Trump: A dysfunctional wannabe strongman
The election of Donald Trump, the most unqualified president in terms of experience and temperament is playing out as I envisaged to the detriment of Republicans, the U.S. and the world. He is trying very hard to be the strongman he promised with disastrous results. The latest case is the firing of the FBI Director, James Comey who had recently stepped up his investigation of the alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Trump the wannabe strongman took a similar posture prior to and during the election with Obama, his Republican opponents and Hilary Clinton. As President he has continued his tirade against the Obama administration, Democrats in congress, judges and the media. He is always on the attack for spurious or no reasons other than to let the whole world know that he is top dog. Analysts are increasingly worried that he is trying to move away from what America’s founding fathers envisaged, a democratic state with a strong congress, judiciary, media and civic society. This of course does not bother the Donald who has lauded other strongmen leaders who presumably inspire him. What are the underlying principles of the Donald? How has this played out in the country and abroad? What are the implications for America and the rest of the world?
In assessing Trump’s progress or more aptly, lack of progress to date we need to look into the underlying factors at play. The strongman aura is really a manifestation of insecurity of the man, which he tries to mask. He is only happy when he is the centre of attention and hogs the news, hence he tweets outrageous statements and liesat all hours of the day and night When this is combined with his ignorance and unwillingness to learn it can be very embarrassing and dangerous for a man in such a powerful position. The Donald does not understand, care for or have empathy with low income and poor Americans. Trump is racist as demonstrated early on in his career when he discriminated against African Americans in renting out his properties, eventually having to come to a court settlement on this issue. He hounded innocent ethnic minorities in the 1980s. He has surrounded himself with racist advisers who have pushed him into positions such as the wall with Mexico, rounding up and deporting primarily non-white illegal immigrants and of course the Muslim ban. Finally it should be noted that Trump does not have any overall, coherent and consistent strategy or political principle. He makes things up as he goes, says things he feels will make him popular and in many ways is a rogue Republican.
How can we assess Trump so far?He has appointed a Supreme Court judge, rather, the Senate, after denying Obama’s choice a hearing, appointed Trump’s nominee. He has signed a flurry of Executive Orders (EO) cancelling Obama’s environmental and financial rules. The house of representative has passed a healthcare bill (that they prepared with little or no input from Trump) that will repeal and replace Obama’s healthcare legislature. The bill will deprive millions of poor and sick people basic healthcare while giving huge benefits in the form of reduced taxes to the rich. The independent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) had estimated that 24 million people would lose insurance in the first proposal. Lawmakers did not obtain a costing before they voted for the version that they passed. He has bombed Syria, even though he opposed such a move as candidate.Trump the candidate who strongly objected to the US’s overseas military projects has in addition to bombing Syria, authorised a disastrous campaign in Yemen, detonated the largest bomb in Afghanistan and sent an armada to the Korean peninsula. It is rather odd that this commander in chief, who railed against foreign entanglements as a candidate and dodged service in the Vietnam War, is suddenly a warmonger, willing to sacrifice American lives abroad.
This record is paltry relative to the sweeping moves he promised from day one and his failures have more prominence, notably, his Executive Order banning travellers from seven (amended to 6) majority Muslim countries that has been blocked by judges. He has failed to get funding for the US/Mexican border wall in the budget for the government up to September 2017. Congress dismissed Trump’s budget wish list which would have significantly increased allocations for the military by ten percent while drastically reducing allocations for other items such as the state department, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other departments that Trump considers unimportant. His administration has failed to fill many positions which have made it very difficult to initiate and roll out the Trump agenda. Trump’s ignorance and lack of guiding principles and strategy have resulted in him taking positions that are diametrically opposed to Trump the candidate. He has gone back on this initial strong opposition to NATO, China and NAFTA.
Trump’s management style has weakened the office considerably while alarming many observers. The ban on Muslim countries was unsuccessful because the Executive order was poorly drafted and Judges made use of his pronouncements on the issue before and after order was published. The healthcare bill was passed before it had been costed by the CBO, an unprecedented action that would cause it to face serious problems in the more moderate senate and general public. The sacking of National Security Adviser General Flynn was done weeks after Trump had been advised that he was liable to blackmail by the Russians. The sacking of FBI Director James Comey was followed by conflicting accounts by Trump and members of his team. The acting Director of the FBI contradicted the White House spokesperson who claimed that one of the reasons Trump had sacked Comey was because he had lost the support of rank and file staff at the bureau, saying that Comey had overwhelming support among staff. Trump admitted in an interview by NBC that the investigation of alleged collusion between his campaign and Russia was a factor in his decision. He stated in that interview that “when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won”. Strongman Trump also stated that part of the reason he fired Comey was because he was a “showboat grandstander”, obviously not only had Comey’s investigation irked the President, he committed the sin of stealing the spotlight from Trump. Interestingly, the day after Comey was sacked, Trump received Russia’s gloating foreign minister at the Whitehouse who was accompanied by Russia’s TASS news agency who took pictures of the “very successful” event. U.S. news outlets were not allowed to cover the event.
The alarming thing though about this administration is the threat to the U.S.’s core principles and institutions. Trump has attacked the judiciary for blocking the Muslim ban. He has attacked the mainstream media for reporting the problems of his administration and recently suggested that he may put a stop to regular briefings of the media. He has fermented opposition to Republicans in congress who have opposed him or not followed his dictats. And he has told numerous lies, often unnecessarily over even the most insignificant things starting from day one when he stated that his inauguration attracted the largest crowd ever. His Republican base agrees and applauds him.
