It is important to start examining how much will change with Donald John Trump, the unusual American president who fails to conform to the usual standards expected of such an office. There is much to play for within American politics over the next few years and doom-laden prophets of doom who have seen Trump as the harbinger of some sort of American fascism are mistaken. Trump has to deliver on at last some of his electoral promises to the working-class voters who helped secure his election.
By Paul B Rich*
The initial excitement in a surprising presidential election has now largely faded away as global audiences start to examine the realities of a Trump administration in the White House. It is important to start examining just how much will change with such an unusual American president who fails to conform to the usual standards expected of such an office. In an election high on rhetoric, often of the lowest kind, and low on hard policy, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how things will evolve. But several things are starting to seem clear.
First, the election is by no means the harbinger of a new Churchillian- type dark age. The Trump administration is likely to prove quite weak and destined to disappoint many of the working-class rustbelt voters who looked for some sort of quick fix to long-term problems of deindustrialisation. Trump lacks a party and grass roots political machine to organise his support into a more durable coalition in American politics: this is a major reason why the epithet of “fascist” has never rung true.
Trump is essentially a media-savvy “populist”without a party who sees politics more in terms of a reality TV show than serious and protracted political negotiation expected in politics rather than the “deals” achieved in business. After a short honeymoon period, he is likely to find making progress in legislation increasingly difficult in the U.S political system unless he surrounds himself with skilled political entrepreneurs rather than blind ideologues.
So far there are only a few signs of this, though strategic realists can derive some comfort from the appointment of General Mattis as Secretary of Defense. But Trump has also appointed as his National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, widely seen as an extreme Islamophobe prone to conspiratorial thinking and understanding Jihadist terrorist movements in religious terms, ignoring in effect the social and economic background of terrorist recruits or issues of marginalised youth. Such appointments send out mixed signals and indicates that the direction of policy under Trump might be hard to read.
Certainly, by appointing in some cases political has-beens or right wing-extremists Trump may end up paralysing his administration as he finds himself cut adrift from the mainstream political class he has done so much to alienate. This is already evident in the poisonous atmosphere now pervading his relations with the intelligence community on the issue of alleged Russian hacking during the US presidential election. It is hard to recall any similar situation in the run-up to a new president taking office; and Trump looks set to be one of the most divisive presidents in recent times at a time when much of the dominant mythology that had underpinned American self-belief centred on ideas of the American Dream have fallen into serious doubt among sections of the population.
It has often been remarked how Trump displays some of the features of populism and nativism, which stretch back, via William Jennings Bryan in the 1890s, to the No-Nothings in the 1840s: these were movements and charismatic political figures bound by unstable political ideologies and intense dislike of established moneyed interests. They usually lacked much political focus and largely failed to secure any durable change in the political system, certainly in terms of the domination of the two main parties. This populism was often quite radical in orientation as it expressed the ideas of the outsiders: small landholders against land barons and cattlemen, for instance, and small towns and rural communities against big cities. In the South, though, it took the form of a racist populism defending Jim Crow segregation, while more generally it expressed the poorly-educated but religiously-observant communities in the Mid-West and the South against the prosperous East Coast elite.
Trump has certainly expressed some of this populist rhetoric in the election; but there are major doubts about its authenticity as I think this was really a contrived pseudo populism conjured up by a successful TV reality host. Trump was very successful in packaging himself to appeal to an angry section of the white middle and lower class who felt let down by the failure to deal with the banking crash of 2008 and the ever-widening income differences between average wage and salary earners and the super-rich. Ironically Trump looks set to make this issue even worse by cutting taxes for the very wealthy; and unless he really can fulfill promises to repatriate thousands of jobs to the United States from countries such as Mexico, he is in danger of rapidly disillusioning his supporters
This brings us to the second major theme emerging from Trump’s election, namely neo-isolationism. I say “neo” because it is hard to see a Trump administration being able to return to anything like the isolationism of the inter-war years following the refusal of the US Congress to enter the League of Nations in the early 1920s. The isolationism of this time was driven more by party than president since it was a Republican Congress that vetoed the application to join the League by President Woodrow Wilson. The plutocratic Republican presidents of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover were the political consequences of this, and, though the Republicans were eventually defeated by Franklin Roosevelt in the landmark 1932 election, they did not go into political meltdown but remained a major political force right through the years of the New Deal and of World War Two.
The situation now is considerably different with Trump standing out on what seemed to many to be an isolationist platform against the Republican Party, many of whose leaders refused during the election to endorse him. He has several possible routes to follow in this situation: he can play the tough guy and ignore this, though his lack of interest in day to day politics and short attention span suggests that this will be unlikely.
Another more obvious tactics is to stay much of the time in Trump Tower and, like some latter-day absolutist monarch, play hard to get and win over, on his terms, at least some of his Republican opponents with suitable jobs. This is the likely sort of behaviour by a property tycoon who sees politics as essentially a series of deals. Appointing hardliners like the racist Steve Bannon as his political advisor is thus very possibly another tactic in this playing-hard-to-get strategy, though if it fails he might find his administration being taken over by the lunatic fringe and pursuing an ideological programme that would split America and lead, very possibly, to urban riots and unrest. This is the nightmare scenario that some pessimistic observers such as George Soros have predicted, suggesting a Trump presidency will lead the U.S into class war and a police state, though, as I suggest here, there are multiple factors working against it.
