This time last year I wrote a piece for an Irish union magazine assessing the prospects and what we might expect in the pending US Presidential Election. Like most observers I was fairly confident that Hilary would win, though I did hedge my bets by pointing out that at the time (September 25) the opinion polls were too close to call and that in a number of crucial states Trump was either ahead or closing fast. Nevertheless waking up on November 9 to discover that Trump had won was dumbfounding.
Looking back it is clear that if Trump could successfully shrug off as “locker room talk” the outrageous sexually offensive “grabbing” remarks made to Billy Bush, his core support was unshakeable. And so it proved. Most voters for both main parties in US elections do not normally change and if they do there are particular underlying reasons. In 2016 a long festering mood of alienation and frustration among a certain sector of the electorate found expression in support for a different candidate, one outside the mainstream who could tap into their atavism. Enough of them voted in key states to deliver the election.
Now here we are, a year on and almost ten months into the Trump Presidency. What are we to make of him, particularly from this side of the Atlantic? There follow a few thoughts, preliminary and tentative, since these are still early days, with the very real prospect that his Presidency has another seven years to run. As I write there hasn’t yet been a defining moment. Defeats and setbacks yes, but he hasn’t been seriously tested. North Korea might do it but right now all he’s done with the Koreans and everyone else has been to strut and shadow box, insulting allies and foes alike while also blowing hot and cold on substantive international issues. What will he ultimately do about the Paris Agreement, NAFTA, relations with China and Russia, and the Middle East? His inauguration speech evinced a dismal weltanschauung . If anything his recent UNGA address, bellicose, nationalistic and devoid of idealism has fortified this.
If there is a characteristic Trumpian style it is his use of Twitter, his habit of delivering usually half-baked, half thought -through instant reactions to events and developments. Like most, I expected that in office he would desist or curb this habit. He hasn’t. Whatever else may be said about him, he is not slow to get his message across and to hell with the consequences. No one can fail to grasp how he feels on an issue, however uneasy that sits with the observer. This after all is not some know-all troll, with an itchy texting finger, but the US President, with access to and power over the nuclear trigger. There is a real, if not present, danger to this.
We now pore over the occasions where there is no tweet but just a silence. Is he being reined in, or reining himself in on issues where he had best tread warily? The vacillation on the Paris Agreement, the equivocation on handling the Dreamers, the cutting loose of the likes of Bannon, suggests that Trump is indeed on a learning curve, but with so much required to learn on so many issues, there must be doubt whether he will ever adequately do so. Who can forget his wide eyed comment that the Health Care issue was complicated? So are most issues in the POTUS in-tray, Mr. President.
A year in, one thing that strikes is how totally Trump dominates the US political scene – something that does not bode well for either major party. I cannot remember this domination by a previous US President since the Sixties, when the nation was wracked by Vietnam. Even then there were loud, powerful and articulate voices opposed to LBJ, who was eventually forced out of the 1968 race. Today there seems no one to oppose Trump, with the only constraints the Constitutional safeguards, which so far have held, and his own propensity for inflicting self-damage. The Republican Party is in shreds, weakened by the Tea Party over a decade and savaged by the Trump seizure of the nomination. The Democrats are leaderless, holed below the waterline by Hillary’s defeat and still licking wounds. Meanwhile Trump proceeds with giving effect to his election undertakings, distractions such as the Russia factor and staff changes notwithstanding. Unless a smoking gun appears the Russia dimension, though an irritant, is unlikely to be his undoing, while previous Presidents have also had staff upheavals.
Given the radical platform on which he campaigned, interest here has focused on how successful he has been in putting those policies into effect. And while there has been considerable gloating over the failures to repeal Obamacare, the setbacks over his plans for immigration controls and deportations and the stalled Wall, none of these have affected or seem likely to affect his core support. Even the equivocation over the racist right has not done it, with the media focus having shifted to the hurricanes, where he handled the PR astutely, and the sudden apparent cosying up to the Democrats over the budget ceiling and the Dreamers. On this last, remember that Populism is a broad church and that, faced with a sluggish or non-performing Republican dominated Congress, Trump will try out other options.
While Trump has withdrawn from the Trans Pacific Partnership (whither goes it now?) , the other big ticket items such as Tax Reform, NAFTA, and what to do about the Paris Agreement have yet to be reached. He is meanwhile ticking off his list of campaign promises, circumventing for the moment the need to introduce new or amending legislation in Congress by using the available weapons of unilateral Executive Orders (45 to date), Presidential Memoranda (32) and Determinations (6). Numbers of these have together rolled back or reversed significantly progressive measures and legislation in a number of areas, while business has been favoured by cutting a swathe through regulations. The outcome has been a depressing roll call of measures affecting adversely a number of areas of American life from the Environment to personal freedoms. The mantra has been “America First,” with an emphasis on freeing up business to create jobs. We shall see how that one pans out.
Very few Presidents succeed in giving effect to their programmes in entirety. Trump will be no different. But when the process is at an end, rather than decry his failures, Trump will defend his record, point to his successes, attack the media and his opponents and declare that the Swamp was far worse than he had imagined and that he will need a second term to drain it thoroughly. His core support will buy it.
A second term? Right now Trump seems poised to run again in 2020. What Republican, after all, would dare oppose him, to face the bluster, the demagoguery, against those background, quasi- fascist, chants of “Trump Trump Trump” at rallies. Trump routed his rivals last year. As the incumbent he is fireproof. To defeat him will require a military fiasco, a mega scandal or a Democratic champion on a white horse. Don’t hold your breath.