As an American expat in Tel Aviv, Israel, listening to the inaugural address by President Donald Trump was a very unsettling experience.
I paid attention to his words while wearing many hats—as an American, an Israeli, a historian of American history and as someone who shortly after Trump's address was going on the air to try making sense of what the freshly minted U.S. president had just said.
By the time Trump concluded his speech, every part of me was troubled.
Many have written about how poorly Trump's speech compared to previous inaugural addresses (undoubtedly true). Others have expressed concern that the president chose not use the opportunity of his inaugural to reach out to the rest of the country—the majority of whom did not vote for him (also true).
As someone who has divided his life between living in Israel and the United States, what frightened me most was Trump's use of the phrase “America First,” and the pointed meaning that he gave those words.
Trump proclaimed, “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.” He went on to declare: “Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.”
In a mere few sentences, Trump undermined the basis of the world system that the United States has championed since World War II.
America has always seen itself as more than just the sum of its parts. Even back when the country's first colonies were being founded, Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts, in referring to the yet to be established city of Boston, described it as: “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”
Since then, presidents and leaders—including JFK and Ronald Reagan—have referred to the “city upon a hill” as an essential aspect of what it means to be American. America's role has always been to be that light in the world.
In the postwar world, there has been a universal consensus that as the strongest nation on Earth, America might be required to make sacrifices in order to ensure that the horrors of the two world wars are not repeated. And although those sacrifices might sometimes result in short-term pain, they're nonetheless healthy for the well being of the United States.
It's been more than 70 years since the gunfire of World War II was silenced. Since then, the world has certainly not always been peaceful, but the monumental horrors of the world wars have not returned on such a massive scale—and, more importantly, the world and the United States have prospered.
The U.S. GNP (adjusted for inflation) has grown from $2.2 trillion in 1946 to $16.7 trillion in 2016; and the global GDP rose from USD $5.3 trillion to $73 trillion today.
Both the United States and the rest of the world have become economically enriched, and while America's percentage of global GNP has gone down from the world ravaged by World War II (keep in mind that immediately after World War II, much of the world's industry outside of the U.S. lay in ruins). America has steadily become more prosperous.
There is not a reputable economist in the world today who believes protectionism is good economic policy for any country—except, possibly, the youngest emerging economies, but certainly not for a country like the United States.
The American economy is not perfect. Trump is certainly not wrong to point out many of the problems that exist throughout America's Midwest, in former industrial cities which are now hollow versions of their former selves.
Some of the economic damage has been caused by globalization—however, the majority of hardships are the result of technological innovations that have eliminated jobs, while concurrently allowing production to increase.
True, there are problems in America, but none rise to the level of “carnage,” as described by President Trump.
Many in Israel enthusiastically welcomed the election of President Trump. They believed that his words about moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem were different than those of his predecessors. They believed that having a pro-settlement U.S. ambassador would make all the difference.
What they did not—and still do not—understand is what it means to have a president who speaks about “America First,” and who carries out a foreign policy reflective of that worldview.
In an interview for the Times, London and the German newspaper Bild, President Trump said, “I think people want, people want their own identity, so if you ask me, others, I believe others will leave.” This statement blatantly undermines the global order that has kept the peace and has insured global prosperity.
Moreover, that peace and global order have—despite conflicts with its neighbors—been the bedrock upon which a strong and prosperous Israel has been built.
The day before the Trump inauguration, Nadav Eyal, chief international correspondent for Israel's Channel 10 News, stated that presidents tend to try implementing the ideas they put forward in their inaugural addresses.
In the few days since Trump's speech, much of Israel and the world hope his words were as his supporters often state—just a stake in the ground to open negotiations, and not policies that he really hopes to implement.