Dis­miss­ing Trump would un­der­es­ti­mate his im­pact

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is push­ing through changes that could have im­pli­ca­tions for decades to come

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Suzanne Lynch

It was ap­proach­ing 3am on the morn­ing of Wed­nes­day, Novem­ber 9th, and Don­ald Trump took to the stage at the New York Hil­ton in mid­town Man­hat­tan. Min­utes ear­lier, Hil­lary Clin­ton had called the bil­lion­aire busi­ness­man to con­cede the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Trump, sur­rounded by his fam­ily, be­gan his vic­tory speech.

Across town in the Jav­its Cen­ter, a venue cho­sen specif­i­cally for its glass ceil­ing, the mood at the Clin­ton elec­tion-night party had dark­ened as the re­sults rolled in. Shortly af­ter 2am, Clin­ton’s cam­paign man­ager John Podesta ap­peared on stage and told Clin­ton’s sup­port­ers there would be no fur­ther state­ment that night. As the as­sem­bled crowds be­gan to leave, the na­tion and the world, looked on in dis­be­lief.

Don­ald J Trump, a prop­erty ty­coon and re­al­ity tele­vi­sion star with no po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence, de­fied all odds and up­ended cen­turies of po­lit­i­cal con­ven­tion to clinch the 45th pres­i­dency of the United States.

The elec­tion was close – a con­flu­ence of fac­tors in­clud­ing a bet­ter- than- ex­pected turnout of white work­ing- class vot­ers in key states and lower par­tic­i­pa­tion of black and His­panic vot­ers helped to push him over the magic 270 elec­toral college vote line. But his vic­tory was undis­puted.

Trump’s ag­gres­sive cam­paign­ing style and un­likely emer­gence as the saviour of the white work­ing- class de­liv­ered, as states across the mid­west, from Penn­syl­va­nia to Ohio to Wis­con­sin, which had been won by Barack Obama and were once solidly Demo­crat, fell to Trump.

Even at this early stage, many of Trump’s most vo­cif­er­ous crit­ics hoped the man who had flouted all norms of po­lit­i­cal dis­course dur­ing the cam­paign – call­ing Mex­i­cans rapists and boast­ing about sex­u­ally as­sault­ing women – would tem­per his be­hav­iour as pres­i­dent. His vic­tory speech even con­tained a rare note of hu­mil­ity and dig­nity. “Now it’s time for Amer­ica to bind the wounds of divi­sion. We have to get to­gether,” he said as he de­clared vic­tory in the early hours of Novem­ber 9th. “To all Repub­li­cans, Democrats and In­de­pen­dents across this na­tion, I say it is time for us to come to­gether as one united peo­ple.”

But any hope the pres­i­dent would make the tran­si­tion from mer­cu­rial can­di­date to a pres­i­dent for all Amer­i­cans quickly evap­o­rated.

In the 10 months since his in­au­gu­ra­tion, Don­ald Trump has torn up the po­lit­i­cal rule­book and con­tin­ued to prac­tise the par­tic­u­lar brand of di­vi­sive, ag­grieved pop­ulism that helped pro­pel him to the White House.

Plot­ted his tran­si­tion

Even from the early days of his vic­tory, as he plot­ted his tran­si­tion to Wash­ing­ton from the gilded sur­round­ings of Trump Tower, con­duct­ing the in­ter­view process for the top jobs in the White House like a re­al­ity TV show, there were signs that Trump would not aban­don his in­flam­ma­tory rhetoric.

His ex­plo­sive in­au­gu­ra­tion speech, in which he in­voked a dystopian im­age of Amer­ica as a waste­land, with “rusted- out fac­to­ries scat­tered like tomb­stones across the land­scape of our na­tion”, was a sign of things to come.

Within days of his in­au­gu­ra­tion he signed an ex­ec­u­tive or­der out­law­ing im­mi­gra­tion from seven Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­tries, a move that sparked protests across the coun­try and the world and a flurry of le­gal chal­lenges.

Three weeks later, he fired na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Michael Flynn, the for­mer gen­eral who was pic­tured sit­ting next to Putin at a 2015 din­ner in Moscow, af­ter it was re­vealed he had held undis­closed meet­ings with Rus­sian of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing Rus­sian am­bas­sador Sergey Kislyak.

The sen­sa­tional dis­missal of the na­tion’s top se­cu­rity chief spawned a wave of ques­tions about Trump’s judg­ment in ap­point­ing him to the po­si­tion in the first place and how much Trump and the ad­min­is­tra­tion knew about the meet­ings, a ques­tion that would even­tu­ally feed into the spe­cial coun­sel in­ves­ti­ga­tion led by Robert Mueller.

