The new, presidential Donald Trump we were promised made his debut on Wednesday. It was definitely an improvement— no wild gestures, no sneers, no outrageous remarks. I even found myself in agreement with Trump a few times, as when he asserted that our actions in Iraq contributed to the rise of ISIS. Those moments, however, were outnumbered by half-baked ideas, contradictions and misstatements that originated in either ignorance or willful deception. At least they were expressed in a modulated tone not previously heard. Dressed in a blue suit sans red truckdriver’s cap, Trump sounded and looked like a grownup, rather than a spoiled brat seething with barely controlled rage.
Trump said he wants to shake the rust off American foreign policy. He accused President Obama of gutting the US military. He didn’t mention (is it possible he doesn’t know?) that the American military force is by far the largest in the world; the US spends more on the military than the next 11 countries put together. Weapons, Trump said early in his speech, are our biggest problem, but he also said he wants to add more weapons such as cyber warfare, artificial intelligence and 3-D printing. He identified nuclear arms as the greatest threat, even while criticizing Obama for reducing the nuclear arsenal, demonstrating his ignorance of the fact that the Obama administration has begun a $1 trillion revitalization program.
“America First,” Trump announced, “will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.” Was he deliberately invoking the isolationist, nationalistic and anti-Semitic movement America First of the pre-WWII years? Trump’s past appeals to white supremacists tend to confirm that. It is of course possible that it was Trump’s ignorance of American history that failed to ring a bell warning him away from a slogan with such an odious precedent.
Trump does want to regress to the 40s and 50s when the “greatest generation beat back the Nazis and Japanese imperialists” and the Cold War that followed. At least he understands that it took Republicans and Democrats working together to defeat the Axis powers and eventually win the Cold War.
In his first foreign policy speech, Trump made the obligatory Republican obeisance to Ronald Reagan and reiterated the same baseless charges against President Obama that Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and most other Republicans mindlessly repeat ad nauseum: The President “has weakened our military by weakening our economy.” What they refuse to acknowledge is that since Obama took office, the budget deficit has declined by roughly $1 trillion, and we are in the longest period of sustained job growth in our history. Unemployment, which reached 10 percent in Obama’s first term, is now 5 percent, lower than when the sainted Reagan left office. Under Obama, the economy has recovered from the Great Recession, which he inherited from his predecessor, George W. Bush, significantly faster and better than any of the other major world economies.
Gene Sperling, the former director of the National Economic Council, told the NY Times, “If we were back in early 2009 … with the economy losing 800,000 jobs a month and the Dow under 7,000 — and someone said that by [Obama’s] last year in office, unemployment would be 5 percent, the deficit would be under 3 percent, AIG would have turned a profit and we made all our money back on the banks, that would’ve been beyond anybody’s wildest expectations.” But most people don’t know that because the Republicans have constantly been hammering the lie that the economy is in shambles.
When it comes to thrashing out an international treaty, Trump doesn’t seem to understand the difference between the subtlety and nuance of diplomatic negotiation and the strong-arm tactics he is used to employing in commercial transactions. Sovereign states all have non-negotiable national interests, yet Trump insists, “You always have to be willing to walk.” He equates the achievement of an international accord with the conclusion of a business deal, failing to appreciate the importance of wringing a necessary concession from China or Iran by making a shrewdly calculated concession of our own.
You can take away his red cap and give him a speech and a teleprompter, but you can’t make a statesman out of an egocentric narcissist.