Euan McColm: ‘America first’ is a dumb example to follow

Trump delivers his provocative inaugural address at the Capitol in Washingon DC. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/Getty
Trump delivers his provocative inaugural address at the Capitol in Washingon DC. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/Getty
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It was grimly compelling, wasn’t it? Donald Trump’s speech after being sworn in as the 45th President of the United States was so ostentatiously awful, so devoid of class or statesmanship that one could only despair that this punk, this lousy huckster duped so many Americans.

Before Trump made his entrance at the inauguration, television cameras lingered on former presidents gathered to witness proceedings. So dreadful is the prospect of President Trump that I looked at George W Bush and wished it could have been him, instead.

A popular delusion since Trump won, last November, has been the belief that he would, on taking office, somehow stop being a puffed up braggart and bully and become a statesmen worthy of the position he holds.

This metamorphosis did not transpire. Instead, Trump delivered without question the worst speech to have been heard at a presidential inauguration. It was petty, it was isolationist, and it was dumb.

President Trump says he wants to make America great again. On Friday, he made America look stupid.

That this ridiculous, graceless oaf should now be one of the most powerful men on the planet is an embarrassment to the USA.

Trump’s rambling address was a masterclass in how not to rise to an occasion. His predecessor, Barack Obama, looked on, his presence throwing into sharp focus just how dreadful the new president is.

The spiv in the White House is now a hostage to his undeliverable promises. Having risen to power by relentlessly attacking what he characterises as the betrayal of voters by politicians, Trump now faces the inevitability of his own failure to make good on his claims.

We have witnessed the sordid consequences of a “new” politics which doesn’t thrive on ideas but on cheap, rabble-rousing populism. Of course, there is nothing “new” about this technique: it has been the practice of demagogues throughout history.

Trump – just like the Ukip and right-wing Tory champions of Brexit – feeds on fear and insecurity. He has succeeded by telling voters that, yes, they are right to be angry, they are right to be scared.

It may be tempting to write Trump’s election off as an anomaly, to reassure ourselves that good sense will soon prevail and more moderate figures will rise in response to him. This is not an inevitability. Trump has lowered the bar for what is acceptable in political campaigning and we should not be at all surprised if his presence in the White House ushers in a new era of divisive populism. There may, I fear, be worse than Trump to come.

Here in the UK, Trump’s fellow nationalists of the anti-EU campaign have previously suggested that having wrecked our trading relationship with the rest of Europe, we are now in the position to strike new deals with the US and others. One wonders how interested the new president with his America “first” rhetoric will be in making life easy for British exporters.

Trump’s election became possible because of real – if often unfocused – anger at what voters saw as an isolated establishment; people felt ignored and left behind by “elites”.

Similar sentiment is strong among British voters. The pro-Brexit campaign promised easy solutions to the frustrations of the electorate.

I’m bound to say that, though the rhetoric may be markedly different in tone, the pro-independence movement in Scotland uses the same technique.

Just as Trump attacked the American political establishment for being out of touch and Ukip rounded on the UK’s mainstream parties during its campaign to take us out of Europe, the SNP points to Westminster as the source of any and all of the problems facing Scotland.

The election of Trump should give us pause for thought about politicians who offer quick fixes.

The SNP is now engaged in a new campaign to build support for a second independence referendum. Brexit will be so economically damaging to the UK, they say, that only a break from our neighbours on these islands will protect Scotland.

But, behind that message, lies the reality – pointedly ignored by senior Scottish nationalists – that we benefit disproportionately from our place in the UK. An independent Scotland would, according to the Scottish Government’s own figures, face a financial black hole of around £15 billion a year.

Those who disdain Trump for his ignorance of reality should be equally concerned that the SNP cynically chooses to pretend the financial cost of independence would not devastate services.

It strikes me that this is a good time for those voters in Scotland who consider themselves to be progressive to consider whether the rise of the right in England marks a good time to abandon voters, south of the border, who may wish to see a more moderate politics prevail once more.

Is now the time to isolate ourselves or should there be a new drive to unite against the darker, angrier politics that’s gaining momentum?

Of course, the SNP insists that its is a gentle, “civic” nationalism, but a barrier between people is still a barrier, no matter how tastefully it may be decorated.

It is deeply unfashionable to be an outward-looking political pragmatist, these days. To identify as such is to mark oneself out as a member of the “metropolitan elite”.

Populists dismiss those who deal in nuance as ineffective and distant but the alternative they offer is division.

Twenty years ago, the rise of “third way” politics seemed to signal the end of old battles between left and right. It promised an end to the politics of extremes and a future where those of differing views might meet in the middle to find political solutions to the problems of the day. That centrist approach may not now be fashionable but its objectives remain admirable.

As Trump takes his place on the world stage and English nationalists drive the UK to the right, we can react by turning our backs on the whole damned mess or we can do something more difficult – we can reach out to others and unite against these dark forces.