Don’t let White House soap opera mask the flaws and strengths

The Weekend Australian - - WORLD - THE ECON­O­MIST

Al­most one year into Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­dency, you have to pinch your­self to make sense of it all. In Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s gos­sipy tale of the White House, which did not wel­come Trump’s an­niver­sary so much as punch it in the face, the leader of the free world is por­trayed as a mon­strously self­ish tod­dlerem­peror seen by his own staff as un­fit for of­fice. Amer­ica is caught up in a de­bate about the Pres­i­dent’s san­ity.

Trump-watch­ing is com­pul­sive — who hasn’t waited guiltily for the next tweet with hor­ri­fied an­tic­i­pa­tion? Given how much rests on the man’s shoul­ders, and how ill-suited he is to the pres­i­dency, the fo­cus on Trump’s char­ac­ter is both rea­son­able and nec­es­sary. But, as a record of his pres­i­dency so far, it is also in­com­plete and a dan­ger­ous dis­trac­tion.

To see why it is in­com­plete, con­sider first that the Amer­i­can econ­omy is in fine fet­tle, grow­ing by an an­nu­alised 3.2 per cent in the third quar­ter. Blue-col­lar wage growth is out­strip­ping the rest of the econ­omy. Since Barack Obama left, un­em­ploy­ment has con­tin­ued to fall and the stock­mar­ket to climb. Trump is lucky — the world econ­omy is en­joy­ing its strong­est up­swing since 2010. But he has made his luck by con­vinc­ing cor­po­rate Amer­ica that he is on its side. For many Amer­i­cans, es­pe­cially those dis­il­lu­sioned with Wash­ing­ton, a jeremiad over the im­mi­nent threat to all of Amer­ica from Trump sim­ply does not ring true.

De­spite his grenade-throw­ing cam­paign, Trump has not car­ried out his worst threats. As a can­di­date he spoke about slap­ping 45 per cent tar­iffs on all Chi­nese goods and ditch­ing the North Amer­i­can Free-Trade Agree­ment with Canada and Mex­ico. There may soon be trou­ble on both those fronts, but not on that orig­i­nal scale. He also branded NATO as ob­so­lete and pro­posed the mass de­por­ta­tion of 11 mil­lion il­le­gal im­mi­grants. So far, how­ever, the West­ern al­liance holds and the level of de­por­ta­tions in the 12 months to Septem­ber was not strik­ingly dif­fer­ent from ear­lier years.

In of­fice Trump’s leg­isla­tive ac­com­plish­ments have been mod­est, and mixed. A tax re­form that cut rates and sim­pli­fied some of the rules was also re­gres­sive and un­funded. His an­tipa­thy to reg­u­la­tion has in­vig­o­rated an­i­mal spir­its, but at an un­known cost to the en­vi­ron­ment and hu­man health. His pro­posed with­drawal from the Paris cli­mate agree­ment and the fledg­ling Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship was, in our view, fool­ish, but hardly beyond the pale of Republican think­ing.

His op­por­tunism and lack of prin­ci­ple, while shame­ful, may yet mean that he is more open to deals than most of his pre­de­ces­sors.

The dan­ger of the Trump char­ac­ter ob­ses­sion is that it dis­tracts from deeper changes in Amer­ica’s sys­tem of gov­ern­ment. The bu­reau­cracy is so un­der­staffed that it is re­ly­ing on in­dus­try hacks to draft pol­icy. They have shaped dereg­u­la­tion and writ­ten clauses into the tax bill that pass costs from share­hold­ers to so­ci­ety. Be­cause Se­nate Repub­li­cans con­firmed so few judges in Obama’s last two years, Trump is mov­ing the ju­di­ciary dra­mat­i­cally to the right. And non-stop out­rage also drowns out Wash­ing­ton’s prob­lem: the power of the swamp and its dis­con­nec­tion from or­di­nary vot­ers.

Trump is a deeply flawed man without the judg­ment or tem­per­a­ment to lead a great coun­try. Amer­ica is be­ing dam­aged by his pres­i­dency. But, af­ter a cer­tain point, rak­ing over his un­fit­ness be­comes an ex­er­cise in wish-ful­fil­ment, be­cause the sub­text is so of­ten the de­sire for his early re­moval from of­fice.

For the time be­ing that is a fan­tasy. The Mueller probe into his cam­paign’s deal­ings with Rus­sia should run its course. Only then can Amer­ica hope to gauge whether his con­duct meets the test for im­peach­ment. Oust­ing Trump via the 25th Amend­ment, as some favour, would be even harder. The type of in­ca­pac­ity its au­thors had in mind was a co­matose John F. Kennedy had he sur­vived his as­sas­si­na­tion. Trump’s men­tal state is im­pos­si­ble to di­ag­nose from afar, but he does not ap­pear to be any mad­der than he was when the vot­ers chose him over Hil­lary Clinton. Un­less he can no longer recog­nise him­self in the mir­ror (which, in Trump’s case, would surely be one of the last pow­ers to fade) nei­ther his cab­i­net nor congress will vote him out.

Nei­ther should they. Alarm at Trump’s van­dal­ism to the dig­nity and norms of the pres­i­dency cuts both ways. Were it easy for a group of Wash­ing­ton in­sid­ers to re­move a pres­i­dent us­ing the 25th Amend­ment, Amer­i­can democ­racy would swerve to­wards oli­garchy. The rush to con­demn, or ex­on­er­ate, Trump be­fore Mueller fin­ishes his in­quiry politi­cises jus­tice. Each time Trump’s critics put their aim of stop­ping him be­fore their means of do­ing so, they feed par­ti­san­ship and help set a prece­dent that will some­day be used against a good pres­i­dent fight­ing a wor­thy but un­pop­u­lar cause.

That logic holds for North Korea, too. Trump is not the first pres­i­dent to raise ques­tions about who is fit to con­trol nu­clear weapons — con­sider Richard Nixon’s drink­ing or Kennedy’s re­liance on painkillers, an­tianx­i­ety drugs and, dur­ing the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis, an an­tipsy­chotic. Oust­ing Trump on the gut feel­ing that he might be men­tally un­sta­ble smacks of a coup. Would you then re­move a hawk for be­ing trig­ger-happy or an evan­gel­i­cal for be­liev­ing in the Rap­ture?

Trump has been a poor pres­i­dent in his first year. In his sec­ond he may cause Amer­ica grave dam­age. But the pres­i­den­tial te­len­ov­ela is a di­ver­sion. He and his ad­min­is­tra­tion need to be held prop­erly to ac­count for what they ac­tu­ally do.

Trump’s van­dal­ism to the dig­nity and norms of the pres­i­dency cuts both ways

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