Republicans in congress largely agree but many are cowed through their fear that going against a spiteful president will get them out of office. The American public and particularly Democratic and independent voters are not convinced and the Donald has consistently had the lowest polling of any president since polling started. Privately many Republican congressmen also have misgivings. They and the majority of Democrats and independents are worried about the mercurial president; that his biggest success, the new healthcare bill is inferior to Obamacare it replaced; that the allegation of Russian interference in the presidential election might have some validity; that Trump’s military adventures might be prohibitively expensive; that Trump’s plan to defund the state department by a third of its current budget willlose the US friends andmake it unduly reliant on the military; that the presidents opposition to mainstream climate change thinking and a withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement will be detrimental to U.S.’s interests. Republican congressmen are worried that the unpopularity of this rogue Republican and his policies may cause them to lose their majorities in the senate and house of representative in forthcoming elections.
Analysts are on the whole not impressed and many are critical and alarmed.Chris Whipple, author of The Gatekeeper, a newly published history of White House chiefs of staff stated that “the Comey firing is just the most dramatic example of a White House that is completely dysfunctional, the most chaotic in modern history”. In an event organised by The Brookings Institute, participants were scathing about the administration. Susan Hennessey, fellow in Governance Studies and managing editor of Lawfare noted that Trump’s reliance on family and informal advisers has resulted in “national security by instinct instead of expertise.” Leon Wieseltier, the Isaiah Berlin Senior Fellow in Culture and Policy described the administration as “incomprehensibly ignorant, with a serious narcissistic personality disorder, and a problem of impulse control”.Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow in Governance Studies and editor-in-chief of Lawfare, observed that “This is not a president who is functioning in the normal way that we expect presidents to function”. Wittes observed that the president’s flip-flops on issues such as whether or not China is a currency manipulator means that “he’s created an environment in which the words of the president of the United States don’t mean anything at all”. Dr Kamarck, senior fellow and director of the Center for Effective Public Management stated that “we have elected the least experienced person ever to hold the office of the presidency”.
It is only three and half month into the Trump presidency and within that time he has demonstrated that he is unfit for the task. It shows though that the US system is dysfunctional. Trump somehow won over the Republican Party even though he clearly did not represent the views of its mainstream, particularly its recent economic platform. The college voting system (Trump lost the popular vote) allowed a man who did not have a coherent policy framework, no experience of government, lied consistently, invited America’s arch rival Russia to work on his behalf and paid little or no tax for twenty yearsto become its leader. In a recent speech Obama said the electorate deserves who they elect. America may be stuck with this man who will deprive them of their healthcare and fill the swamp with alligators as he implements a tax policy that will give away billions to the rich. At the same time he will continue to wreak havoc on the poor, the environment and the American and world economy. But then there could be another scenario. Americans may wake up and punish the Republicans in forthcoming elections to congress and give Democrats majorities creating serious problems for Trump as the Republican controlled congress did to Obama. There may even be a starker outcome. Dr Allan Lichtman, who has correctly predicted presidential elections for the last 40years, has stated that Trump could be impeached. In a recent interview he cited conflicts of interest, including the fact that since his inauguration Trump’s company has received approval for 38 ventures from the Chinese government. Since Trump has not divested himself from his business, he will benefit directly from these potentially lucrative ventures.
What does the Trump presidency mean for the rest of the world? Firstly, it is difficult to say given Trump’s ignorance of issues, countries and regions and the fact that he has no defined guiding principles and strategy. His budget proposal and stated policy is to move away from global organisations such as the UN. He may try to weaken commitments to and/or take the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreementsince he and his Environment Secretary do not believe in the science of climate change. Trump has shown an admiration for other likeminded strongmen, with warm words for leaders of Russia, Egypt, Turkey, Philippines and even North Korea. Previous administrations, including Obama’s encouragement and/or pressure on countries to adhere to democratic principles are out; under Trump despots of all kinds are preferred.
In Europe, while he has reversed his position on NATO I suspect that he still hankers for a rapprochement with Moscow if congress will let him. His campaign rhetoric and recent meetings with Russian officials suggests that this is his wish. Trump supported Le Pen who was hostile to the EU in the French election and welcomed Brexit. Europe must therefore be wary of Trump. In the Middle East and Afghanistan in contrast to candidate Trump, we should expect to see a more forceful posture and indeed his recent budget wish list for the military confirms this. After a couple of day’s education by the Chinese leader, no doubt sweetened by commercial openings for the Trump brand, he has repudiated his hostility to China and we should expect closer relationship with that country. That and the election of a new leader in South Korea who has a preference for diplomacy should complicatematters in the peninsular. Other countries in the region which have had recent tensions with China should not expect a robust defence of their positions from President Trump. Africa and South America have not featured in Trump world but they should not expect much support and leaders would not fear any U.S. pressure to implement democratic policiesor improve civil liberties.
The Tump presidency could be a boon for other countries. These countries would have opportunities to develop deeper regional relationships and climate change technologies and markets as the U.S. abandons this space. China is already taking the opportunity to develop closer ties with other Asian countries in the trade bloc it has been trying to develop. Japan and other countries that were involved with TPP that Trump pulled out of are also in talks about reviving the agreement without the US. It should encourage Africa to develop the huge potential in trade links within the continent and China will no doubt enhance its dominant role in trade and investment in the continent.
Rogers is principal consultant at Media and Event Management Oxford (MEMO).