Trump’s administration cannot succeed without a clear agenda │ Joseph Prebble
A little over seven months into his first term, President Donald Trump is spending his time retweeting random members of the public who pay him compliments, blasting the FAKE NEWS media, and boasting of his successes. There has never been a one-man public relations offensive quite like it. That he feels the need to do this, though, is not just a sign of the man’s incredible ego, but of the void of purpose that seems to beleaguer his Presidency. A year after a campaign that aimed fire at the political establishment and incompetent leaders, his senior team is dotted with family members, long-time Washington operatives, and inexperienced political virgins like himself. The administration’s policy mission is defined by its personnel. George W. Bush is remembered, with some justification, as a warmongering neoconservative who, like his father, oversaw an administration largely defined by its foreign policy. Yet watch one of the 2000 Presidential debates and a case could be made for Bush’s being the less hawkish of the two major candidates. No doubt that the horrors of the September 11th attacks marked a pivot, but the Cabinet undoubtedly played a crucial role too. Figures like Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and Donald Rumsfeld helped shape the principle of peace through strength, and they pushed it forward via a President who entered office chiefly concerned with domestic responsibilities. Trump must be cautious that he is not similarly pushed into potentially disastrous foreign entanglements by advisers with a more stubborn ideological motivation than him.
To a limited extent, this has already happened. Trump’s decision to strike Assad’s military base earlier this year seemed to flip the political divide, with many on the right that drove his election victory voicing rare condemnations of his decision, and many of his critics affording even rarer praise. Talk that the establishment had finally enveloped Trump, that his advisors had warped him into making a wholly unjustified error abounded alongside relief that Trump could be convinced not to permit apparent war crimes on the part of Assad’s administration. Whatever the truth, the strike – much like that of the ‘mother of all bombs’ – showed how Trump’s policy can be moulded into behaviour that diverts from his message in the campaign last year. At least he claimed to be the less keen on war of the two, claiming a history of opposition to misguided foreign interventions to draw a contrast with his rival Hillary Clinton. In truth, his judgement with respect to foreign policy was always something of an unknown quantity; whatever Clinton’s interventionist tendencies, she had over 600 pages’ worth of insight into her judgement during her time as Secretary of State in her book Hard Choices.
Trump’s foreign policy was always vague, like much of his platform. Where other candidates relied on teams of advisors to detail their policies, Trump supplanted specificity with his own sheer personality, staking his political success on his own reputed capability. With his bold, almost autocratic claim in his convention speech that ‘I alone can fix it’, Trump made the mission of his future administration to be his own – whatever worked for Trump worked for America, and whatever undermined Trump undermined America. This may explain the Cabinet position of Ben Carson, a man with enormous talent and education, and virtually none of it in housing and urban development, a post to which his only claim might be loyalty to Trump. The very worthy Mitt Romney, meanwhile, was said to miss out on a gig as Secretary of State because he refused to grovel and apologize to Trump for criticisms of him in the campaign. That Romney – a man nailed by the Democrats five years ago for his caution over Russia – seemed to lose out to Rex Tillerson – who attracted controversy for his notably friendly links with Russia – on a personal slight shows the dominance of personality in the Trump circle, in place of a coherent strategy on one of the most crucial issues facing America abroad.
This sad mockery of a serious construction of a Cabinet reflects the idea that Trump thrives on flattery and attention. He is capable of making his adoring rallies into a kind of pantomime. For example, at one rally last year, he asked ‘Who’s going to pay for the wall?’ ‘Mexico!’ came the reply. ‘Who?’ ‘MEXICO!’ Such adoration comes with a danger. The anger and excitement that he so successfully channelled into popularity and votes hardens the necessity for his administration to deliver, for if, after four years, the wall remains unbuilt, or no payment is forthcoming from Mexico, his own reputation will be shredded, along with that of the administration. If it was strange that he continued his rallies after the election as the President elect on a ‘thank you’ tour, it is ridiculous that he still holds them years before he should be thinking about re-election.
That Trump is so driven by ego, however, may not be without use. After all, what is good for America is good for his popularity, and this link might still be levered for good. Fox News reported a couple of weeks ago that over one million jobs had so far been created under Trump’s Presidency. While President Obama’s management of the economy no doubt forged growth which should earn him partial credit for this, it would be difficult not to attribute some of this growth to Trump’s slashing of regulations too. A seven-figure growth of jobs is beneficial not only to those who now have a pay packet, their dependents, and the taxpayer relieved of welfare subsidy, but also to Trump himself, who has earned every right to retweet Fox, presumably in egotistical glee. If Trump needs to publicly congratulate himself every time he appoints a new judge to the Supreme Court, oversees a record high stock market, or toughens border security, so be it, as long he gets the job done. In absence of a strong agenda with broad support at Cabinet level, there is nothing wrong with getting the universally agreeable basics right.
