Donald Trump’s graceless start is in danger of raising expectations that he could never possibly meet

The new President’s vituperative, aggressive and divisive style is bad news for those who wish America well, but it is also bad politics

Saturday 21 January 2017 19:04
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President Donald Trump sits in the Oval Office, before signing approvals for the appointment of Generals Mattis and Kelly to his first Cabinet
President Donald Trump sits in the Oval Office, before signing approvals for the appointment of Generals Mattis and Kelly to his first Cabinet

The new President of the United States sought to stamp his personality on the office from the start. Despite saying “we are one nation”, he used much of his inaugural address to attack an “establishment” that had betrayed “the citizens of our country”.

Despite paying tribute to the Obamas, saying they had been “magnificent”, he implied that they were part of “a small group in our nation’s capital”, a group that “has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost”. Donald Trump even led an ovation for Hillary and Bill Clinton at a lunch after the inauguration, saying: “I have a lot of respect for those two people.” Yet instead of trying to bring a divided nation together, a nation more of whose citizens voted for his opponent than for him, he used his inaugural speech and his first actions to divide it further.

“We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action, constantly complaining but never doing anything about it,” he said, appearing to confirm his disdain for the occupants of the two houses of Congress with whom he will have to work.

One of the first actions of the new staff in the White House was to change the President’s website. He did not take down the pages dealing with LGBT rights and climate change – the Obama White House pages were preserved and archived – but the changeover was certainly abrupt.

Trump calls critics 'enemies' at inauguration ball as he vows to keep his Twitter account running

Meanwhile, the new President signed a largely symbolic order giving federal authorities the power to delay or waive requirements of Obamacare, the previous administration’s healthcare policy. And all US ambassadors were sacked with immediate effect, leaving the new administration unrepresented in many countries where a replacement has not yet been lined up.

“The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans,” Mr Trump said in his first speech as President. But the speech itself contained no attempt to reach out to or to reassure the 54 per cent of American voters who cast their ballots against him. Many of them will hear in the rhetoric of “America First” a version of the nation that excludes them.

The world, and the American people, should be used to this pattern by now. Many people assumed that the vituperative, aggressive and divisive Mr Trump who campaigned in the Republican primaries would moderate his tone and his policies for the general election. Then it was thought that he might seek to build bridges with his opponents after he won the election on 8 November. He certainly gave a notably generous victory speech, and was almost meek when he visited the Obamas in the White House. But his combative spirit continued to assert itself, especially on his Twitter account, and now his inaugural speech read as if it had been compiled from a series of 140-character messages designed to provoke those who doubted him.

This is bad news for those who believe that free trade enriches America and the world. But it is also bad politics. Mr Trump is in danger of raising expectations that he cannot possibly meet. He spoke of the problems afflicting America, poverty, poor education, “crime and gangs and drugs”. And he said, twice: “That all changes – starting right here, and right now.”

Signing a vague order about Obamacare that will make no immediate practical difference to a single American does not constitute “all change”. Governing a nation of 300m people is an immensely complex and difficult business. Significant change takes years of application to bring about. Most of Mr Trump’s supporters know this, and are prepared to wait a while. But he is bound to disappoint them, not least because his espousal of protectionism is bad economics.

Then he will find that he needs a wider circle of allies than he has acquired so far. Magnanimity in victory is not just good manners, it is good politics. Mr Trump is going to have to find that out the hard way.

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