Can apprentice Trump rise to meet the stature needed for the Oval Office?
Kevin Rafferty says political greenhorn Donald Trump clearly does not understand foreign policy, and any hopes that he will leave his populist rhetoric behind may be misplaced amid the rise of nationalistic leaders worldwide
Americans, especially the 47.3 per cent who voted for Donald Trump to become US president, may come to regret that day. The other seven billion of us who had no say in the election should brace for icy political and economic winds. If Trump fulfils even a few of his campaign promises, particularly on trade, immigration, terrorism, and repealing Obamacare, life will be tough for Americans.
It will be far tougher for non-Americans, especially those in Asia, because Trump clearly does not understand foreign policy. A man whose way of dealing with China is to impose 45 per cent tariffs and who wants “to bomb the s*** out of” Islamic State and steal the oil is likely to be a threat to world peace.
Trump will be the first president never to have served in government or the military. As a billionaire businessman, he is the polar opposite of the blue-collar white Americans and waitress moms who were the backbone of his popular support.
Trump’s victory initially spooked markets worldwide but the panic abated after he gave a conciliatory speech, promising to be a president for all Americans. Was his campaign of outrage and hate and lies and denunciations then just a clever wheeze to seize the headlines and get elected? Will a new Trump be now unwrapped, softly and cuddly and statesmanlike, and America go back to being the home of the brave and the land of the free?
The long ugly months of the campaign were a wretched advertisement for democracy. If candidates now treat elections as open season for any and all kinds of lying and cheating, then America is really in the gutter. Nevertheless, some responsible commentators and supporters claim that President Trump will be a reformed character, who will not only bring order but also go-getting business leadership to the Oval Office. Others say that we should relax because changes of government do not affect economic fundamentals; even radicals have to recognise hard realities.
There are many problems with such arguments. One is over how Trump will make the transition from businessman to the highest public office. In the privacy of his own office and boardroom, Trump could rant and rage and use his trademark “You’re fired” slogan at his own command. As president, his every word, deed and tweet will go into the public record. He will have a million workers under him plus another million military servicemen in his role as commander-in-chief; but he will have fewer than 2,000 appointments in his own gift, many of those subject to the advice and consent of the Senate.
As a boss, Trump could set his own agenda. As president, he will be a prisoner of other people’s agendas in a highly complex world of which he has little knowledge. If he does the job properly and delegates, the problems that come across his desk will be those that have proved impossible for subordinates to solve. But can a maverick CEO delegate easily? And to whom? Trump’s campaign was very much a personal show, although with some strong-minded right-wing stalwarts urging him on, including combative former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani and retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn. Vice-President-elect Michael Pence, Trump’s guide round the swamp of Washington politics, has a well-attested reputation as an orthodox right-wing on hot-button issues.
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Who will Trump seek to satisfy first? Middle Americans want their jobs back. Republican right-wingers want tax cuts, abolition of Obamacare, an end to environmental restrictions, and recapture of the Supreme Court. Meeting such leading promises risks opening dangerous divisions in America.
Abolishing Obamacare would leave tens of millions of poor Americans without health care. Deporting millions of illegal immigrants would be costly and time-consuming, as well as damaging to the US economy. Stepping up extreme vetting of Muslims as potential terrorists would play into the hands of the very terrorists who depict America as infidel territory ripe for cleansing.
Trump’s economic plans have too many contradictions and will either plunge America – and with it the world – into icy recession or cause the deficit to explode. America’s lamented lost jobs in coal mining, steel and old manufacturing will not come back unless middle Americans become more competitive to take on a globalising world.
Trump’s easy temptation will be to indulge in tearing up supposedly unequal or damaging trade deals as a cheap political bone for America’s dispossessed. Imposing tariffs on cheap Chinese goods, repealing the North American Free Trade Agreement, or throwing away the Trans-Pacific and Transatlantic partnerships will be cheap shots, though with expensive consequences for the world and ultimately for America itself.
China and Russia would be the immediate beneficiaries of any American retreat, but it could also trigger Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear weapons, stretching already taut geopolitical tensions in Asia.
There is a lot of wishful thinking about leaders growing in stature when they assume high office. However, the sad truth is that leaders are becoming more nationalistic with narrower views. Who understands that sometimes short-term national sacrifices must be made for the longer-term good? It is a long stretch to imagine that Trump will be any different or show more imagination or generosity.
Journalist Kevin Rafferty has reported on international affairs from the US for over 30 years