Editorial: Trump’s address to Congress

US President Donald Trump fleshed out his ‘America first’ agenda in his address to the US Congress last week, but in a more measured, presidential tone than his statements hitherto.

His landmark speech attempted to transpose his hard-line campaign promises into a presidential key. However, the themes he touched upon were very much of the old Trump hue, but in a much more restrained and detailed explanation of his worldview. While pledging a renewal of the American spirit, Trump criticised the recent threats against Jewish community centres and condemned the seemingly racially-motivated killing of an Indian immigrant in the US.

These were politically correct statements that his audience and the public wanted to hear. However, there was no mention of his previous statements regarding Muslims, blacks and Latinos, which arguably reeked of racial and religious profiling.

Even this brief foray into political correctness did not stop Trump from reiterating his hard line on illegal immigration. He outlined his economic policies in less inflammatory terms, earning sustained applause from the Republicans but a deathly silence from the Democrats, still sceptical about how the contradictory aspects of these policies would be reconciled fiscally.

Trump proposed introducing an Australian-style merit based system to reduce the flow of unskilled workers into the US, without engaging with the weighty argument that in fact such labour was a requirement of the US economy. Far from taking away American jobs, as Trump has consistently argued, such immigrants fill the void by taking up relatively low paid jobs that US citizens are not interested in.

This is a well known phenomenon in most developed economies, but admitting that would knock a big hole in Trump’s rhetoric about bringing jobs back to US citizens. He did offer an olive branch to his critics by holding out a possible bipartisan compromise with the Democrats on immigration reform. But until the details of this offer are available, it is difficult to believe he has abandoned his misplaced campaign rhetoric about immigrants taking away American jobs.

President Trump’s maiden address to Congress attempted to grapple with the multiple crises and historically low approval ratings he has managed to engender after less than two months in office. Phrases such as “a renewal of the American spirit”, “new national pride”, etc, smacked of an attempt to reclaim the badly battered authority of his office and correct course on some of his more outlandish pronouncements.

While past President Abraham Lincoln was quoted to justify protectionism, Trump did soften his criticism of NATO partners and vowed to work with allies in the Muslim world against terrorism, in particular Islamic State. But there were no apologies for emphasising a world order centred on the nation state.

This harks back to an era of every country for itself, in sharp contrast to the relative stability and prosperity ushered in by a global multilateral architecture since the end of the Second World War. Making compassionate noises about cutting taxes for the middle class and ensuring paid parental leave did not move his opponents.

The latter’s scepticism can be summed up in the attitude that the devil is in the detail and implementation of the attempted softer pitch of Trump’s well known tilting at all that the US, and arguably the world, have stood for over decades.

After listening to Trump’s speech to Congress, one is little wiser exactly what he wants to do (contradictory stances being part of the problem) and how he intends to get there. The best advice for the American people and peoples all over the world therefore appears to be to batten down the hatches, hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst.