‘Mobilizing’, ‘Populist’, ‘Rebellious’: Valdai Experts Assess Trump’s Inauguration Speech

Donald Trump’s inauguration speech on January 20, 2017 sent shockwaves across the whole American political spectrum and caused powerful repercussions internationally. In a series of interviews with valdaiclub.com, the Valdai Club experts shared their impressions of the speech.

James Sherr, Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), London

Donald Trump has not proclaimed the launch of a new administration, but a new regime. Traditionally, presidential inauguration speeches heal what presidential campaigns rupture. They reaffirm the fundamentals of the American compact and the vision of the Founding Fathers: liberty, democracy, justice, the continuity of institutions and the rule of law. Trump ignored all of these things. His speech was mobilising but not uplifting. It was stamped with personality, but devoid of character. Its appeal was not just populist, but Manichean: the people vs the establishment, America vs foreign countries that profit at its expense. Its defining theme, ‘America First’, was once the rallying cry of those who refused to criticise Hitler or come to the defence of those he threatened abroad. Trump is the first post-war president to reject any US responsibility towards the liberal international order that his predecessors did so much to build and defend. His narrow and blatant nationalism is both an opening to Russia and a challenge. To Europe’s embattled democracies, it offers no comfort at all. It should remind everyone that American isolationism can swiftly become aggressive.

Daniel Treisman, Professor at University of California, Los Angeles

It was a classic speech in the patriotic-populist mold. The enemy is clear—within the US, it is the “Washington establishment,” the politicians who are “all talk and no action.” Internationally, the enemy is “radical Islamic terrorism” along with all those countries who want to violate America’s borders and ‘steal American jobs.’ The hero of the speech was “the people.” With the fervor of a Zhirinovsky, Trump promised ordinary Americans that: “You will never be ignored again!”

All this fit strangely with the image of his friends and cabinet appointees crowded on the steps beside him, an unprecedented collection of billionaires and right-wing zealots, turned out in the finest suits and designer dresses. But on Inauguration Day, people always want to believe rather than to question, and Trump gave listeners the rhetoric of unity that warms American hearts. At the same time, he did go further than in previous speeches to oppose “prejudice,” labeling it as un-patriotic. "Whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots.” The message for other countries was also clear: although the US is not out to pick fights, the motto will always be “America First.” So others should get in line.

William Wohlforth, Daniel Webster Professor of Government at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire

Donald Trump used his inauguration speech to tell America and the world “I am a populist, a nationalist, a protectionist.” The speech contained no sense of America as a leader of a liberal order, as a country that differentiates between traditional democratic allies and other potential partners, that has any lessons to teach other countries, that owes any duty to any higher liberal and democratic principles in its foreign relations. It contained no inkling that free and unfettered trade can bring prosperity, that helping other countries can be in America’s enlightened self-interest, that this country and the rest of the world share a common fate. Does this mean that America will rebel against its own liberal international order? I think not—the order is robust, and contains a lot of support in the US elite and in Trump’s own cabinet. Even if our new president truly wants to break with 70 years of internationalist engagement, it won’t be easy to tear down what America and its partners have built up over so many years.

Thomas F. Remington, Goodrich C. White Professor of Political Science

President Trump’s inaugural address was brief and general. Like most presidents’ inauguaral speeches, it offered bold rhetorical flourishes but little indication of substantive direction. Its tenor was populist and nationalist. It echoed some of Ronald Reagan’s themes but with more belligerence and bravado. There were only two themes relevant to foreign policy, one the declaration that the US will destroy ISIS, and the other the statement that the US will not seek to impose any ideological vision on other countries. The speech was not isolationist but it was a marked departure from either neo-conservativism or liberal internationalism. It is notable that Trump did not blame enemies, foreign or domestic, for America’s problems.

So, this address gives no guidance as to what Trump’s actual foreign policy will be. The realities of governing will constrain what he can do. Like many of his predecessors, he may find that he will need to pull back from his more extreme campaign promises. On the other hand, Trump enters the presidency with some alarming personal qualities: he is impulsive, ego-centric, and singularly uninformed about and uninterested in the substance of policy. The early period of his presidency might therefore see a variety of erratic and ill-considered initiatives, until the administration finds its footing.

Richard Weitz, Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute

Trump’s speech sounded more like a campaign speech than anything else (“winning like never before”). It was populist, nationalist, and “minimalist” rather than overtly isolationist. He did not promise to make the world safe for democracy, bear any burden in the defense of liberty, or make any commitments other than to deal with other countries on the basis of mutual national interest, especially in destroying “Radical Islamic Terrorism,” and make the United States a shining model for others to emulate, though without any U.S. demands, expectations, or help.

Some if its rhetoric was unique (“American carnage”), other familiar from an era long past (“America First”). He called for massive infrastructure building and a military buildup but was again unclear how he will pay for it. “Buying American” is tricky when so many products include some U.S. content but also some non-U.S. components and labor.

His critique that the U.S. political establishment had forgotten about people’s concerns about jobs, education, and personal safety certainly resonated among my neighbors in the crowds watching the speech on Capitol Hill even if reality—with falling unemployment and crime rates under the departing Obama administration--suggests otherwise. But there were also thousands of protesters fearful about losing their rights and liberties, so the new President will have to deepen his engagement

Still, I remain optimistic about a likely, if possibly short term, improvement in Russian-U.S. relations. Trump’s indifference to democracy promotion, human rights, and search for new partners must resonate among a Russian government that has denounced such U.S. policies for decades. There is no evidence that Trump has backed off from his Russian-friendly stance of his campaign despite all the criticism these views have received even since his election.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.