As an American expat sitting in Tel Aviv and listening to the inaugural address delivered by President Donald J. Trump was a very unsettling experience. I paid attention to his words wearing many hats — American, Israeli, American historian, and that of someone about to go on air shortly afterward to try to make sense of what the freshly-minted president had said. By the time Trump ended his speech, every part of me was troubled. Many have written how poorly Trump’s speech compared to previous inaugural addresses (undoubtedly true). Others expressed concern the President chose not use the opportunity of his inaugural to reach out to the rest of the country — the majority of whom did not vote for him (also true). However, to me, as someone who has divided my life between living in Israel and the US, what frightened me most was Trump’s use of the phrase, “America First,” and the pointed meaning he gave to those words. Trump proclaimed: “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.” He went on to declare: “Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.” In a mere few sentences, Trump undermined the basis of the world system that the US has championed since World War II.
America has always seen itself as more than the sum of its parts. Even from those first moments, when the first colonies were starting, Governor Winthrop of Massachusetts referred to Boston, which was yet to be established, stating: “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” Since then, Presidents and leaders — including JFK and Ronald Reagan — have referred to that as an essential aspect of what it means to be an American. The American role has always been to be that light in the world. In the post-war world, there has been universal consensus that America might be required to make sacrifices (as the strongest nation on earth), in order to ensure that the horrors of the two world wars did not repeat — and though sometimes those sacrifices would result in short time pain, those actions are healthy for the United States as well.
And so, it’s been over the course of more than 70 years, since the guns of World War II were silenced. The world has not always been peaceful, but the horrors of the World Wars have not returned — more importantly, the world and the United States have prospered. The United States GNP (adjusted for inflation) has grown from $2.2 Trillion in 1946 to $16.7 Trillion in 2016; and the world GDP rose from USD $5.3 Trillion to $73 Trillion today (keep in mind that immediately after World War II much of the world’s industry outside of the US lay in ruins). The world and the United States have both been enriched economically and while America’s percentage of world GNP has gone down from the world ravaged by World War II, America has steadily become more wealthy. There is not a reputable economist in the world today who believes protectionism is a good economic policy, for any country — except possibly, for the youngest emerging economies, but certainly not for a country like the United States.
The American economy is not perfect. Trump is certainly not wrong to point out many of the problems that exist throughout America’s middle-West, in former industrial cities, who today, are mere hollow version of their former selves. It is true that some of the economic damage has been caused by Globalization. However, the majority of these hardships are the result of technological transformations that have eliminated jobs, while allowing production to continually increase. True, there are problems in America, but none of them rise to the level of “carnage,” as it was so labelled by President Trump.
Many in Israel enthusiastically welcomed the election of President Trump. They believed the words he spoke about moving the embassy to Jerusalem were different than those of his predecessors. They believed that having a pro-settlement US ambassador would make all the difference. What they did not — and still do not — understand is what it means to have a President who speaks about “America First” and carries out a foreign policy reflective of that worldview — i.e., having a President who stated in an interview for the Times of London and the German newspaper Bild: “I think people want, people want their own identity, so if you ask me, others, I believe others will leave,” undermines the global order that has kept peace and insured prosperity … and moreover, that peace and global order have, despite conflicts with its neighbors, have been the bedrock upon which a strong and prosperous Israel has been built. The day before the Trump inauguration, Nadav Eyal, lead foreign affairs correspondent for Israel’s Channel 10 News stated that Presidents tend to try to actually implement the ideas they put forward in their inaugural addresses. Today, after the fact, much of Israel and the world hope Trump’s words were as his supporters often state, just a stake in the ground to open negotiations, and not the real policies he hopes to implement.