Inside Story

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1315 words

At the bully pulpit

19 December 2018

Two years into the job, Donald Trump’s future seems less certain than ever


Once-great and powerful friends: Donald Trump and Theresa May arriving for a press conference at Chequers, the British prime minister’s country residence, last Sunday. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Once-great and powerful friends: Donald Trump and Theresa May arriving for a press conference at Chequers, the British prime minister’s country residence, last Sunday. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

The wagons are circling. Given Donald Trump’s erratic behaviour, the growing list of casualties of the Mueller inquiry, and the Democrats’ winning control of the House of Representatives, speculation that the president might not survive his first term is intensifying. Both sides are already preparing for the 2020 presidential elections, with an extraordinary field of possible Democrats sounding out support. Although Trump has raised huge sums for a re-election bid, it’s safe to assume that vice-president Mike Pence is quietly making plans should an impeachment eventuate.

It is hard to overstate just how dysfunctional the Trump administration has been. Not only is the president self-absorbed, uninformed and apparently unable to distinguish between family and national interests; he has also appointed people spectacularly unqualified to manage the complex affairs of government, as Michael Lewis eloquently describes in his recent book, The Fifth Risk.

Lewis shows how many of the complex operations of government seem to be in a state of limbo because of the administration’s neglect. In a system in which senior bureaucrats are largely presidential appointees, Trump has been remarkably slow to fill many senior posts, and equally prone to dismiss those he has appointed. No elected first-term president in the past century has had this degree of turnover in cabinet, and no recent presidents have left as many positions unfilled.

The US government employs two million people, and they have oversight of such basic services as air safety, nuclear waste disposal, approval of new prescription drugs, protection against cyberattacks and so on. When nineteenth-century postmasters were appointed through political patronage it made little difference to mail delivery; when the current officials responsible for nuclear waste or hurricane warnings are either ignorant or in thrall to private interests, as Lewis describes, this becomes a security threat.

This doesn’t mean Trump has been ineffective. In one area, the judiciary, he has been assiduous in his nominating of judges, including two to the Supreme Court, and has used political capital to ensure a Republican Senate has confirmed most of them. Even if a progressive Democrat were to replace him in 2020, the rightward shift in the judiciary will take decades to reverse.

Economic growth, which seemed to be stoked by major tax cuts a year ago, is spluttering. Attempts to dismantle Obamacare and build a big, beautiful wall along the Mexican border have little chance of passing Congress. Gridlock in Washington is increasingly common as partisan divisions become more intense, and the president is even boasting of his ability to shut down the government if he can’t get his way.

Trump has a remarkable instinct for the jugular, and a capacity to cower his opponents. “The presidency,” as Theodore Roosevelt observed, “is a bully pulpit.” Few presidents have so successfully borne out this observation. The few Republicans in Congress who have been prepared to criticise him have either left public office or lapsed into silence. As more of his appointees depart, though, and the Democrats take control of the House, the bullying will be increasingly ineffective.

The American system of divided powers between executive and legislature depends on a degree of flexibility in party discipline. Traditionally the two major parties were broad coalitions within which members were free to vote according to the demands of their constituencies. Since the 1990s, though, the overlap between Republicans and Democrats has steadily narrowed, and few issues are resolved on anything but party lines.

This parallels increasing polarisation, with Republicans and Democrats seemingly living in separate universes, bitterly divided on cultural issues such as abortion and gun control even when these attitudes seem to work against their own interests. The Democrats, who argue for greater equity, now hold the twenty richest districts in the House; the tax-cutting Republicans are dominant in the poorest states, such as West Virginia and Mississippi.

The division is accentuated by race, with the Democrats overwhelmingly the party of African Americans and the majority choice of Asians and Latinos. Trump’s willingness to accept the embrace of racist politicians and commentators, and the dominance of rich white men in his administration mean the two parties are more divided along racial lines than at any time in the postwar period.

But the most damaging impact of the Trump presidency is that it has poisoned political language and debased the civic culture to a degree unparalleled in recent history. Trump is not responsible for the rise of authoritarian and racist politicians across the world, but his enthusiasm for figures like Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte and Viktor Orbán reinforces their legitimacy and weakens respect for democratic norms and human rights.

In foreign policy, Trump’s bluster has caused no major calamities, but his America First policies are slowly eating away at an already fragile international order. Most significant is the American withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, which has emboldened others, including the right wing of our own governing parties. It’s reasonable to ask whether Malcolm Turnbull would still be prime minister if an elected Hillary Clinton had maintained an American commitment to fighting global warming.

“America,” Madeleine Albright said when she was secretary of state, “is the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.” We can wonder at her hubris without welcoming Trump’s bad-tempered retreat from international cooperation and penchant for attacking Western allies while embracing dictators.

Trump has made a virtue of transactional relations, which I understand to mean the technique of deciding issues on a short-term assessment of national interest (as well as, in his case, the business advantages for him and his family). It is likely that this has been the view of many previous administrations; Trump has merely pulled aside the veil of rhetoric that cloaked American self-interest.

For former Australian foreign minister Bob Carr, the United States is “no longer a liberal democracy” and we can no longer base our foreign policy on the assumption of shared values with the administration. This is not in itself an argument against maintaining close security and economic ties, but it is a reminder of two things: that sentiment is a dangerous emotion on which to base foreign policy, and that many of Australia’s concerns will not be shared by the United States.

While the Morrison government has not always followed Washington, it is unlikely that it would have embarked on the road to Jerusalem without Trump’s example. The intensity of Australian support for Israel has a number of causes, but its effect is to reinforce international perceptions that Australia is a faithful follower of the United States. The government needs to remember that the occupant of the White House is not our president.

Of course Trump, who seems to enjoy campaigning far more than governing, may survive to run in 2020. At that point he will be seventy-four; two of the Democrats seriously viewed as contenders, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, are also already in their seventies. As someone of their generation I am both perplexed and appalled that men past the normal retirement age can be regarded as serious contenders for that office.

The midterm elections showed that a majority of Americans who turn out to vote are not supporters of Trump. But they also revealed a country deeply divided between rural and urban areas. That fact, combined with the electoral college’s bias in favour of smaller states, gives Republican candidates a distinct advantage.

Over the next two years Washington will be increasingly consumed by domestic politics. Pressure on Trump will increase as more revelations emerge about his business deals. More than a dozen Democrats will jockey for the presidential nomination. Given the disarray in Theresa May’s government, this may be the first time that not even Australia’s most ardent traditionalists will be keen to follow the lead of either of our “(once) great and powerful friends.” •


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The beginning of something new: watched by treasurer Wayne Swan (left) and members of the Australian Greens, prime minister Julia Gillard and Greens leader Bob Brown shake hands after signing a parliamentary agreement in Canberra on 1 September 2010. Alan Porritt/AAP Image

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