The old order changeth: by God it does. So how can we begin to make sense of Donald Trump? On the evidence of his speech, he and sense live in different universes. Inspired by the majesty of their office, almost all new Presidents try to express an inaugural generosity of spirit: in victory, magnanimity. Although they know that the unity will not last, this is a moment for ‘my fellow Americans.’ On this solemn national day, even if there is an element of hypocrisy, partisanship is put to one side. So let us be fair to Mr Trump. In that respect at least, he cannot be accused of hypocrisy. Yet there is one ground for cautious optimism: a further one for assuming that his Presidency may have a lasting significance, though not necessarily a favourable one.
The optimism is based on the new Cabinet. Horrified enough already, the sillier liberals are also lamenting the composition of team Trump: stuffed with white billionaires in later middle age; much the richest Cabinet in US history, and probably the oldest as well. The rest of us may find that encouraging. The average billionaire did not make his money by accident. His success proves his ability and he will be used to authority: I say to many thousands go, and they goeth. To put it mildly, Mr Trump’s plutocrats are unlikely to lack self-confidence, though by their age, it should be tempered by experience. When these characters speak, they expect to be heard and take it for granted that they will be worth hearing. If the new President wants an echo-chamber, he has chosen the wrong people. Long ago, before the ravages of inflation, Enoch Powell said that whenever he saw a millionaire, he felt like falling to his knees and thanking God. Perhaps we should now thank God for Mr Trump’s billionaires.
At the beginning of a bull-fight, the bull charges into the ring, master of all it surveys. Might that remind you of anyone? For the next few minutes, he terrorises sundry banderilleros, without suffering much: a bit like a successful election campaign. Then a bell makes a sinister sound. On horseback, the picadors have arrived. The bull charges them too, but in these wet times, the horses are protected by mattresses. So the picadors start work with their spears. That bell was the bull’s death-knell. Can Mr Trump’s Cabinet act as picadors? Without going as far as bull-fighting metaphors, some shrewd friends of mine who know a number of the new appointees and who are not Trump partisans have all been pleasantly surprised by the calibre of his choices. It will be needed.
As for the lasting significance, the raw anger of the Trump speech – the raw everything – makes it harder to analyse what is happening. For this is not just about him. There are deeper tides at work; the melancholy, long withdrawing roar of the post-war order. On the edge of destruction, out of ruins and chaos, but inspired by heroism and sacrifice, the statesmen of the West created new safeguards, new institutions. Bretton Woods, NATO, to an extent the UN (though the Americans were often exasperated by its performance): the US was prepared to use its wealth and power to underpin its leadership and to become the hegemony of the West. Under that aegis, mankind crawled away from the abyss. Western Europe recovered more completely and more rapidly than the starriest-eyed of optimists would have predicted in 1945. From the mid-Sixties, this new order was under strain. Vietnam: even an empire as great as the US could suffer from imperial overstretch. As long as the Cold War lasted, the stresses did not become fully apparent. Even as it ended, George Bush senior could talk about a new world order, with the implicit assumption that the US would lead it. In reality, that was as illusory as George 111’s ministers’ belief that they could continue to rule the Thirteen Colonies. There was no order; there was no longer a hegemony.
That said, it would be absurd to underrate the potency of the American economy or its powers of rejuvenation. The Presidential race distracted everyone’s attention from that by concentrating on economic and social problems in the hard-hat states where Donald Trump’s anger caught the mood and which decided the outcome. The decline of Michigan and Pennsylvania demands an American version of Kipling’s Recessional. Sixty years ago, their mighty industries bestrode the globe like dinosaurs in their pomp. Today, they are almost as fossilised. Then again, Pittsburgh, a classic example of the ravaged rust-belt, is also a great university city, spinning off high technology – and there is an irony. Named after its progenitors, the leading university is called Carnegie-Mellon, thus linking the era in which the US became the world’s strongest economy with the new knowledge-based industries which are now the basis of American economic strength.
But there is a difficulty. Back in the fifties, the old smokestack industries provided what Americans call middle-class families (we would describe them as working-class) with a high standard of living. Although these Yanks may have gone to work in overalls and hard hats, many of the European middle-classes who wore suits would have envied them. Those days are over. That prosperity has melted away. Donald Trump has no idea how to restore it.
There is a recurrent problem. If we know anything about economics, it is that free trade creates wealth and prosperity. But there are always losers. It is in the nature of human affairs that the gainers are ungrateful: the losers, discontented. Thus it is in America today. Nor is this just an American weakness. During the Nineteenth Century, apart from the franchise and Ireland, trade was the most troublesome issue in British politics. The Corn Laws, Tariff Reform: trade issues broke up two Conservative governments. Free Trade is a creed which is attractive to sophisticated elites who, as it happens, will be personal beneficiaries. As such, it is perennially embattled. Most of mankind is not part of a sophisticated elite.
To be fair yet again to Donald Trump, that is not a claim he would make for himself. Indeed, he would regard it as a profound insult. That is why he is President, and there is a further non-economic factor. In America, discontent has been exacerbated by a further onslaught on the industrial workers’ self-esteem. While their jobs are threatened by economic liberalism, their country, as they see it, is under attack from cultural liberalism. Hank Hard-hat and his wife are worried: they would like their kids to go to college to quip themselves for the new jobs, but where is the money to come from? To cheer them up, the TV news is full of stories about rich kids at Harvard or Yale – or Carnegie-Mellon – demanding lavatory ‘rights’ for transgender students. It is easy to see why people like the Hard-hats feel nothing in common with contemporary American liberalism. It is also easy to understand why they hate Hillary Clinton.
Up until the Vietnam War, American liberalism, though often assailed from the right, could have claimed to be a muscular creed. ‘Compassionate at home/ Strong oversea/Good enough for Roosevelt/Good enough for me’: liberals could draw on the political – and moral – legacy of the New Deal. But since President Nixon, the liberals having been struggling to retain their reputation for patriotism and their appeal to the middle ground. Because of Watergate, Nixon made a false start. Reagan quickly picked up the baton. Roosevelt Democrats became Reagan Democrats. Today, Liberalism has almost become a dirty word, its patriotism constantly impugned, appealing only to elites and minorities, with nothing to say to the flag-saluting ordinary joe who wants the sort of job that his father would have taken for granted: the sort of civic culture, ditto.
Donald Trump ought to have had no appeal to Americans like that. Their values are rooted in decency. What can he offer decency? He has now both inherited and created a divided society, in danger of succumbing to blue/red political antagonism. He has aroused expectations which he cannot fulfil. To be fair to him for a third time, this was not an exercise in cynicism. Judging by the speech he was sincere: God help us. So we have the threat of protectionism and trade conflicts, in a world economy already over-burdened by debt: the danger of contraction, when we desperately need growth. At a time when the world needs American leadership and American help to think out a real new world order, there is little likelihood of either. We can only hope that the Cabinet can persuade him to see sense.
‘The old order changeth.’ After uttering those words, the dying Arthur set off for Avalon, asking the grief-stricken mourners to pray for him. Perhaps prayer is all that is left.