By early April, he as­ton­ished the international com­mu­nity by or­der­ing air- strikes in Syria in re­sponse to a chem­i­cal at­tack, an early ex­am­ple of his im­pul­sive and emo­tive ap­proach to for­eign pol­icy which would man­i­fest it­self later in the year when he sparked ten­sions with North Korea.

A month later, he fired FBI chief James Comey, a move that prompted the ap­point­ment Mueller to in­ves­ti­gate Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the elec­tion and pos­si­ble col­lu­sion be­tween the Trump cam­paign team and Rus­sia.

Trump’s tweets

As the roller-coaster of his first months in of­fice cap­ti­vated the world, Trump’s tweets acted as a con­stant nar­ra­tive of the pres­i­dency, as he used so­cial me­dia to at­tack his op­po­nents and rant di­rectly at his fol­low­ers.

From mock­ing a fe­male TV host for “bleed­ing badly from a facelift”, to en­gag­ing in a pub­lic spat with the widow of a slain Amer­i­can solider, to be­lit­tling mem­bers of his own party, Twit­ter be­came the tool by which Trump lashed out at the world.

As Trump’s crit­ics looked on in out­rage, there was some hope a change in per­son­nel at the White House in late sum­mer would help rein in the pres­i­dent’s un­ortho­dox be­hav­iour and in­ces­sant tweet­ing. The de­par­ture of chief of staff Reince Priebus, press sec­re­tary Sean Spicer and chief strate­gist Steve Ban­non and the in­stal­la­tion of for­mer four-star Marine gen­eral John Kelly as chief of staff prompted ex­pec­ta­tions of a new dis­ci­pline in the West Wing. But the tweet­ing and un­scripted con­tro­ver­sies con­tin­ued as Trump lurched from cri­sis to cri­sis in the au­tumn, from fail­ing to con­demn white supremacism in Char­lottesville, to spark­ing ten­sions with North Korea through in­flam­ma­tory com­ments.

As Amer­i­can marks the first-year an­niver­sary of an elec­tion that has bit­terly di­vided this coun­try, many are re­flect­ing on the re­al­ity of the Trump pres­i­dency. Some crit­ics have been quick to ar­gue that, for all his blus­ter and caus­tic rhetoric, Trump has achieved lit­tle. De­spite Repub­li­cans con­trol­ling all levers of power in Wash­ing­ton, the Repub­li­can Party has lit­tle to show in terms of leg­isla­tive achieve­ments. The plan to re­peal and re­place Oba­macare lies in ru­ins as the Repub­li­can party failed to re­solve in­ter­nal di­vi­sions about how to re­peal a na­tion’s health­care sys­tem which, de­spite its un­ques­tion­able fail­ings, has be­come more pop­u­lar with Amer­i­cans.

Sig­nif­i­cant ob­sta­cles

Sim­i­larly, the party’s other big pol­icy ob­jec­tive – tax re­form – is fac­ing sig­nif­i­cant ob­sta­cles, as Repub­li­cans squab­ble over which tax cuts to im­ple­ment and how to com­pen­sate for more than $ 1.5 tril­lion in lost taxes over the next decade.

But dis­miss­ing Trump as a blus­ter­ing ide­o­logue, full of bro­ken prom­ises, would be to un­der­es­ti­mate the im­pact of his pres­i­dency. Be­hind the drama and in­trigue of the White House, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is push­ing through changes that could have im­pli­ca­tions for decades to come.

While his pol­icy fail­ures are there to see, Trump has been stealth­ily un­do­ing the legacy of his pre­de­ces­sor Barack Obama by push­ing his pres­i­den­tial pow­ers to their lim­its.

On im­mi­gra­tion and bor­der se­cu­rity, he has fol­lowed through on his prom­ise to stem Mus­lim im­mi­gra­tion into the US, un­veil­ing sev­eral ver­sions of his travel ban. Though the ban is cur­rently halted, it is likely to go be­fore the Supreme Court. With the sup­port of his at­tor­ney gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions, he has beefed- up the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity’s re­sources and en­force­ment rights in a bid to step-up de­por­ta­tions of un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants.

He has an­nounced his in­ten­tion to ter­mi­nate DACA, the De­ferred Ac­tion on Child­hood Ar­rivals scheme, in­tro­duced by Obama that gave pro­tec­tion to un­doc­u­mented mi­nors brought to the US as chil­dren, giv­ing Congress the im­pos­si­ble task of com­ing up with a so­lu­tion in six months. Mean­while, in San Diego last week, the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity un­veiled pro­to­types for Trump’s promised 2,000km wall on the Mex­i­can bor­der as Congress con­sid­ers fund­ing for the project.

