The Trump Presidency – Living with The Walrus
OK, so Trump won.
Enough of the wailing and gnashing of teeth. I had those moments yesterday, but I’m over them, because neither I nor anybody else can do anything about it.
Brexit, on the other hand, I’m not over, because so long as there is an opportunity to influence the outcome, either towards a reconsideration of the whole deal or a mitigation of the effects of a hard Brexit, I’ll continue to make my voice heard.
But Trump is a done deal, so now it’s time to take a hard look at the new reality with which we must now come to terms.
As an immediate reaction, a few thoughts have been going through my mind since yesterday. Here they are, in no particular order:
It will not be the first time that America has elected a President with a few screws loose, but with Trump at least we know where the screws are. This was not the case last time a potentially unhinged president was in office. Richard Nixon’s paranoia was pretty well known, but it was only after his resignation that the full extent of his obsessive, depressive and drink-fuelled behaviour while in office became known.
In Trump’s case most of the stories have come out already, though don’t be surprised if more seep out in the next couple of months. Barring more gruesome revelations we know what to expect. Hopefully there will be a shrink close to the White House to raise the red flag when things get out of hand.
Ace negotiator? That remains to be seen. Many successful negotiators I’ve come across don a mask of inscrutability. In Trump’s case there will be enough information from his media career, from the election campaign and from the numerous stories from people who know him (and don’t like what they saw) for a negotiating opponent to be armed with perhaps the most accurate and comprehensive psychological profile of any president in history.
Contrast Trump with Vladimir Putin, a cold-eyed poker player whose opponents are still trying to figure out even after sixteen years in power. The only thing Trump has going for him is his reputation for unpredictability, something he shares with Putin. But at the heart of Putin’s unpredictability lies a talent for lateral thinking. Trump’s, it seems, is rooted in low emotional intelligence and impulse control. Should be interesting watching them together.
Trump may do nasty things, but nasty things happen anyway. 9/11 didn’t happen on the watch of a narcissistic demagogue. Nor did the financial crisis of 2008. And nor did the Arab Spring and the rise of ISIS. The known unknowns under Trump may be different from those Hillary Clinton might have had to deal with. The consequences of a weakened NATO, of trade wars, of climate change denial, of the destruction of Obamacare and the dismantling of the Iranian nuclear deal are as yet hard to predict. But stuff happens that is beyond the control and influence of the United States. Trump’s administration is going to have to deal with the unknown unknowns just as any other would.
There will be no quick fixes, so be prepared for an impatient President. Walls take time to build, factories even longer. All the fixes required to “put Americans back to work” will take time. So in the early part of his presidency, bar one or two landmark pieces of legislation, expect Trump to gorge himself on gesture politics. Then, as the next election draws nigh, expect him to blame others for his failures and beg the electorate for more time “to finish the job”.
The tools he used to climb so high might ultimately lay him low. Or, to put it another way, the genie of extremism he has released will not meekly return to its bottle upon his inauguration in January. His opponents will use the same weapons to attack and undermine him as he used against Hillary and everyone else who spoke against him. As president, he will not be able to lash back as he has done during the campaign. For a candidate to accuse his opponent of criminality is one thing. For a president to abuse and slander his fellow-citizens is quite another. The American people will not take kindly to being described as losers. Expect an endless anti-Trump campaign on the social media.
In terms of his behaviour and his utterances he will be under scrutiny as never more. He will be called out on every act of hypocrisy and every failure to keep his campaign promises. The well of popular discontent on which he drew will be available to his enemies, especially when he fails to deliver the miracles he has promised. The activism last seen when America was in Vietnam has returned. The young are no longer quiescent and compliant, as they were through much of the 80’s and 90’s. Donald Trump will be under the media gun from Day One.
His dominance in domestic politics is unlikely to last beyond two years. Even though both houses of Congress are under Republican control, that can change in 2018. The Democrats will re-group. They will exploit every failure on Trump’s part with a vengeance. And there will be failures. His opponents will fight tooth and nail against reactionary legislation – on Obamacare and abortion, for example. The Democrat-leaning media, both print and online, will be relentless.
So if Trump isn’t very careful – or very lucky – he will find himself in the same situation as Obama did for the final six years of his presidency: fighting against a Congress dominated by his opponents. That could be the point at which he will start to contemplate unconstitutional means to enforce his will. With success? I suspect that America’s institutions are stronger than Donald Trump, and that he would meet opposition from his own side, many of whom will continue to find him profoundly distasteful, not to mention a threat to their continuance in office.
What of the outlook for the United Kingdom during the Trump presidency? Well, I suppose one thing that stands out is that if America’s shield no longer provides us with protection against the territorial ambitions of Vladimir Putin, we should be grateful that we still have Trident. Our nuclear deterrent would not be enough to protect the Baltic states and Ukraine. But should NATO dissolve or weaken, our military strength should provide us with fresh leverage in our Brexit negotiations with the European Union. It’s also conceivable that Theresa May will yield to the warnings of the generals and increase our defence spending.
In political terms, we already have the most right-wing government in living memory. The left is divided and weak. The centre is painfully ineffective. That should be to Trump’s liking. Will he place us up the queue for trade negotiations? Quite possibly, provided we adopt the appropriate begging posture. But be assured that the devil will be in the detail, and it may not be pretty. There will be no favours just because the President’s mother was Scottish and he loves our golf courses.
Will Trump’s protectionist policies force us to rethink Brexit? Unlikely, but you never know. Should there be some form of Trump-induced economic or geopolitical shock, the pressure on the UK to seek safety in numbers may become irresistible.
How about our European soon-to-be-former partners? Will they succumb to the far-right wave that is sweeping through western democracies? Le Pen in France? Wilders in the Netherlands? Conventional wisdom says that Trump’s victory makes it more likely that Le Pen will prevail, because America has already done the unthinkable.
I’m not so sure. It may be that events in America will serve as a warning not to underestimate the demagogues. Perhaps France and other countries will form temporary centre-left coalitions to defeat the extreme right. There will certainly be a reaction against Trumpery, whether it comes from the grass roots or through a realignment of traditional political forces.
But one thing is pretty certain. The discontent that found its lightning rod in Trump will not go away. One way or another, the European Union – and the United Kingdom – will need to address the causes in their own back yards. That could mean a bumpy ride in Europe and quite possibly the rest of the world over the next four years.
Fasten your seat belts. It should be interesting.