Commentary | 23 January 2017

Donald Trump's focus on home front hardly a surprise

Most analysts of President Trump's inaugural address, especially those in the United States, have stressed its pointed preference for the strident, pungent messages he used to such devastating effect in his run for the Oval Office rather than the soaring oratory used by his predecessors, writes James Curran in the Sydney Morning Herald on 23 January.

  • James Curran

Most analysts of President Trump's inaugural address, especially those in the United States, have stressed its pointed preference for the strident, pungent messages he used to such devastating effect in his run for the Oval Office rather than the soaring oratory used by his predecessors, writes James Curran in the Sydney Morning Herald on 23 January.

  • James Curran

Most analysts of President Trump's inaugural address, especially those in the United States, have stressed its pointed preference for the strident, pungent messages he used to such devastating effect in his run for the Oval Office rather than the soaring oratory used by his predecessors.

If the speech had its own rhetorical flourish it was relentlessly channelled into bestowing on the promises of the campaign trail the legitimacy of the presidential voice. Here was a new commander-in-chief keeping faith with those that elected him, chiselling the new populism into the annals of American history.

In the past, and certainly since the end of World War Two, American presidents have used these occasions to offer a version of the national myth, the idea that the United States has a special mission, a divine providence, to spread its values to the rest of the world. There is a direct line from John F. Kennedy's commitment in 1961 to "pay any price" and "bear any burden" to ensure the "survival and success of liberty" to George W. Bush's declaration in his first inaugural in 2001 which declared that America's faith in freedom and democracy was now a "seed upon the wind, taking root in many nations".

From the outset of the Cold War to the war on terrorism, US leaders have tended to see their country's calling of global leadership in moral terms, a sacred trust that only America can truly fulfil.

Few Presidents in living memory have challenged this nationalist orthodoxy: fewer still have done so in an inaugural address. When Trump spoke on the Capitol steps of a "glorious destiny" for his country, he was not talking about American exceptionalism or military adventurism abroad, but about his desire to revitalise the domestic economy, to deliver for the "forgotten people" who swept him to power.

Similarly, his idea of an America "winning again" was a clarion call to bring back jobs and growth, not the spoils of war, and it was most certainly not a cry for the export of American liberty. To be sure, Trump did pronounce a vision of an America that would "shine as an example…for everyone to follow".  But this was pitched first and foremost at the home front.

It should have come as no surprise that in his inaugural address Trump did not summon forth the American national myth. As the Republican nominee, he ran hard against this deep current of the American national experience. Unlike his Democrat opponent, Hilary Clinton, and many of his Republican challengers, Trump did not speak the language of the Pax Americana. He did not call forth, as did Clinton, the idea of the US as the world's "indispensable nation". There was no reaching back for George Washington, for Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln. His vision of the past has always been about an America that had wilted under the assault of globalisation and its unevenly distributed profits. And so it was in his inaugural address.

Herein lies a key difference in Trump to many of the presidents that have come before him. So much of the talk about the threat he poses to the post-war liberal international order – his seeming desire to trash alliances and dismantle trading regimes –  has missed the point that Trump himself has never identified himself wholeheartedly with the tradition of American exceptionalism that underpins it. True, he initially supported the Iraq war, but his scathing criticism of it during the campaign resonated with an American public genuinely fatigued with the blood and treasure Washington has expended overseas. One of the more emphatic lines in his inaugural was that "we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone".

It is true that some previous presidents have not always drawn on this powerful vision of the country's past and its future. In 1971 Richard Nixon, beginning to face up to what failure in Vietnam might ultimately come to mean, welcomed the fact that America was not in a position of "complete pre-eminence" in the world. And in 2009 Obama seemed to briefly offer his own challenge to the national myth when he confessed that while he did believe in American exceptionalism, he also recognised that other countries, like Britain and Greece, would see themselves in the same way. To critics, Obama had done the unthinkable: putting American nationalism on a par with the nationalism of other countries, thus diminishing its special, elevated purpose.

Australians have nothing comparable to the American experience of nationalism to draw on and they have a natural suspicion of people who claim to save the world or talk about human matters in idealistic terms.

But the question of American nationalism and its fate under Trump is as important to this country as the trajectory of Chinese nationalism in the decades to come. Australians do not necessarily want to see a retreating America, but they won't necessarily agree with the dictates of a crusading one either, especially in Asia. Only time and the sheer unpredictability of international events will reveal whether Trump can continue to remain immune to the siren song of his country's national myth.

If, as do many presidents, he succumbs to its allure, he too will confront the American dilemma: namely the effort to reconcile its deepest beliefs about its national image against its increasingly limited capacity to effect transformative change abroad. In short, America is still too powerful to possess the humility to share the load of global leadership, but not powerful enough to demand obedience from allies regardless of the circumstances. It is a complex balancing act, and one tailor-made for misunderstanding – for both America itself and its allies.

James Curran is Professor of History at the University of Sydney and the author of the recent Lowy Institute Penguin Special, 'Fighting with America: Why Saying "No" to the US Wouldn't Rupture the Alliance'.