Trump has built his political success, however, on being the very opposite of universally agreeable. If it is difficult to see what he stands for, it is clearer to see what he stands against – or, clearer still, whom he stands against. The prime example is Hillary Clinton, whom he was fond of labelling Crooked Hillary last year, and still is on Twitter. He may not be consistent about it – he called her the worst Secretary of State in US history, some three years after saying she went ‘above and beyond everybody else’ in the role, before speaking of his enormous respect for her after his inauguration – but he sure is noisy. In an America where bipartisanship seems a quaint concept, Trump can show where he stands by opposing the figureheads of the resistance: Clinton, along with other Democrats, and even some Republicans that have the audacity to criticise him. In a sensible response to the recent ugly scenes in Charlottesville, he rightly condemned what he christened the alt-left, along with racism, white supremacism, and the various movements that cobble together to form the alt-right. In doing so, he set himself at odds with a titanic wave of condemnation, much of it from people who for years have preached identity politics to which Trump is the unfortunate if entirely predictable response. Only someone like Trump could unite mainstream conservatives, ideological tea partiers, and formerly Obama-voting blue-collar workers, and he did so by turning fire on the Washington political class. With majorities of voters in three crucial Trump states, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, being embarrassed by Trump’s performance as President according to a recent NBC poll, he is so far struggling to band his voters behind an ideal, rather than just against one. With his approval ratings consistently below water, the direction of his administration is still vague.
The resignation of chief strategist Steve Bannon was further proof of this, and entrenched confusion over the direction of the Trump administration. Bannon was no regular Cabinet member charged with implementing administration policy; rather, he surely helped define it. This is why he arose such controversy from the moment of his announcement before Trump’s inauguration, as many feared, however ludicrously, that his time at Breitbart would translate into a white supremacist influence in the United States government. Whatever Bannon stood for, he is a great loss to the administration, whether for good or for ill, and his departure has met a whole spectrum of responses. Many are glad to see his back, hoping for a more moderate approach in his replacement, while many of Trump’s supporters feel a sense of betrayal at a government that has lost its anchor in economic nationalism. Whatever the benefits of shifting away from a more reclusive, economically defensive America, it is not what a great many rust belt voters likely had in mind last November. As a possible taste of anger to come, the editor-at-large of Bannon’s own firebrand Breitbart, Joel Pollak, tweeted ‘#WAR’ soon after Bannon’s departure.
— Joel B. Pollak (@joelpollak) August 18, 2017
Many figures on the new right are sounding increasingly like Democrats in their criticism of the composition of the administration, not least Trump’s daughter and her husband. The very presence of Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner in such a lofty position of power is peculiar and annoying to all sorts of people. Not only is this a transparent case of nepotism, but both their knowledge and politics make them almost certainly unfit for the senior responsibilities that they claim, complete with top-level security clearances. Their backgrounds span fashion and business, and both were, until recently, registered Democrats: Ivanka famously was unable to vote for her father in the New York Republican primary because she was a Democrat. When stumping for her father on the campaign trail, she touted his character and experience in real estate and never appeared comfortable promoting his more nativist agenda. Recently the Seattle Times reported that the pair, in conjunction with other Cabinet officials, are urging Trump to grant effective amnesty to immigrants who entered the US illegally as children as part of a potential package of immigration reforms to be worked on with Congress. Elected on a pledge of ending Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme, this prospect creates further ambiguity over President Trump’s approach to illegal immigration, an issue that helped electrify his campaign.
Immigration is not only an issue in itself that is proving difficult for Trump: it is a symptom of the divide between nationalism and globalism that defined last year’s election and continues to trouble the administration. Earlier this year, Trump told the Washington Post ‘I’m a nationalist and a globalist’ in a hilariously bet-hedging attempt to bridge two polar ideologies. This new political divide is one that perhaps better encapsulates the turmoil in America better than left and right, and Trump is the biggest symptom, if not a solution. In an inauguration speech that was well spoken but addressed very little, he promised that his administration would follow two simple rules: ‘Buy American and hire American’. He has followed up this anti-globalist theme since with the promised withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate agreement and a few unkind, if diplomatically-interesting, words on the European Union.
However, like many of Trump’s convictions, it is unlikely that these were steeped in firmly rooted principles. In April, he performed a 180 on his plan to scrap NAFTA – reportedly because his agriculture secretary showed him a map showing a correlation between those who would be hurt by the withdrawal and his voting base. The sad episode not only demonstrates the fragility of principle of a President who bases major policy decisions – and perhaps no others divide America quite so cleanly between globalist and nationalist sympathies as the ever-thorny question of NAFTA – on how it may affect his electability. It should also highlight the inadequacies of an electoral college that is supposedly designed to safeguard the interests of all regional voters but facilitates a President who concerns himself not so much on the number of people affected by a policy proposal, but where they live and how they vote. He may still be preferable to Clinton, but it is high time that Trump irons out a political mission that he believes to be in the interests of all Americans, whether in Newark or Nashville.
Any hope of bridging the many chasms that divide Americans remains elusive, however. President Obama, whose very ascendancy to office had obvious historical significance, won the approval of a large majority of Americans for some time as a Nobel peace prize-winning President determined to halt the perpetual war machine, revive the economy, and heal the racial wounds of America. As the architect of numerous overseas offensives that proved costly in multiple metrics, the overseer of the lowest labour participation rate in history, and apologist of the hideous Black Lives Matter movement, he has bequeathed a horrifically divided country to his successor. President Trump has no realistic hope of making America whole again, as Hillary Clinton urged last year, but if he can find a real mission to his Presidency around which America can unite, he might just soothe the pains a little. Nobody can reasonably expect him to be remembered in the way that Kennedy was for civil rights and the space race, Reagan was for the downfall of communism, or Clinton was for a balanced budget. Nonetheless, an administration successfully directed to a principled and popular agenda will be crucial in making Trump’s Presidency remembered rather more fondly than it is seen now.