Opinion

Donald Trump's inaugural address was great

Can his presidency measure up?

President Donald Trump's inaugural address was a great American speech.

He delivered a greatest hits of American mottos, from Theodore Roosevelt's doctrine of action to Franklin Roosevelt's admonition against fear. He echoed Bill Clinton's promise that whatever's wrong with America can be fixed by what's right with America, even riffing on Bubba's signature line about feeling your pain. Trump summoned Ronald Reagan's familiar invocation of the shining city on a hill. But he also brought back the tropes of an older America, one where grinding struggle and reversals of national fortune defined the spirit of the age. For Trump, "America first" is once again not a principle of vanity or greed, but of grim necessity.

So Trump rebuked the great Americanism of what, until Election Day, had been the country's comfortable class. But of all America's animating themes, one went conspicuously missing from Trump's speech. Despite a lifetime promoting "the art of the deal," Trump abandoned the language of bargaining to address our nation of bargainers. Of all the talk of greatness, our American-as-apple-pie vision of "great deals" was utterly absent.

That silence was thunderous.

"You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement," our new president told the people, "the likes of which the world has never seen before." And indeed, for the first time in living memory, public sentiment in the United States — down to its roots as a commercial republic — has turned against commerce as an organizing principle of unity. Tocqueville observed that Americans experienced "a kind of heroism" in "their way of doing commerce;" with "heroes and gods" receding from cultural view, they "really only [got] excited by the sight of themselves." Our cult of competition, which long tended toward conformity for the very many and breakthroughs for the very few, kept hold over the American spirit through good times and bad. As secularism and individualism increased, our identity as a primarily commercial people threatened to become the sole fixed point in our hearts. But now? It too has been disenchanted.

How could that happen? On Trump's telling, it's simple: betrayal. "The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world." America's commercial elites exploited the people, shattering what has so long been the core of our identity. No wonder the present moment, despite our remaining advantages, feels defined by such fractious, aimless, and depressing "American carnage." No wonder the people's demands — and horizons — have been lowered so dramatically to the basics. Talk about grim necessity: "Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. These are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public."

But we can never withdraw from the world in reaction. For, regardless of our policies, the character of America, more than that of any other nation, colors the character of the world. In a darkening, more hostile world, the American people need more than deliverance at the lowest, most primal level. They need to rebalance control of the technology of commerce away from their deeply misguided elite. It is not globalization that ails us, but a specific form of global commercialism rooted in the biggest speculation by the fewest players on the biggest bubbles — inside bets around intangible phantoms like the minute-to-minute market value of basketed debts and branded algorithms. The first step to making America great again is to reorient commerce and its instruments — from transportation to energy, on Earth and beyond — around "real Americans" in the literal sense: flesh-and-blood human beings, sharing our lives in the physical world, for whom money and science must forever be servants, not masters.

This is the imperative that follows from the logic of Trump's speech. Daunting as the odds may be, they should focus our minds — and hearts — in the difficult years to come.

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