WASHINGTON–President Donald Trump delivered what historians and speechwriters said was one of the most ominous inaugural addresses ever, reinforcing familiar campaign themes of American decline while positioning himself as the protector of the country’s “forgotten men and women.”

In a speech that his predecessors had famously used to inspire Americans to place country before self and urged them to fear only fear itself, Mr. Trump on Friday described the nation as a landscape of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones” and inner cities infested with crime, gangs and drugs.

“The American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” Mr. Trump said, using a noun never before uttered in such a speech.

These are the opening three paragraphs of Michael C. Bender, “Trump Strikes a Nationalist Tone,” Wall Street Journal, Saturday/Sunday, January 21-22, 2017.

It’s hard to evaluate these historians’ and speechwriters’ claims without seeing their case for their claims. And it’s also hard to evaluate their claims without reading, and thinking about, every previous inaugural address, something that I’m unwilling to take the time to do.

I see how it was ominous in some ways. The most ominous part I found in it was this:

We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.

It shows what I’ve been saying for some time now: Donald Trump does not understand gains from trade. Countries don’t “ravage” us by making products that we voluntarily buy. Not to understand that is like not understanding the difference between consensual sex and rape.

The sentence just preceding this part I quote is this:

Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.

If Donald Trump understood trade and immigration, that would not be ominous at all. Because if he made every decision on trade and immigration “to benefit American workers and American families,” he would decide to move in the direction of lower tariffs and import restrictions and fewer restrictions on immigration. Remember that “American workers and American families” includes pretty much all Americans, including those who gain from buying cheap imports (which, by the way, is all of us) and those who gain from hiring cheaper labor. The fact of gains from trade and immigration is not controversial in the economics literature. What makes this statement ominous is that Trump doesn’t understand trade.

As I said above, I’m not willing to read every past inaugural address. But there are two such addresses that I know best and that I found quite ominous. They are those of John F. Kennedy in 1961 and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933.

First, the ominous part of JFK’s address:

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

This was an open-ended commitment to intervene around the world.


And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.

Here’s what Milton Friedman said about that, on page 1 of his modern classic, Capitalism and Freedom, published a year later:

It is a striking sign of the temper of our times that the controversy about this passage centered on its origin and not on its content. Neither half of the statement expresses a relation between the citizen and his government that is worthy of the ideals of free men in a free society. The paternalistic “what your government can do for you” implies that the government is the patron, the citizen the ward, a view that is at odds with the free man’s belief in his own destiny. The organismic, “what you can do for your country” implies that government is the master or the deity, the citizen, the servant or the votary. To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them. He is proud of a common heritage and loyal to common traditions. But he regards government as a means, an instrumentality, neither a grantor of favors and gifts, nor a master or god to be blindly worshiped and served. He recognizes no national goal except as it is the consensus of the goals that the citizens severally serve. He recognizes no national purpose except as it is the consensus of the purposes for which the citizens severally strive.

Many of the people who cite FDR’s speech as one of hope point, quite rightly, to its most famous line:

We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

I wonder how many of them have read the whole thing. Here’s the part I found ominous:

It is to be hoped that the normal balance of Executive and legislative authority may be wholly adequate to meet the unprecedented task before us. But it may be that an unprecedented demand and need for undelayed action may call for temporary departure from that normal balance of public procedure.

I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken Nation in the midst of a stricken world may require. These measures, or such other measures as the Congress may build out of its experience and wisdom, I shall seek, within my constitutional authority, to bring to speedy adoption.

But in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis–broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.