President Trump: One Year On
I’m thinking about Donald Trump’s first year as President, and I also happen to have a boomer of a headache. There’s a pretty obvious cheap shot to be had here, but let’s resist it. It has, after all, been a year of cheap shots.
The next thought to fly across my aching brain (after “I wonder if some Panadol would help?”) is that, for all of his apparent unpredictability, President Trump seems to have more or less met everyone’s expectations. I don’t mean this in an overly specific, policy-directed way, but rather in terms of how people continue to see what they choose to in this man, a Rorschach inkblot with a toupee.
Trump’s detractors see an arrogant and thin-skinned narcissist presiding over the most chaotic administration of any developed country in our time, an administration laced with inexperience, incompetence, cronyism, and ideological extremism. Conversely, his supporters continue to see these traits as bold points of difference from the staid and clinical administrations which preceded it. They elected this man to be a maverick who “speaks his mind”, and erraticism was part of the package.
President Trump has surprised me on multiple occasions. I expected a tack towards the centre when he won the nomination. I expected him to become more statesman-like when he won the election. I expected the self-centred melodrama and the Twitter tirades to subdue after he took office. Yet Trump did none of that. His enduring popularity with his supporters has come from his resolute commitment to being the politician he was when he launched his candidacy; albeit one that was riddled with contradictions (just Google “Trump criticises Trump”).
However, not only did President Trump use 2017 to continue fighting fires which burned on from 2016 (constant what-about-ism in relation to Hillary Clinton, unprecedented full-scale attacks on most of the media culminating in the ‘Fake News Awards’, an unsettlingly equivocal relationship with the white supremacist movement), he also used the platform of the Presidency to light a few new ones.
Throughout 2017, the world watched on in a heady mix of confusion, mirth, and growing horror as President Trump and his arch-rival, Kim Jong-un, traded big-red-button rhetoric like schoolyard banter. President Trump’s poking and prodding certainly didn’t defuse the situation, but at least there was a second player responsible for that dramatic escalation. Conversely, responsibility for the recent riots and instability in the Middle East lies predominantly with President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. While there had been calls for the US to do this in the past, there was no urgent political pressure for this move. It was made from nowhere, being called for by seemingly no one.
This feeds into the most plausible theory on President Trump’s modus operandi: by creating stories which dominate and polarise the media and wider society, while keeping attention firmly on his own actions, Trump is able to retain his position as the “maverick martyr” with his chosen half of the political spectrum without relying on the dull and laborious process of promoting policies.
This is not a new phenomenon. Trump’s campaign was full of grand promises to bring back manufacturing jobs, achieve economic growth to bolster the middle class, and win back respect for America within the international community. It was light on the actual detail on how he would get there. Would a Trump presidency include building a wall along the Mexican border? Stopping Muslim migration for an indeterminate period? Withdrawing from a multilateral trade agreement which actually conferred more trade power on America?
President Trump has, however, continued to be light on policy. Where there have been some sporadic attempts at policymaking, Trump has left most of the work to the Republican Congress. Repealing Obamacare was part of Trump’s obsessive quest to dismantle Obama’s legacy, but his legislative counterparts assumed the bulk of the leg-work. There was some vague talk of lowering taxes across the board, but Capitol Hill created the actual plan. The end result was a typical reduction-in-company-tax-rates-focused plan which any Republican of the past 30 years could have produced. So much for the “maverick martyr”.
And then there was the so-called ‘Muslim ban’. This, at least, appeared to be principally the work of President Trump and his close advisors. Implemented by a blizzard of Executive Orders, the ban was so strikingly blunt that a succession of courts found it to violate the Constitution. Despite continual amendments in the hope of a better outcome, the administration and its supporters were largely unchastened by setbacks. Instead, the judicial system became the latest institution to be lumped in with the “leftist” monolith that Trump and his anti-establishment supporters railed against. This hit a particular nerve with me. When even the authority of the judicial system to interpret the law is questioned, what socio-political common ground can possibly be found? When the core institutions of state are so fractious and fractured, the only thing left to break apart is truth itself.
This was proved in the early days of the Trump Administration, with new Press Secretary Sean Spicer asserting (against all evidence) that Trump’s inauguration was the most-viewed ever, and Kellyanne Conway defending Spicer’s right to present “alternative facts”. Entirely unintended, herein lies the genesis of what might be Trump’s greatest legacy. Throughout 2017, mainstream media organisations seemed to shift their role from spectators to key actors. Their role became increasingly concerned with discerning truth, and falsehoods were increasingly named as such. Analysis of Trump’s actions grew in boldness and honesty. The ‘old’ values of logic, facts, and objective truth seemed to be making a resurgence.
I am not naïve enough to think that this will immediately remedy the deep fractures within social and political discourse, or even that those divisions won’t deepen in the short-term. Yet, if much of the news media continues to accept its responsibility as a key actor in social discourse, then the notion of a higher objective truth may yet come back into vogue. That may be the most valuable form of “resistance” of all.
For now, however, President Trump remains in office. Among those of us who believe that he has set an exceedingly poor standard of conduct, many have been spurred on to combat the normalisation of his behaviour. Yet I wonder how possible this is. Four years is, politically and culturally, a long time. Over the course of that time, it is conceivable that an entire group of young people gaining political consciousness just accept that this is the way that world leaders behave. It is totally possible that sacking the holders of impartial offices when they dare to disagree with you, then mocking and demeaning them over Twitter, will become normal presidential behaviour. It is also possible that, as one of the leaders of socio-political discourse in the West, President Trump has irreparably cheapened the political realm.
This is to say nothing of the geopolitical consequences of President Trump’s isolationist rhetoric and petulant anti-statesmanship, which may see moral (and consequently strategic, economic, and military) authority pass to more militant and less democratic states. Those are nightmarish scenarios better deconstructed by others. I have neither the geopolitical expertise nor the Panadol supply to do so.
Three years left. My headache thunders on. I’ll continue to resist the cheap shot.