Trump can create a new America, but not through reality TV
Niall Ferguson says the new US president may well prove the liberals and doomsayers wrong, but only if his administration is able to leave aside the special effects and focus on creating a better life for ordinary Americans
The US is living through a kind of Trumpian Genesis: seven days of high-speed political creation. In the beginning, Trump created heaven (for supporters) and hell (for mainstream media). And Washington was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of CNN. And Trump said, let Obamacare be repealed.
And Trump saw the reports of his inauguration, that they were bad: and Trump divided the press from the administration.
And Trump called the first day a National Day of Patriotic Devotion.
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Day 2 was dominated by the women’s marches. On Day 3, Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and froze new hiring by the federal government. Day 4 saw five new executive orders, two reversing the Obama administration’s halt to the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines, and a bill requiring that the pipelines use American steel.
On the fifth day, Trump ordered Homeland Security to begin building a wall on the Mexican border. And on the sixth, his press secretary said the wall would be paid for by a 20 per cent tax on imports from Mexico. Technically, Trump was entitled to a day of rest on Friday. He didn’t take it.
On it goes. Each day brings fresh executive orders, interviews, tweets. Each day, the media shoots back at Trump. The New York Times openly accuses the president of lying. One of its columnists even asserts that he is mentally ill.
An American first: a president who was obviously mentally ill the moment he took office. Thanks, Comey https://t.co/FuZbCy5DxQ
— Paul Krugman (@paulkrugman) January 24, 2017
To read some of the coverage of Trump’s first week, you would think the Apocalypse was imminent. Indeed, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists last week moved its famous Doomsday Clock forward to 2½ minutes to midnight. Interesting. Stocks don’t usually rally on the eve of destruction, do they? Last week, the Dow Jones Industrial Average passed the 20,000 mark.
And no, don’t please tell me that the Berlin market boomed under Hitler. Trump is not a dictator.
Stalin’s biographer Stephen Kotkin described to me how the Soviet tyrant liked to dictate telegrams from the balcony of his summer house. These were then turned into edicts in Moscow and transmitted not only to the Soviet bureaucracy but communists worldwide. Non-compliance, or even a lack of enthusiasm, could mean the gulag or a firing squad.
Unlike Stalin, Trump is the president of a constitutional republic, a democracy and a federal state that has survived more than two centuries. In issuing executive orders, he is merely following the precedent set by the previous occupant of the White House.
Where Trump is unusual is in not being a regular politician but a businessman and, more importantly, a self-publicist of prodigious instinctive talent. Trump became president by doing to the Republican Party what Uber did to the taxi companies: he disintermediated it. He exploited his appeal as a TV “ratings machine” to bring his message to the electorate. Then his campaign strategists used social media to craft targeted online campaigns that moved voters away from Hillary Clinton in key swing states. Trump didn’t campaign in the traditional sense. He went viral.
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The key question is how far he will now be able to disintermediate the federal government, too.
Right now, there is a striking bifurcation between his performance in the role of president – which, as when he played the part of Republican nominee, is still directed at his supporters – and the actual process of government. The challenge is not to be distracted from the latter, which is pretty dull, by the former, which is endlessly entertaining.
The real point is not what Trump says. It is what his administration does. And that is not going to be the result of executive orders, much less tweets.
It is going to be result of what legislation the Republicans can pass in Congress, what actions each executive agency takes, and how many of the lawsuits filed against the administration are successful.
In short, Trump’s signals to his network of supporters should not be confused with actual governing. Most of what the media is currently covering is just reality TV. It’s how folks in small-town Pennsylvania would like the presidency to be. Reality TV should never be confused with reality, which is much more boring.
No one yet knows how all this will pan out. My hunch is that the liberal media are helping Trump greatly by setting expectations at rock-bottom. Any sign that this isn’t, after all, the end of days is going to look like success.
It may be that the net result of the Republican corporate tax reform will be economically disruptive, increasing the deficit and inflation. On the other hand, the repatriation of corporate capital may end up generating more revenue than anyone expects.
It may be that all the regulations introduced since the 1980s are all that stand between us and environmental and financial disaster. On the other hand, it may be that most of this regulation was merely a bureaucratic scam and a leaden weight on small and medium-sized businesses.
It may be that a trade war will break out with China, one that will hurt us almost as much as them. Or it may be that the Chinese will end up rolling over in the face of Trump’s aggressive negotiating tactics because their economic and political position is much weaker than most people appreciate.
And it may be that challenging the globalised economic order is a fool’s errand that will end up hurting everybody, including ordinary Americans, by raising consumer prices. Or it may be that globalisation had overshot, and it was high time we dialled back the volume of migration, offshoring of jobs and cross-border investment.
The question we need to ask is not: “Can Trump keep enraging the media and thereby signalling to his network that he is delivering change?” He can do that all day long. That’s not rule by decree; it’s rule by reality TV.
The real question is: “Can his administration – using the usual cumbersome channels – enact and implement reforms that will fundamentally improve the lives of ordinary Americans?”
The answer to that question will not be found in Trump’s Book of Genesis. But I doubt very much it is in the liberals’ Book of Revelation either.
Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University