In our era, a conventional wisdom can form about a speech while it is being delivered. In the case of Donald Trump’s inaugural address, that conventional wisdom holds that Trump’s speech was combative, gloomy, nationalist — and unconservative.
That verdict deserves to be amended and challenged. Yes, the speech was combative in that it put forward a nationalist message with which many people strongly disagree. But it was also unifying: Trump said that his nationalism would look to the interests of the whole nation, not just a part of it, as of course a real nationalism would by necessity. Yes, it painted a dark picture of the last few decades. But it was also hopeful, even utopian, about the promise of America following Trump’s reforms.
It is also true that the speech did not dwell on familiar conservative themes such as the need to limit government and restore personal responsibility, and in some respects undercut them. But to say that there was nothing conservative in it is to miss that nationalism is always an element of a healthy conservatism. The fact that movement conservatives have not always kept that point in mind is one of the reasons why Trump, rather than a candidate more to their liking, is now president.
Government policy should indeed be run in the interests of America: not subordinated to some wispy notion of a “global community,” not driven by the needs of particular businesses, not required to comply in a rigid way with abstract ideas (even good ones, like the idea that markets should be free). Immigration policy, to take a fundamental example, can have a humanitarian element but must be primarily directed by a hard-headed assessment of the national interest. The policy we have been pursuing for decades has not been.
But conservatism is not reducible to nationalism, which needs to be tempered by other conservative insights and informed by an accurate sense of the national condition. We will not, after all, advance the economic interests of the nation by embracing collectivism. Advancing them requires relatively open trade, and trade deals — as Trump himself acknowledges in his more sober moments.
His speech did not have enough such moments. It is not true that America’s problems have been chiefly caused by our military allies’ and trade partners’ taking advantage of us, or our elites’ being too soft-minded and weak to do anything about it. It is not true that D.C. can do much about crime rates or should even try. Trump was more forthright than his predecessors in identifying radical Islamic terrorism as our enemy, and right too to declare its destruction our goal. But he has never outlined a plausible path to achieve it.
Trump’s inaugural address was successful in expressing nationalist values but not in setting forth a plan of action that would actually serve the nation. It will be up to conservatives, some of them in his employ, to ensure that the same is not true of his administration.