Bol­ster the mil­i­tary

In the field of for­eign re­la­tions, Trump has fol­lowed through on his prom­ise to bol­ster the US mil­i­tary and down­grade diplo­macy, in­tro­duc­ing a 30 per cent cut in the State De­part­ment and for­eign- aid bud­get and abol­ish­ing hun­dreds of diplo­matic posts while in­creas­ing mil­i­tary fund­ing. In the Mid­dle East, Trump de­cer­ti­fied the Iran nu­clear deal de­spite rep­re­sen­ta­tions by Bri­tain, France and Ger­many not to do so, and again tasked Congress with de­cid­ing to rein­tro­duce sanc­tions, a move that risks un­rav­el­ling the Iran nu­clear deal agreed by the US and five other coun­tries.

On Rus­sia, the White House has de­layed sub­mit­ting a list of Rus­sian- con­trolled en­ti­ties to be tar­geted by sanc­tions to Congress, only pre­sent­ing the list last week un­der pres­sure from mem­bers of their own party. On North Korea, Trump, who em­barked on a 12-day trip to Asia this week, has se­verely es­ca­lated ten­sions with Py­ongyang by warn­ing in Au­gust that any threat from North Korea would be “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen”, rhetoric that prompted the launch by North Korea of two medium-range bal­lis­tic mis­siles over Ja­pan, spark­ing nu­clear alerts in the coun­try.

Re­gard­ing trade, Trump fol­lowed through on his “Amer­ica First” pol­icy by pulling out of the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship be­tween t he US and 12 Asian- Pa­cific coun­tries in his first few weeks in of­fice. He has also be­gun rene­go­ti­at­ing Nafta, the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment be­tween the United States, Canada and Mex­ico which has been in force since in 1994.

As his first months in of­fice cap­ti­vated the world, Trump’s tweets acted as a con­stant nar­ra­tive, as he used so­cial me­dia to at­tack his op­po­nents and rant di­rectly at his fol­low­ers

Cli­mate change

In the field of cli­mate change and the en­vi­ron­ment, Trump an­nounced on June 1st that the United States would pull out of the Paris Cli­mate Agree­ment, leav­ing the US as an international out­lier. Trump has also rolled back a series of Obama-era en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions, ap­point­ing a cli­mate-change scep­tic to head the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency and cut­ting the agency’s bud­get.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion has be­gun dis­man­tling the Clear Power Plan, giv­ing the green light to the Key­stone pipeline in North Dakota, an­nounc­ing that dozens of an­i­mals will not be pro­tected un­der the En­dan­gered Species Act, and sign­ing an ex­ec­u­tive or­der that seeks to re­duce the size of na­tional mon­u­ment sites and open up pub­licly- owned land for mining.

Other changes in­tro­duced by Trump in­clude a ban on trans­gen­der peo­ple serv­ing in the mil­i­tary, though this was par­tially blocked by a fed­eral court on Oc­to­ber 30th, a row- back on sev­eral con­sumer pro­tec­tion reg­u­la­tions in the fi­nan­cial sec­tor and a “re­li­gious lib­erty” ex­ec­u­tive or­der signed in May in a nod to his evan­gel­i­cal sup­port­ers. The ap­point­ment of con­ser­va­tive Neil Gor­such to the Supreme Court is likely to have ram­i­fi­ca­tions for the US long af­ter Trump leaves of­fice.

The list of mea­sures in­tro­duced by Trump in his first 10 months of of­fice dwarfs that of most of his pre­de­ces­sors. Yes, many of these mea­sures are caught in le­gal limbo, as they come up against the pow­ers of the courts, Congress and the con­sti­tu­tion.

In this sense, the Trump pres­i­dency has shown the re­silience and strength of the US con­sti­tu­tional sys­tem and the sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers con­ceived by the found­ing fa­thers when the fledg­ling na­tion was cre­ated in Philadel­phia more than two cen­turies ago.

Ul­ti­mately Trump’s crit­ics hope the power of the law, and the work of spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller, who is in­ves­ti­gat­ing Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the elec­tion, will even­tu­ally dis­credit and de­stroy Don­ald Trump. The in­dict­ment of three for­mer Trump aides as the first charges were made pub­lic this week does not bode well for the pres­i­dent.

But in the mean­time, the re­lent­less ac­tiv­ity and fran­tic at­tempt to dis­rupt the norms and tra­di­tions of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics by the Trump pres­i­dency will still have some time to run.

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