‘Epically divisive’: Donald Trump at an election night rally in Manhattan. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters
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Terrifying Trump will turn into Tamed Trump? It’s an illusion
US politics – Opinion
His election presents great dangers for both the global economy and the international security system
Set your alarm clock. On 20 January 2017, Donald Trump will take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the most stunning real-estate acquisition in the history of the modern world. In the time of transition between then and now, the apprentice president will be taught how to use the nuclear codes. He will also participate in a simulated crisis, a war game designed to better his understanding of how the White House deals with the unexpected.
For a trumpfounded world, as for many in his own country, his election is the Black Swan event of a generation. A serial bankrupt will be at the wheel of the world’s largest economy. A man with no experience of elected office will preside over a government machine with 2.8 million civilian employees and 1.5 million military personnel. A man who will be pursued into the White House by a pack of lawsuits will be in charge of the FBI. A man repeatedly described as unfit for the office by senior members of his own party will be the commander-in-chief with his finger on the trigger of more than 4,000 nuclear warheads. A man who knows little about the rest of the world will become the most powerful person on the planet. Two-thirds of Americans told pollsters that he lacks the temperament to be president, but he is going to be put in the high seat anyway.
One way to deal with a shock of such magnitude is to try to reduce it to more digestible proportions by telling yourself that it will not be as terrible as first feared. This is how some of the humiliated political establishment in the US are trying to cope with their nightmare. Some here and elsewhere in Europe are also trying to process their horror by telling themselves that he can be controlled. They endeavour to normalise the idea of President Trump by telling us that a man who bid for power by trampling over democratic norms will be constrained by the traditional boundaries once he has office. On this comforting account of the future, the Terrifying Trump of the campaign trail will morph into Tamed Trump. The most optimistic types even conjecture that he might evolve into a version of Ronald Reagan, highly scary to much of the planet when first elected, but a president who ultimately ushered the world towards a peaceful conclusion to the cold war.
Well, being an optimist by disposition, I would like to think that the rosy view is correct, because if he unleashes a fraction of the things he has threatened, he will be calamitous for America and the planet. But there are multiple grounds for scepticism about the sanguine view of President Trump. To believe he will turn into some sort of benign figure repeats the mistake constantly made as he marched on power. Some of those saying that he will be caged by office are the same people who said that no candidate could ever secure the White House by disparaging and demonising so many segments of the electorate. Yet get there he has. Orthodoxy contended that no candidate could prevail by trampling on so many democratic norms, among them threatening to lock up his opponent if he won and refusing to concede defeat if he lost. Yet prevail he did. Having secured the White House by shredding so many conventions, it takes one hell of a leap of faith to believe that he will now be controlled by the traditional rules.
Another reason to be doubtful of the Tamed Trump thesis is the nature of his mandate. He has made the ritual noises of conciliation that follow every election by saying he will seek to govern for “all Americans”, but those hoary cliches sound especially empty coming from his lips. He did not gain ascendancy on a promise of unity and compromise, but by running on a platform of resentment, rage and bigotry. He was the most polarising presidential candidate of my lifetime.
He is already an epically divisive president before he has even take the inaugural oath. This will be compounded because the “Trump triumph” is a building without concrete foundations. He lost the popular vote, only gaining the White House thanks to the eccentricities of the American electoral system. Just one in four Americans voted to put him there, which is worth bearing in mind whenever you hear anyone calling this a “revolution” or a “popular insurgency”.
What Teddy Roosevelt dubbed “the bully pulpit” of the presidency can give its holder enormous sway over the emotions of that nation. At times of crisis, a president can cool passions or inflame them, stoke divisions or try to bridge them. I think we already have clues aplenty about what President Trump will do with the bully pulpit. There are compelling reasons to be fearful about how a man of his temperament will respond when he fails to make good on his many undeliverable promises. His impulse will be to try to displace the blame by unleashing the demagogic furies against minorities and foreigners.
Some of his more prominent supporters have been telling the world that it can relax because his wilder statements and more outlandish pledges were not meant to be taken seriously. It was just “campaign shtick”, a comic routine. You know he is a liar; take comfort in that. He has indeed flipped and flopped over a host of issues, but on some themes he has been as constant as the northern star. He lies a lot, but he does not lie all the time. There are critical policy areas in which he should be taken both literally and seriously. He is an economic nationalist. He has been clear and consistent about that and over many years. When he told America that it had been “raped” by cheap imports from China, he believed it – and so did his voters. That was key to his victories in the rust belt states in the midwest.
Some Brexiters are getting excited by the idea that he will fast-track a sweetheart trade deal for Britain. They should have a cold shower. A Trump presidency will not be friendly to the free trade on which so much of global prosperity now depends. There is a real and serious danger of a slide into protectionism or, worse, a full-scale tariff war of the sort that was so ruinous in the 1930s. Believe him when he says he will put “America first”. He may have stolen the slogan from previous iterations of American nativism and isolationism, but he has made it his own and made it resonant with voters weary of foreign entanglements, foreign workers and foreigners in general. His election presents the most serious challenge to the international order that has prevailed since 1945. “The leader of the free world” has often played the role imperfectly, but the lazy assumption of the rest of the world’s democracies, especially those in Europe, has been that it could always be relied on to be there. We now see how complacent that was.
He is not the first American to say that its allies have been freeloading. Europeans have for too long relied on the US to be the guarantor of their security without asking themselves how long an increasingly resentful America would be willing to pick up a disproportionate amount of the bill. What is scarily novel about him is that he is the first incoming American president to have declared, in language noted in Moscow and Beijing, that his commitment to Nato and the security pacts with Japan and South Korea is ambiguous.
President Trump will be an especially bracing experience for a Britain that is already in the processing of severing itself from its other historic alliance with the EU. Successive British prime ministers have flattered themselves and their citizens with the idea that this country has a unique bond with the US that awards it privileged access to the Oval Office and amplified influence on the world stage. Any signs to the contrary have been a cause of alarm. When Barack Obama was elected president, it was reported as a great slight that he had a longer first phone call with Nicolas Sarkozy, then the French president, than he did with Gordon Brown. Theresa May was put on hold until Donald Trump had talked to nine other leaders before she finally got to exchange banalities about “the special relationship”. Downing Street has no links to the next American president or his inner circle. Neither does anyone else in Europe.
British ministers are deriving comfort from the idea that he is essentially a deal-maker, a man who once said: “Everything is negotiable.” Where they find reassurance, I see cause for great alarm in an entirely transactional, values-free American foreign policy that no longer feels any moral responsibility to champion liberty, human rights and the rule of law. Just hear the delight being expressed by autocrats the world over.
The gravest threat to the planet is a conflict between major powers. We were already in the throes of a turbulent transition from American dominance into a multi-polar world. Even the most level-headed leadership would struggle to manage that massive geopolitical adjustment. That is why the temperament of Donald Trump, a thin-skinned narcissist prone to react to the slightest provocation by lashing out, so terrifies so many.
By all means hope for the best. It will make it easier to sleep at night. The sensible will prepare for the worst.
source : The Guardian