Over time, of course, Trump might mellow anyway and move towards the political mainstream. If this occurs it will echo the shift from the first ideological Reagan administration evolved into a more pragmatic second administration that dispensed with the Cold War rhetoric of the Soviet Union as the “evil empire” and moved towards negotiations with President Gorbachev, helping pave the way for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.
There is thus some cause for cautious hope when we come to the third theme of foreign policy. Trump’s links with President Putin might translate into hard progress diplomatically on Syria in a way that might never have occurred if Hillary Clinton had been elected president. The history of diplomacy suggests that successful outcomes depend on parties forgetting about rival belief systems and negotiating tangible agreements seen to accord with perceived national interests. A Trump administration is thus likely to be narrowly realist in foreign policy, looking towards successfully negotiating a series of deals it views as favouring the American national interest. It will not have any wider Kissinger-type vision of transforming global order and will be forced to accept a certain level of pragmatism regarding several issues.
Starting with Syria, therefore, it is possible to see the US under Trump securing at least an interim peace settlement that maintains the Assad regime in power for the next few years, while reducing the part of Syria he controls into a Russian client state. A new balance of power politics will be established in the Middle East with the US playing a far less prominent role than formerly. This decline will continue a pattern of withdrawal that started under Obama in 2011 with the troop draw-down in Iraq. The US will still exert a more indirect influence via other actors in the region; though a close relationship with Israel will indicate that this will be the new “special relationship” in US policy, as Trump ends up sustaining and supporting an increasingly aggressive and expansionist government in Jerusalem. With Arab states largely preoccupied by regional concerns, such as the proxy war in Yemen and continuing state breakdown in Libya and Somalia, it is hard to see what significant opposition will occur if Israel intensifies pressure on the Palestinian communities on the West Bank. Indeed, this is the “permissive environment” that hard-line Zionists have long been dreaming of and it is possible to see the early stages of an ethnic cleansing taking place over the next few years. Palestinian refugees will join those from Syria and Eritrea and elsewhere in the exodus as Israeli hard-liners pursue a strategy of territorial consolidation by ever expanding Jewish settlement over most of the area of the former Palestinian mandate.
Further afield, Trump is likely to continue the rebalancing of American grand strategy begun under Obama away from the Middle East to North East and South East Asia. Taking a tough line with China on trade and rejecting the TPP might well spill over into increasingly aggressive military posturing, especially in disputed areas such as the South China Sea.
Though Trump has not been averse to attacking fellow members of NATO for not paying a fair share to the alliance (Luxemburg spends only 0.9 percent of its GDP on defence) he will find it rather more difficult to do the same in South East Asia towards states such as Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines given how vital these allies are in any containment policy towards China. As we have often been reminded, the Cold War is by no means over in the Pacific, especially on the Korean peninsula, and it is highly likely that a Trump administration will end up behaving not too differently to previous Republican administrations stretching back to Eisenhower in the 1950s.
In the end, what’s in a name or a label? Trump has already achieved a remarkably distinctive brand label known round the world. Being called a “donkey” by ISIS is no bad publicity and can play well with a domestic American audience, especially if it is accompanied by some tangible results such as a few jobs, such as those in the motor industry, saved for American workers rather than going to Mexico. Given the interlocking nature of the modern global economy it is impossible for any US administration to be seriously isolationist, despite the obvious political payoff from protectionist rhetoric.
Such rhetoric will almost certainly be the currency of US politics over the next few years as Trump faces the political fact that he obtained office through a flawed electoral system that ensured a majority in the electoral college despite losing the national poll by some 3 million votes, repeating the same defeat of Al Gore by George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election. His authority and legitimacy are tarnished right from the start and much will depend on how far the Democratic Party can reorganise itself over the next few years and come up with a compelling candidate to challenge either Trump or his successor in the next presidential election. Unless the Republicans continue to do well in mid-term elections, only two years away Trump faces the prospect that he could be a lame duck president able to achieve very little by 2019.
There is thus much to play for within American politics over the next few years and doom-laden prophets of doom who have seen Trump as the harbinger of some sort of American fascism are I believe mistaken, though there could be threats to press liberty – though these too hardly start with Trump. There are short-term payoffs in this media-inspired pseudo populism but, like all populisms, it is always at risk of losing ephemeral electoral support. Trump, in the end, has to deliver on at last some of his electoral promises to the working-class voters who helped secure his election in such strategically vital states as Michigan and Pennsylvania: if he fails to do this and ends up simply cutting taxes for the super-rich, then this will be an administration that will soon find itself in trouble.
About the author:
*Paul B Rich, Editor, Small Wars and Insurgencies (Routledge), is an advisor with Mantraya. He can be contacted at [email protected] Views expressed in this piece are that of the author.
This article was published by Mantraya