WASHINGTON — Moments after Donald Trump took the oath of office to become the 45th president of the United States, he signaled, clearly and decisively, that just as he was a different kind of candidate, he is now a different kind of president.
His first words to the nation as president drew on the slogans that were a staple of his improbable bid for the White House — most notably to “Make America Great Again,” but also to put “America First” — as he sought to reassure his supporters that he will not be “all talk and no action.”
Part of his keeping that promise entails him not surrendering to the conventions of political correctness, not avoiding language likely to offend others, something that defined the rhetoric of his predecessor, Barack Obama.
In his inaugural address, Trump made this point in dramatic fashion, using a term that the last administration had gone to great lengths to avoid for reasons it deemed both moral and strategic.
“We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism,” Trump told the world, “which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.”
For Obama, the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” was not only an insult to the vast majority of Muslims who practice their faith peacefully, but its usage by high-level US officials risked alienating the US’s Sunni Arab allies, including Saudi Arabia.
The very different manner in which the two approach this issue is a window into how differently they see America’s role in the international community.
Eight years earlier, Obama sought to forge a new relationship with the Muslim world by embarking on a foreign policy that put dialogue as the cornerstone to initiating the progress he sought. If he could find a way to speak to leaders of conventional US adversaries in terms they could both understand, he believed, then a rapprochement was possible.
As he famously put it, “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
“To the Muslim world,” Obama said in his first inaugural address, “we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.”
Trump did not use his platform Friday to offer an opportunity for dialogue; he did, however, offer to create new alliances, provided they serve America.
“We will seek friendship and good will with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”
“At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America,” he said, in his Trumpian style of being both brash and blunt. “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” he added, after providing a dark portrait of the nation’s condition, one similar to that in his speech at last summer’s Republican National Convention.
When giving indications on the direction of US foreign policy, Trump represented a stark divergence from Obama’s idea of the nature of American power.
In 2009, Obama told the nation that “our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please.”
“Power,” he said, “grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”
Eight years later, Trump could hardly have presented a greater contrast, declaring with utter confidence: “America will start winning again. Winning like never before,” and asserting, “No challenge can match the heart and fight and spirit of America. We will not fail. Our country will thrive and prosper again.”
At his inaugural, Trump did not deviate from the core messages that ultimately defined his candidacy, and that secured his victory, even those that others complained were offensive. He showed his newfound authority will not be restrained in that regard.
He had no compunction saying the words “radical Islamic terrorism,” or that “it’s going to be only America First,” a term that evokes Charles Lindbergh’s 1940 presidential campaign and America First Committee, which argued the US should remain neutral on the rise of Hitler’s Nazi Germany, a particular source of concern for Jews.
The Anti-Defamation League had urged Trump, in April, to drop the slogan, citing its “anti-Semitic use in the months before Pearl Harbor by a group of prominent Americans seeking to keep the nation out of World War II.”
But it didn’t end in April, and it won’t end now. America elected a new president who ran on making things different from the way they have been. And different, he made clear in his first speech as president, they most certainly shall be.