely what gives him the aura of authenticity – in a stark contrast to the politically correct, yet haughty, corrupt and Teflon-like Washington establishment. While Barack Obama is a great orator and a man of beautiful words, a problem with beautiful words is that they carry a big potential for their own kind of vulgarity and outrageousness. Such vulgarity arises if politicians and the establishment speak nicely and in familiar smooth terms, yet nothing results from their actions and one sees that the rich are getting richer while the brunt of the costs is taken by ordinary citizens.
Donald Trump may well turn out to be a demagogue who made too many promises that reflected more his sky-high ego than what was politically achievable. But he also may not. The fact that as a populist he responds to popular expectations and promises to “tackle” self-serving Washington, disappearing jobs, or unfavourable trade deals does not mean these causes are wrong in themselves. Or that they will necessarily end up in failure. After the decades when a US President after US President pursued the same liberal policies and they did not work, surely the best course in politics is try out an alternative. Let us start judging the new American President based on that, let us scrutinise whether what he says makes sense, and let us point out what cannot work and why it cannot work. If he re-opens Guantanamo and reinstates atrocious torturing techniques that disappeared thanks to Obama, then that is a subject for protests and strong critique. But they require argumentation and scrutiny, and not personality attacks and flat-out rejections of Trump’s calls for patriotism or returning power from Washington.
Is such approach not more appropriate for democratic societies than a plain old witch-hunt?
Abramson, Jill; Paarlberg, Michael; Weinstein, Jamie; Thrasher, Steven W. (2017): ‘He’s already let America down’: the reaction to Trump’s first speech as president. Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/20/reaction-to-donald-trump-speech?CMP=fb_gu, updated on 1/21/2017, checked on 22-01-17.
Douthat, Ross (2017): Trump’s New-Right Politics of Solidarity. In New York Times, 1/20/2017.
Editorial (2017): The Guardian view on Donald Trump’s inauguration: a declaration of political war. In The Guardian, 1/20/2017. Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/20/the-guardian-view-on-donald-trumps-inauguration-a-declaration-of-political-war, checked on 22-01-17.
Larison, Daniel (2017): Trump’s Inaugural Address. In The American Conservative, 1/21/2017. Available online at http://www.theamericanconservative.com/larison/trumps-inaugural-address/, checked on 21-01-17.
Parker, Ashley; Rucker, Philip; Gold, Matea (2017): The first days inside Trump’s White House: Fury, tumult and a reboot. In The Washington Post, 1/23/2017. Available online at https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/the-first-days-inside-trumps-white-house-fury-tumult-and-a-reboot/2017/01/23/7ceef1b0-e191-11e6-ba11-63c4b4fb5a63_story.html, checked on 1/25/2017.
Pehe, Jiří (2017): Amerika na prvním místě. In Novinky, 1/24/2017. Available online at https://www.novinky.cz/komentare/427297-komentar-amerika-na-prvnim-miste-jiri-pehe.html, checked on 1/24/2017.
Younge, Gary (2017): Trump’s first speech in office was unapologetic appeal to nationalism. In The Guardian, 1/20/2017. Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/20/trumps-first-speech-in-office-was-unapologetic-appeal-to-nationalism, checked on 21-01-17.