In President Donald Trump’s inaugural address, he surveyed the nation’s landscape — crumbling infrastructure, leaky borders, costly wars, deadly deindustrialization and divisive identity politics — and in one infamous phrase, described “American carnage.” Rejecting a 30-year bipartisan consensus driven by post-Cold War optimism, middle Americans wanted to take the country back from coastal elites, and they handed Trump the task.
As the president puts the final touches on Tuesday’s State of the Union, he should direct his attention to the timeless wisdom of our nation’s first president, George Washington, whose public speeches cast a winning vision of an “America First” policy agenda.
Washington’s major addresses express three principal aims for making and keeping America great: unity, safety and happiness. In light of the recent government shutdown and a growing sense of division among Americans, this threefold formula provides Trump with a blueprint for a majority coalition in 2020.
The first of these virtues is the imperative of recovering a sense of American unity. Washington might respond to our crisis by reminding us of the “immense value of (our) national union to (our) collective and individual happiness,” even going so far as to describe it as “the palladium of (our) political safety and prosperity.” His message of unity and his admonition to frown upon “…every attempt to alienate any portion of the country from the rest,” speaks loud and clear to a country undergoing what has been described as a Cold Civil War.
For Washington, regional differences and “local discriminations,” as important as they are, come second to “the name of American,” which binds us together as a whole and sovereign people. Trump would do well to embrace a more-Washingtonian sense of nationalism that seeks to strengthen the “sacred ties” that unite our “indissoluble community of interest.” This approach could be particularly helpful if he wanted to frame his immigration policy in a positive manner by demonstrating how slower rates of immigration could benefit immigrants by affording them greater opportunity to integrate into the political community and move up the ladder of economic opportunity.
A united people cannot remain a free people unless they are a safe people, which brings us to the second virtue. In Washington’s mind, our national security depends on political and economic independence and a firm sense of the national interest, informed by justice and humanity.
There is no such thing as freedom without independence. In foreign affairs, Washington called on every “real patriot” to resist “the insidious wiles of foreign influence.” And while Washington was supportive of a prudential trade policy based upon “experience and circumstance,” he would likely have been sympathetic to Trump’s protectionist agenda vis-a-vis foreign adversaries as he himself urged Congress to strengthen American manufacturing in such a way that secured our economic independence “for essential, particularly military, supplies.”
Washington praised the neutrality afforded by our geographic position and begged posterity to steer clear of “foreign entanglements” in order to protect Americans from debt and the threat of an “overgrown military establishment … hostile to republican liberty.” If Trump truly wants to bring our troops home from Syria and Afghanistan and support domestic manufacturing, then he should defend his “America First” policies by situating his ideas within the context of a much greater tradition of American safety and independence championed by our most prudent and popular statesman.
Third, George Washington held a firm belief that our government existed to promote the happiness of the American people. His conception of freedom was not utopian — it was meant to serve the “general good,” “public interest” and “national happiness” of the whole citizenry. Washington’s constitutional government was strong, limited, and ordered towards the common good and national interest.
Our first president believed that we should use all legitimate instruments of power to secure the political, economic, and moral happiness of the American people. If Trump, who likely agrees, wants to compete with progressives who have no qualms about ordering society towards their vision of human flourishing, then he must take Washington’s example and begin to advance a bold, conservative vision of the common good. Such a program would help to widen his base of support and include some of his most winsome ideas: an infrastructure plan to rebuild roads, bridges, and transportation systems; paid family leave to support working mothers; and vigorous antitrust enforcement to bust up corporate monopolies and promote entrepreneurship.
If Trump fails to defend national unity, safety, and happiness in his last two years as president, the mantle of leadership will pass to someone Americans will find even more radical to save them from the wreckage caused by the failed policies of the ruling class. With the clock ticking, he would do well to channel his inner George Washington, the man who made America great from the beginning.
John Burtka is executive director of The American Conservative.