As America starts its new life under President Donald Trump, an awful truth is beginning to dawn. The man who now resides in the White House and leads the most powerful nation on the planet is going to keep his word. He is going to do what he says he will do.
Throughout Trump’s rise, his opponents have waited for him to rein back his more extreme statements. ‘It’s all for show,’ they said, ‘and when reality bites he will have to moderate what he says.’ The expectation was that when Trump the maverick turned into Trump the serious contender in the Republican primaries, he would find a more coherent tone. It didn’t happen.
Then when he became the front-runner and favourite for the Republican nomination, he was expected to turn defensive and modify his more outlandish remarks. This, it was thought, would protect his lead and make sure he did not throw it away. Again, it didn’t happen.
When the presidential campaign started many said, ‘Now he is up against the arch-professional politician in a real contest, and he will have to tack back to the middle ground.’ Nearly all presidential candidates do this – one set of positions and statements for the party faithful, to win the nomination, and then a more moderate set for the wider electorate. But not Trump.
Then his critics said, ‘The presidential debates will find him out. Either he becomes more serious or he will be overwhelmed by Hillary Clinton’s command of politics and policies.’ But he didn’t, and he wasn’t, and the transformation into a more orthodox candidate didn’t happen.
And when – against expectations and all the predictions of the cognoscenti – this most unorthodox style brought Trump his victory, the wise heads consoled themselves with the thought that the reality of office would soon bear in on him.
This reality has not yet surfaced. Perhaps the last opportunity for Trump to wake up to his new responsibilities was his 20 January inauguration speech. Almost all presidents use this set-piece address to heal the divisions of the election campaign and try to unite the nation behind the new administration. It is a time for gracious words for your predecessor, and lofty sentiments for everyone else. For many a president, it is also a chance to craft some golden phrases for the ages.
‘With malice toward none, with charity for all, let us strive on to finish the work we are in,’ said Abraham Lincoln. Franklin Roosevelt offered, ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ ‘My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,’ declaimed John Kennedy. The clarion calls of inaugural addresses contain sentiments that have stood the test of time, and inspire as much today as they did when first delivered.
In comparison, America’s 45th president offered a mélange of mercantilism, zero-sum trade battles and protectionist slogans. In truth, this was not an inaugural address so much as a continuation of Trump’s standard campaign stump speech, and lent heavily on the language of his acceptance speech in Cleveland. It happened to be the speech of Trump the president, but it could have been the speech of Trump the presidential candidate, or Trump the nominee, or Trump the maverick in the early primaries.
Trump has not changed, and will not change. What America sees now is what America will get for the next four years.
John Nugée is a Director of OMFIF and a former Chief Manager of Reserves at the Bank of England.