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Donald Trump

Donald Trump in the White House: a new Jekyll and Hyde tale

Niall Ferguson is reminded of the good-versus-evil puzzle as the US president goes from friendly to prickly and back on a weekly basis, but it is chief strategist Steve Bannon who seems intent on being a full-time Mr Hyde

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 February, 2017, 5:35pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 February, 2017, 7:43pm

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: it’s one of those stories that hardly anyone ever reads but everyone knows about. You may find it helps you cope with the “Time of Trump”.

The past two weeks have almost been too much. Each day produces enough news for a week. The most disorientating thing is that, just as you are all set to loathe something the president has done, he does something you rather like.

On January 27, the president signed an executive order on refugees and immigrants that was hastily drafted, messily executed and disastrously received. Just days later, he announced his nominee to take the place of the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court: Neil Gorsuch, a judge so conservative that as a schoolboy he quoted Henry Kissinger and read William F. Buckley, the ineffable nemesis of 1960s liberalism.

Watch: President Trump names Neil Gorsuch as Supreme Court nominee

Gorsuch’s nomination was as deftly handled as the order on refugees had been botched. Just compare the president’s tweets on the two issues.

So will the real Donald Trump please stand up?

In Jekyll and Hyde, the narrator mistakenly believes he is dealing with two people: his urbane friend Henry Jekyll and the ogre Edward Hyde. The equivalent delusion today is the argument that there are two different sets of tweets: those written by Trump’s staff, and those written by Trump himself.

Will [world leaders] get Dr Jekyll, so affectionate that ... he wants to hold hands? Or will they get the prickly Mr Hyde?

Only gradually does the reader of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella come to realise that Jekyll and Hyde are the same man. For the ghastly truth, as Jekyll’s confession goes, is “that man is not truly one, but truly two … All human beings … are commingled out of good and evil.”

The Trump presidency seems set to re-enact Jekyll and Hyde on a weekly basis. World leaders will henceforth pick up the phone with trepidation. Will they get Dr Jekyll, so affectionate that, as Theresa May discovered, he wants to hold hands? Or will they get the prickly Mr Hyde, as Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull did?

Watch: Trump on tough phone calls with world leaders

Of course, Trump’s metamorphoses are the result of a very familiar political process – where a new administration goes from Dr Campaign into Mr Government. Yet, I can think of no other presidency that has begun with a campaign propagandist being elevated above the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the National Security Council.

White House aides who wrote Trump’s travel ban see it as just the start

The brilliant but inflammatory Stephen Bannon seems intent on being Mr Hyde on a full-time basis. “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while,” Trump’s chief strategist said last week. “The media here is the opposition party.”

Like Mr Hyde, Bannon has a restless, combative energy. He wrote much of Trump’s stridently protectionist inaugural address. He is the one who set the blistering pace of those first two weeks, a pace calculated to prove to Middle America that Trump will deliver on every one of his campaign pledges before the snow melts.

Bannon also has a genius for provocation. As chairman of Breitbart News, he learned exactly how to delight the populists of the heartland and to infuriate the liberals of the coast.

Bannon’s confrontational style is about to be applied to foreign policy. First up is Iran, with their ballistic missile tests. China is likely to be next. Will Dr Jekyll be content with exerting economic pressure? Or will Mr Hyde insist on gunboats?

‘He is running a cabal’: top Trump adviser Steve Bannon is the man to watch at the White House

In the book, Hyde is violent by nature, running over little girls and beating up old men. But the strength of the bully lies in only picking on the weak.

Trump has a great talent for detecting weakness in rivals. We shall soon see if Iran and China are the next weaklings he rolls over.

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford