President Trump’s first inaugural address—there will be a second—was crisp and powerful. In it, he signalled the dawn of a new era in American politics. It is an era of conviction politics that recognizes the primacy of the American citizen and their just claims upon government.
The speech served as notice to the politicians and intellectuals of both parties who have come to see themselves as responsible to the world rather than to America and her citizens. At no point was Trump’s address more uncomfortable for the apostles of a post-American globalism than when President Trump confidently declared, “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first….America first. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”
The consternation was evident on the faces of the ex-presidents as they visibly bit their lips and shifted uncomfortably in their seats. The media response was immediate and predictable: The speech was “dark,” “grim,” “angry,” even “militant.” Equally predictable but perhaps more disappointing was the response from old guard conservatives who demonstrated again how far removed they are from voters and their own growing irrelevance.
Weekly Standard editor-at-large and NeverTrump dead-ender Bill Kristol tweeted the following:
I'll be unembarrassedly old-fashioned here: It is profoundly depressing and vulgar to hear an American president proclaim "America First."
— Bill Kristol (@BillKristol) January 20, 2017
I’m surprised that he didn’t say that such language sounds deplorable. But I’d ask Kristol what does he expect an American president to say? “America second”?
Kristol, like the rest of the neoconservatives he represents, fundamentally misunderstands America and her founding. That school of thought has done more to undermine the cause of liberty in this country than Barack Obama ever could because it sapped the vitality of American conservatism and redirected our national energies in the a destructive pursuit of open borders that devalue American citizenship, globalist trade deals that lead to cronyism and rent-seeking, and foreign military misadventures that cost the country dearly in blood and treasure.
Yet in his over-eager desire to malign the President, Kristol pretends that when Trump says he will put America First Trump is somehow referencing the America First Committee—an organization that disbanded nearly 80 years ago. It is a nerdy attempt to tar Trump by association but instead reeks of sophistry and intellectual dishonesty. Kristol and his fellow travellers would do better to look at the plain meaning of Trump’s words rather than inventing an imagined subtext. America First is a simple statement about the President’s appropriate priorities. Only an anti-Trump intellectual could see this as “depressing and vulgar.”.
To most Americans, hearing their president say he will put America first is a long overdue return to normalcy—a reminder that the President works for us, that our government was established by “We the people of the United State” for the benefit of “ourselves and our posterity.” Americans want and need to hear that their president recognized the primacy of the duty government owes to its citizens.
Not to be outdone by the Weekly Standard, the Never Trump contingent at National Review remains just as opposed to President Trump as they were this time last January when they published their infamous “Against Trump” issue. Jay Nordlinger writes: “Trump’s inaugural address was boastful, huffy, ungracious, half cocked, and demagogic. It was almost certainly the most demagogic inaugural address in our history.” One suspects he wrote his comments weeks or months before hearing the speech. They are just a retread of the now familiar Never Trump lexicon. But how can one say that of a speech that alludes to the Biblical admonition to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those weep saying, “We are one nation and their pain is our pain. Their dreams are our dreams, and their success will be our success. We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.”
The dean of Washington’s coterie of housebroken conservatives, George Will concluded that Trump’s speech “vindicated his severest critics.”
Why? Was it that he unapologetically declared his love for the American nation—its country, its people, and the political institutions of which he is now the chief executive? Or was it that President Trump vowed to make good on his campaign promises and to overturn the post-Reagan political settlement that has seen Democrat and Republican elites join hands in expanding unaccountable federal power, devaluing American citizenship, and the pursuit of economic globalism at the expense of middle America? If so, then fine, that’s what the people voted for.
Donald Trump promised a return to constitutional order by “transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people.” But in this welcome call for a return to the basics of republican government the people currently holding power and influence in Washington heard only a threat to their narrow self-interest.
To people outside of the D.C. bubble, Trump’s speech was bracing, exhilarating even, because it showed a president who intends to govern as he campaigned and who cares more about the commitments he made to voters than currying favor with D.C. elites.
Just government not only relies on the consent of the governed but on an active recognition that it exists primarily to serve its citizens and to advance their interests. Alone among 2016’s candidates, Trump recognized that something has changed in American politics driven largely by the Progressive Left’s notion of an historical dialectic that always promises an earthly utopia just over the horizon and demands rule by “experts” rather than government of the people, by the people and for the people. Unfortunately, too much of that ideology found its way into some influential corners of American conservative thought and poisoned a once vibrant political movement.
That’s what President Trump was referring to when he said “a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people bore the cost.” He wasn’t talking about a secret conspiracy—he was talking about the alienation of the government from the people it exists to serve and upon whose consent its legitimacy rests. The ex-presidents over President Trump’s shoulder grimaced, the media squealed, but the crowd cheered.
But elites of both parties turned their back on those basic principles substituting the idea of the so-called “propositional nation” for the actual American nation, its citizens and their needs. They have preferred what Plato called a “city in speech” to the reality of their actual nation and fellow citizens. They have preferred the theoretical nation to the political nation.
It is true that the Declaration of Independence is based upon the universal and self-evident idea that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” But it only claims to act on behalf of one people—the American people. Likewise, the Constitution created a government based on these principles but it does it only for this country and this people. The Founders recognized what today’s globalists do not—that while they could enunciate universal principles they only had a right to act on behalf of their own citizens. Creating and maintaining a government that promotes both justice and liberty for one’s own nation is a tall enough order.
Donald Trump’s speech spoke to this common sense truth yet on MSNBC Chris Matthews said that Donald Trump’s speech was “Hitlerian” which is hard to square with an address that says, “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example.” He said it not because it’s true, but because yelling “Nazi!” or “Racist!” at people who talk unapologetically about their love for America has worked in the past. It is a way to shut up and discredit people with whom you disagree. It’s nothing more than a despicable virtue-signalling parlor trick that won’t work anymore because people have seen through it.
Perhaps President Trump’s experience as a builder has uniquely grounded him in the real world in a way that is both necessary and refreshing. Our political, intellectual, and business elites have mostly become post-American. This is just where they live, not who they are. Some are devoted to a set of ideas and America is their laboratory, others are devoted to profit or pleasure and America is a good place to maximize both but there is no essential attachment. Missing is the overriding sense of being an American. This sad phenomena is only a generation or two old and mostly infects our elites but it is nonetheless destructive of our politics and culture. It stands as an intentionally created divide between the ruling class who can live anywhere and the country class who wants to and mostly has to live here.
Trump is a rebuke to all of this. His inaugural address was unapologetic pride in this country. It signalled that civic virtue and patriotism will be cornerstones of the Trump era. They are not dead, they weren’t even dormant, but they have been devalued in the halls of power for so long you could be forgiven if you thought they were.
President Trump sounded notes not heard for a long time. He reminds us, as Lincoln did, that we are one American people and that all Americans who share a patriotic love of country and a belief in the principles of the Declaration of Independence have a right to claim a common connection with the Founders “as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration.” For the globalists and the post-Americans these words are parochial artifacts of a barbarous past that they would sweep away. But for most Americans they are inspiration. They called to mind the warmth embrace of kith and kin, of home, and of the enduring promise of America. That probably sounds either treacly or embarrassing to many modern, well educated ears, but this is our country and we love it.
In the age of the participation trophy putting America first sounds selfish, even hubristic, but doing so is the job of the American president. So yes, President Trump, put America first.