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