Trump never lis­tened to any­body

The Sun (Malaysia) - - SPEAK UP - RU­PERT CORN­WELL

RE­MEM­BER that ter­rific scene at the end of the movie The Can­di­date, when one Bill McKay (Robert Red­ford) has just amazed him­self and ev­ery­one else by win­ning a Cal­i­for­nia Se­nate seat against an in­cum­bent who was sup­posed to be in­vin­ci­ble? “Marvin,” he asks his cam­paign man­ager, “What do we do now?”

You won­der whether the same ques­tion doesn’t ap­ply to Don­ald Trump ( pix) right now. The two pro­tag­o­nists of course are not ex­actly cut from the same cloth. The movie, made in 1972, fea­tures a Red­ford who is young, im­pos­si­bly hand­some and fetch­ingly ide­al­is­tic – not qual­i­ties as­so­ci­ated with the jowly, peren­ni­ally pout­ing Trump, who at 70 will be the old­est pres­i­dent ever to take of­fice. But one thing they have in com­mon: they didn’t ex­pect to win.

Trump does have one ob­vi­ous an­swer to The Can­di­date ques­tion: he’s go­ing to drain the swamp. Af­ter all, he’s a com­plete out­sider, whose ex­pe­ri­ence is in busi­ness, not pol­i­tics, who’s just de­feated a supreme in­sider (who was also sup­posed to be in­vin­ci­ble). He has a man­date to place a bomb un­der the en­trenched rul­ing es­tab­lish­ment in Wash­ing­ton, so out of touch with, and in­dif­fer­ent to, the vot­ers who elected him.

Tech­ni­cally, he’s a Repub­li­can. But in spirit, Trump is an in­de­pen­dent protest can­di­date, smart enough to re­alise the only way he could win was un­der the aegis of one of Amer­ica’s two ma­jor par­ties. On his own, he’d prob­a­bly never have done it, end­ing up like an­other busi­ness­man, Ross Perot, who won 19% of the vote in 1992, but car­ried not a sin­gle state.

If he is go­ing to drain the swamp, the stage ap­pears per­fectly set. This is one of those rare mo­ments when a pres­i­dent comes to power with his side con­trol­ling, or about to con­trol, all three branches of gov­ern­ment: the White House, Congress, and as soon as he has filled its out­stand­ing va­cancy, the Supreme Court as well.

As a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man, he’s pre­sumed to be ef­fi­cient, with an un­sen­ti­men­tal fix­a­tion on the bot­tom line. If it works, keep it, if it doesn’t, junk it. He owes no favours to his party, which largely re­jected him, but which partly owes its con­tin­u­ing con­trol of the House and Se­nate to, get this, Trump’s own coat-tails. Who’d have thought it?

Not so fast, how­ever. Gov­ern­ment doesn’t work like busi­ness. The goal of busi­ness is to make money. Suc­cess­ful gov­ern­ment is a far more com­pli­cated and in­ex­act mat­ter. It’s about ad­vanc­ing the com­mon weal, some­times by mas­sive in­vest­ments with no fi­nan­cial re­turns that no busi­ness would con­tem­plate. It’s about im­prov­ing re­la­tions with other coun­tries, it’s about mak­ing as much of the cit­i­zenry as pos­si­ble feel it has a stake in what’s be­ing done.

Nor is it a ques­tion of bark­ing out or­ders that will be in­stantly obeyed, as cor­po­rate lead­ers ex­pect. In gov­ern­ment, there are tire­some things to be dealt with like the su­per­ma­jor­ity of votes in the Se­nate (which the Repub­li­can’s don’t have) to pass any sig­nif­i­cant leg­is­la­tion. There are the courts, and the en­tire sys­tem of checks and bal­ances con­tained in the Con­sti­tu­tion, cre­ated by the Found­ing Fa­thers de­lib­er­ately to pre­vent dan­ger­ous dem­a­gogues run­ning riot.

Next are the en­trenched bu­reau­cra­cies of Wash­ing­ton. They trem­ble now, but you can bet they will find ways of re­sist­ing, of qui­etly ob­struct­ing ideas that threaten them. And do not for­get the lob­by­ists, the most per­ma­nent gov­ern­ing class of all, hub of the city’s great money-go-round. Ex­perts al­ready pre­dict the next ad­min­is­tra­tion, for all Trump’s ful­mi­nat­ing against lob­by­ists, will in fact be a bo­nanza for them.

The real bot­tom line is that a US pres­i­dent’s power, do­mes­ti­cally at least, is lim­ited – much more so, for ex­am­ple, than a Bri­tish prime min­is­ter with a Com­mons ma­jor­ity. Theodore Roo­sevelt was right when he pointed to the “bully pul­pit” power of the of­fice. The soon-to-be 45th pres­i­dent most cer­tainly is a bully. But for the pul­pit part to work, you need a clear ma­jor­ity of the coun­try be­hind you. Which, right now at least, is man­i­festly not the case with Trump.

And one other thing is re­quired for a would-be icon­o­clast in the Oval Of­fice, a laser-like fo­cus on your strate­gic ob­jec­tives. The ev­i­dence so far sug­gests that in Trump’s case, pretty much the op­po­site is true.

By all ac­counts, he has an ex­tremely lim­ited at­ten­tion span. He’s a “gut” politi­cian who goes by his in­stincts, usu­ally af­ter the briefest of con­sid­er­a­tion. He never bones up on an is­sue; in­deed, it is said he’s never fin­ished a book. He’s des­per­ately thin- skinned where his im­age is con­cerned, and eas­ily dis­tracted by a slight, real or imag­ined.

He’s ab­surdly liti­gious, and bears grudges long past their sell-by date.

None of this is au­to­mat­i­cally dis­qual­i­fy­ing. Ge­orge W Bush was a “gut” pres­i­dent, never one for lengthy and com­pli­cated briefs. But Bush, you al­ways felt, had a broad strat­egy, love it or loathe it. Trump has shown lit­tle sense of strat­egy or long-term plan­ning. Ev­ery­thing is seat-ofthe-pants. Can you run a coun­try by tweet? We shall see.

On the plus side, Trump vaunts the busi­ness­man’s abil­ity to cut deals (al­though sev­eral of his – the casino projects that ended in bank­ruptcy, the pur­chase of the Trump Shut­tle and the Plaza Ho­tel – were, to use a favourite Trump term, dis­as­ters). He’s also an unar­guably bril­liant com­mu­ni­ca­tor, who un­der­stands TV bet­ter than any politi­cian. And he has a ra­zor-keen po­lit­i­cal in­stinct that en­abled him to see the boil­ing dis­con­tent of the heart­lands that al­most ev­ery pun­dit missed.

Yes, we owe Trump “an open mind and a chance to lead”, as Hil­lary Clin­ton said in her mov­ing con­ces­sion speech (why couldn’t she have sounded like that once or twice dur­ing the cam­paign? But that’s an­other story).

The real story how­ever is: can Trump change his spots at 70? The pre-pres­i­den­tial Trump was un­doubt­edly un­fit­ted for the of­fice. Maybe the awe­some re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of the job will hum­ble him. But, Tim O’Brien, a for­mer New York Times re­porter and Trump bi­og­ra­pher, said last week, “by and large, Don­ald has never lis­tened to any­body his whole life. I don’t think that’s go­ing to start chang­ing now”. – The In­de­pen­dent

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