Donald Trump: Saviour or simply unstable?
Kevin Rafferty says the US presidential nominee’s sweeping promises at the Republican convention may have thrilled his backers, but they stir unease among some of the party faithful, as well as America’s allies and rivals – not least those in Asia
What an extraordinary coronation week it was in Cleveland, Ohio, that saw Donald Trump anointed as Republican Party candidate to be the 45th president of the United States in November’s election. It was raucous, at times bizarre, and at others deeply troubling.
Most troubling of all was when Saviour Trump delivered his acceptance speech promising a new shining America and strutting the stage as the person who would deliver a renewed, strong, proud, safe and great America from January 20, 2017.
He declared himself the law and order candidate who would also restore America economically; reduce taxes; create “millions of new jobs, and trillions in new wealth”; cut big business and elite media to size; repeal Obamacare; rebuild infrastructure; build the “great border wall” with Mexico; end America’s “international humiliation”; reduce immigration; curb globalisation; renegotiate “horrible” trade deals with China and Nafta; scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership; end “China’s outrageous theft of intellectual property, along with their illegal product dumping, and their devastating currency manipulation”; “defeat the barbarians” of Islamic State and “brutal Islamic terrorism”; and free the country “from the petty politics of the past”.
Only an Almighty Saviour could achieve the tasks that Trump listed. But Trump, with no experience in government, clearly believes in himself. In many ways, the convention has been an exercise in narcissism. Far from being the reluctant hero who emerges to fanfare to make his victory speech on the final night, Trump was everywhere every day orchestrating his celebrations.
Behind the triumphal jamboree, however, there were – and are – disturbing questions, particularly about Trump, but also about the direction of US politics. A Catholic priest, Monsignor Kieran Harrington, offered a public prayer that the convention would help “inspire us to build a more noble society.”
There was little sign of that, as one Trump supporter after another launched tirades of hatred against his opponent, Hillary Clinton. It amounted to a witch-hunt that made Trump’s earlier taunt of “crooked Hillary” sound tame.
The chorus of name-calling and blame-throwing meant that there was no opportunity to learn the practical politics of how Trump plans to make America safe again, or great again, or create jobs and boost economic growth. His promises were lost in the roaring gale of invective.
On the eve of his victory speech, Trump himself threw another few clouds of smoke into the mystery of how he would actually govern if elected president. He said in an interview with The New York Times that he might not automatically come to the aid of allies if they were attacked: they would have to prove themselves, he suggested.
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Even the Republican right was surprised and wondered how it squared with the promises of Mike Pence, Trump’s vice-presidential running mate, that the US would again be a reliable ally. David Frum, speech-writer to president George W. Bush, declared on CNN that Trump’s statement amounted to “an encouragement to war”.
For allies and foes alike, particularly in the tinder-box of the Asia-Pacific region, Trump’s unpredictability should be a matter of concern and it is likely to increase existing tensions.
China might initially enjoy the prospects of a President Trump determined to make allies prove themselves and pay their way, which logically could lead to interesting policy changes and diminishing American involvement in the region. But Beijing should also remember the ancient curse of living in interesting times. Nervousness by Japan and South Korea could lead them to go nuclear – which some Trump supporters have advocated. It might also embolden North Korea, which could turn interesting times into incendiary ones. Asia needs more cooperation and harmony, not more tension and conflict, if this region is to fulfil its potential.
America’s mainstream media looks with horror on the prospect of a Trump presidency precisely because qualifications as a wheeler-dealer businessman disqualify him from high office where he has to serve the interests of the whole people, not just those of the Trump family.
His tendency to shoot from the mouth first and to think later increases the worries, as does the fact that Trumpetings often rub out the line between truth and fiction.
America’s tragedy will be if the election is decided by who tells the biggest lies best. Hillary Clinton is especially distrusted, and the constant exaggerations of Trump and friends may be eroding her popular support. Trump blamed Clinton, as secretary of state, for all the ills that had beset the Middle East, including Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Syria, which he claimed had been peaceful before she came along. His audience lapped it up and bayed for Clinton’s blood. The question is whether America at large will go along with his narrative.
A coach driver on the outskirts of the Republican convention told me: “I am inclining to Trump. How can we trust the Clinton dynasty? Our politics and government demands a big shake-up, which Trump is the only one who can achieve. Whether it will be good or bad, we will have to take our chance.” Be careful what you wish for.
Kevin Rafferty, journalist and quondam professor of Osaka University, is travelling through the US