For more than two centuries, the United States has seen carefully choreographed ceremonies that mark the peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next. While presidential campaigns throughout American history might be characterized as tense – admittedly to varying degrees – the inauguration affords the incoming president the opportunity to heal some of the wounds caused during a contentious election season, and to unite the country as the republic opens a new chapter.
It is customary to extend an olive branch to the vanquished party, token gestures to opposition voters and an optimistic message of national reconciliation. Candidate Donald Trump ran a presidential campaign that ignored many of the conventions and traditions that have been the bedrock of American democracy, and he remained consistent in that approach after taking the oath of office.
From "Shining City" to "American Carnage"
President Trump began his inaugural address by drawing clear distinctions between prosperity celebrated in Washington, and the financial struggles of many American families. He spoke of an "establishment" that defended its own interests at the expense of working men and women (or the "forgotten man") across America. The 45th president painted a dystopic vision of the United States in which inner-cities are infested with crime, drugs and gang warfare, while Middle America is blighted by rusting factories, decaying infrastructure and idle workers whose jobs have been shipped overseas. Those who followed the Trump campaign will recognize these familiar tropes.
Trump ran on a platform that would put an end to all that plagues the United States, so it is unsurprising that he doubled down on these themes in his first speech as president. Trump vowed to bring back jobs and secure the U.S. border with Mexico. He promised to build roads, bridges and railways across the nation. And he committed to achieving all of this using "American hands and American labor."
These lofty goals would be difficult to achieve in a vacuum, but far more challenging in today's globalized world. A policy of "hire American and buy American," for example, is a recipe for higher consumer prices and uncompetitive U.S. businesses.
In addition, Trump failed to acknowledge the political reality in which he will have to operate. Major infrastructure projects are expensive, and he will encounter Republican budget hawks in the Congress unenthusiastic about running up the federal debt to finance these initiatives, despite the obvious need for them. The narrow majority that Republicans hold in the Senate will necessitate a White House that is willing and able to find common ground with Democrats in order to advance its agenda. Lost in all of the pomp and circumstance of the inauguration was the fact that this president lost the popular tally by more than two million votes, so it is critical that Trump to begin building bridges with those who have opposed him to date.
In Trump's most optimistic moment, he declared that "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." This is a laudable sentiment and should be the president's north star in repairing the deep fissures in his country.
A Return to Fortress America?
The polarizing impact of Trump's ascension is not limited to the domestic audience. Indeed, the new president gave allies around the world cause for concern as he spelled out his approach to foreign policy:
"We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it's going to be only America first, America first."
In a single speech, more than 70 years of post-WWII international order have been consigned to the dustbin of history. In the Trump era, alliances are no longer a given, but will have to be earned based on the perceived value an ally brings to the table. There are certainly benefits to conducting limited transactional diplomacy, but in an increasingly volatile world, abolishing the framework for stability seems ill-advised at best, catastrophic at worst.
Europe should be prepared to question the dependability of the American security umbrella going forward. It should view the relationship between the White House and the Kremlin with the appropriate level of suspicion. And it must be sensitive to efforts by the Trump administration to align itself with those who seek to undermine the strength and unity of the European Union.
The Known Unknown
Every American president from George Washington to Barack Obama faced challenges that were unforeseen on the day each man swore to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." In this case, ISIS and North Korea are undeterred by Trump's bluster, and have only benefited from his hawkish rhetoric. Dictators around the globe will exploit America's retreat from the world to test the new president's redline for intervention. And emerging democracies will have to figure out how to navigate an international system that is no longer infused with America's drive for liberty, human rights and pluralism.
This notion of the unforeseen was best encapsulated in 2002, by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld who famously introduced the term "known unknown" into the political lexicon. Whether the United States will face an economic crisis, terrorism or an international conflagration is unknown, but it is certain that the country will be tested. The "known unknown" is a term with which Trump should quickly become acquainted, since it has the potential to turn his "America First" agenda upside-down.