In addition to a loaded slogan–“America First”–and a questionable demeanor, it is now apparent that President Donald J. Trump actually has a governing ideology. His Inaugural Address, the strongest and most coherent speech he’s ever delivered, was a clear statement of that philosophy. It may change the shape of domestic politics. It may overturn the international order that has existed for 70 years. It certainly deserves more than the “divisive” dismissal it received from liberals–and more than the puerile crowd-size diversion that its perpetrator stumbled into during the days after he delivered it.
Here’s the crucial paragraph: “For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidized the armies of other countries, while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military. We’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own; and spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.”
The amazing thing about this litany is that most of the policies Trump criticizes had been peripheral to our recent political battles, at least until he came along. Indeed, the only one that had raised any heat–the “depletion” of the military–is a political fiction. The others, though, have been core assumptions of the leadership in both parties. And Trump is right. It may be time to test them and see if they still apply.
The two most important ones are subsidizing foreign industry and protecting other nations’ borders. The first is about free trade; the second, about overseas alliances. Both are more complicated questions than they’ve been made to appear by those of us in the establishment commentariat.
The traditional argument against free trade is myopic and simple: American jobs are going to Mexico and China. The traditional counterargument is more abstract: the price of children’s clothing at Walmart is much lower now that shirts are made in south China instead of South Carolina. Free trade, it is convincingly argued, has been a financial net plus for the U.S. But there has been a spiritual cost in a demoralized middle class, which leads to an existential question: Is the self-esteem inherent in manufacturing jobs long considered obsolete–think of those grand old steel mills–more important than the lower prices that the global market provides? Have we tilted too far toward market efficiency and too far away from social cohesion? Is there a middle ground? Trump’s insistence on changing the equation brings a long-neglected issue to the center of our political debate. He may be wrong, but the alienation that seems like a by-product of globalization needs to be addressed. A happier people may be worth the cost of higher prices.
The second policy question, on overseas alliances, also rests on shaky ground. No one can gainsay the brilliance of the international architecture that Harry Truman and his Wise Men created, but it rested on two assumptions that may be out of date: the threat of communism and the scourge of European nationalism that created the carnage of the 20th century. There was a real fear of German militarism; even the Germans seemed to fear it. That the U.S. would protect Germany and the rest of Europe seemed an elegant solution–and it was, so long as the threat came from Russia. But the threat now is the tide of immigrants coming from the Middle East. It is fair to ask: Shouldn’t the Europeans spend more on their own defense? Shouldn’t they take a more active role in solving the Syrian crisis? Shouldn’t their militaries be protecting their borders? America’s inability to conduct land wars against militant Islam is manifest. (And perhaps the Europeans should do more to protect themselves against Russian jingoism as well.)
These are crucial questions, without clear answers. It is good that Trump has raised them. It is unfortunate, however, that he is such a defective messenger. His deficiencies were never more apparent than in his grotesque performance at the CIA on the day after the Inauguration. If his vision is to repair the country and stop trying to police the world, what are we to make of this ridiculous statement: “We should have kept the [Iraqi] oil. But, O.K., maybe you’ll have another chance”? And how many American brigades will you need to protect those oil fields, Mr. President?
There is a chance for a badly needed conversation about American priorities now, but only if we’re led by a President who understands what his own priorities should be.
This appears in the February 06, 2017 issue of TIME.