Trump’s inaugural address contained a lot of populist boilerplate and committed to achieving a lot of overly ambitious or impossible goals. One of the more unrealistic pledges he made concerned combating jihadists:
We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones – and unite the civilized world against Radical Islamic Terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.
First, that isn’t going to happen. We have seen that the U.S. doesn’t know how to do this, and it is better at destabilizing countries and creating opportunities for jihadist groups to flourish. It’s not even clear why it should be the responsibility of the U.S. to take on such a mission if it were possible. Trump emphasized that “America first” would be the guiding principle of his administration, but at the same time he committed to some version of Flynn’s multi-generational global war that would condemn Americans to fighting foreign wars for decades to come. One can have a foreign policy that prioritizes American interests, or one can have a global mission to eradicate an ineradicable phenomenon, but in order to have the latter the former will have to be cast aside. The endless, global war implied by this statement has nothing to do with benefiting “American workers and American families,” and it dooms the U.S. to deeper entanglement in precisely those parts of the world that we don’t understand and where our involvement earns us nothing but hostility.
Many lines in Trump’s address were unobjectionable by themselves, but it was hard to take Trump seriously when he said them. For instance, he said, “We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world.” That sounds very good, but it’s incompatible with an administration overflowing with hard-liners that seem to be looking for reasons to pick fights with other countries. Likewise, his populist rhetoric doesn’t square with the people he has selected for his Cabinet or the policies they favor. Some of his more grandiose statements of national purpose read almost like a parody of an activist government championed by so-called “national greatness conservatives” at the start of the century:
We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the Earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow.
In addition to the many unrealistic or exorbitant promises contained in the speech, Trump presented everything in very broad strokes and gave us no sense of what he considers to be his priorities at the start of his presidency. If Trump and his advisers know what they are, they don’t seem to be interested in telling us about them.