Why the era of US global leadership is over
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The era of U.S. international leadership is over. How do I know? Because President Trump so decreed in his inaugural address. He put the world on notice: Henceforth, America will be looking out exclusively for No. 1.

Do the people, whose instrument Trump claims to be, share his vision of an insular America? We'll see, but it's hard to find a popular mandate for Trump's retro-nationalism in the 2016 election results.

No doubt plenty of Trump voters respond favorably to his "America First" message, but the president seemed oblivious to the reality that he presides over a closely divided country and political system. After all, he was U.S. voters' second choice for president, by a non-trivial margin of nearly 3 millions votes.

Polls on the eve of the inauguration found that he is the least-popular new president in memory (with an approval rating of just 45 percent) and a solid majority of Americans on Election Day said Trump is lacking in presidential temperament.

What's more, plenty of Republicans don't agree with Trump's desire to abandon U.S. commitments overseas and go it alone. Dissenters include not only Reagan acolytes like Republican Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainRubio asks Army to kick out West Point grad with pro-communist posts The VA's woes cannot be pinned on any singular administration Overnight Defense: Mattis offers support for Iran deal | McCain blocks nominees over Afghanistan strategy | Trump, Tillerson spilt raises new questions about N. Korea policy MORE (Ariz.) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Defense: Tillerson, Trump deny report of rift | Tillerson says he never considered resigning | Trump expresses 'total confidence' in secretary | Rubio asks Army to kick out West Point grad Rubio asks Army to kick out West Point grad with pro-communist posts GOP establishment doubts Bannon’s primary powers MORE (Fla.), but also several of Trump's Cabinet picks, notably Defense Secretary James Mattis and Ambassador to the U.N. nominee Nikki Haley.

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Trump, of course, gave no sign of being humbled or constrained by these realities, speaking as though he'd won the White House with the kind of crushing margin authoritarians like Russian President Vladmir Putin roll up.

 

Unlike most incoming presidents, Trump did not use the occasion to salve raw political wounds and invoke a spirit of national unity.

On the contrary, the speech was vintage Trump-on-the-stump: insulting, accusatory and peremptory in tone. Sounding like a Manhattan version of the late Argentinian President Juan Perón, he broadly indicted the nation's political leaders, many of whom were seated behind him on the Capitol balcony, for betraying working Americans.

"Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation's capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land," he intoned.

The New York billionaire portrayed himself as a modern day Andrew Jackson, defending the common man against the machinations of self-dealing elites. "Jan. 20th, 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again," he declared sententiously.

Trump's tribune-of-the-people routine is integrally linked to his critique of America's global role. In his telling, U.S. leaders of both parties have been played for chumps by faithless allies who won't defend themselves or help us fight terrorism;

by trading partners like China and Mexico that have "stolen" our jobs; and, by international institutions that erode our sovereignty and force Americans to fork out money to fight the phantom menace of climate change.

Buried deep in the landfill of Trumpean hyperbole is a reasonable case that America really is overextended and needs to rebalance its global responsibilities and pressing domestic needs, such as rebuilding our run-down transportation systems and other infrastructure.

Instead of making a measured argument along these lines, Trump concocts a populist melodrama in which working Americans are pathetic victims of their own political elites: "We've made other counties rich while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon. ... The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world."

Not to worry, though. Trump will stop such "carnage" immediately and restore America's lost glory: "We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. ... We will get our people off of welfare and back to work, rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor."

Above all, "America will start winning again," through the sheer force of Trump's implacable will and mystic bond with "the people."

What's missing in all this, of course, is democratic politics. Trump is demanding a fundamental change in national strategy — a rejection of the postwar international order built largely by U.S. power and leadership and a return to the narrow American nationalism of the 1920s and 1930s. And he seems to think he can impose it unilaterally, because "the people" stand behind him.

To get where he wants to go, Trump will have to win the backing of the very political leaders and institutions he maligned in his inaugural speech, plus a significant chunk of the people who didn't vote for him last November.

U.S. presidents don't have unlimited powers and don't rule by decree. Their power lies mainly in the bully pulpit's art of persuasion. And claiming mandates you didn't win is anything but persuasive.

Will Marshall is president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a catalyst for policy innovation and political reform based in Washington.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.