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Whatever you believe, the Trump Presidency is going to test it
Nearly three weeks into a four-year term, this much is clear about the Trump presidency: moderation is not the plan. Anyone who predicted America would see a different Donald Trump in office from the man on display during campaign season can now be counted among the many prognosticators who have placed and lost their chips in recent times.
On his two signature policy issues, immigration and trade, the new president began with bold strokes in fulfilment of promises made. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major Asian trade deal negotiated under the Obama administration, is dead. The Mexican border wall has been ordered, and it is to be literal. The single highest-profile initiative of Trump’s first days has been an executive order suspending entry to the United States for all citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries, and blocked admission of any refugees, including those previously vetted, approved, or even in transit.
Simultaneously, it became clear that Trump has imported to the executive branch of government the chaotic and cliquey management style of his ‘unorthodox’ campaign. The rollout of the immigration order descended swiftly into bleak farce as it emerged that no consultation had taken place with key agencies such as the Departments of Homeland Security or Justice, and no authoritative instructions issued on how to handle vast categories of those affected, e.g. legal permanent residents (‘green card’ holders) who simply happened to be out of the country at the time the order came into force. A torrent of leaks poured forth from the White House, exposing turf wars among senior staff, a darkly comic level of organisational dysfunction, and – if a multitude anecdotes were to be believed – a president at the least intemperate and incompetent, perhaps even mentally unsound.
Meanwhile the pre-election nightmare of a mercurial President Trump continuing in office to vent his unmediated thoughts on Twitter was realised in full force. On domestic issues, this meant raging against – among other things – a federal judge who ruled to suspend Trump’s immigration order, the press for supposedly reporting “fake news” and falsifying negative polls regarding the president and his policies, and Congressional Democrats for opposing his Cabinet nominations.
Perhaps even more worryingly, he also used the medium to wade into international diplomacy, putting Iran “on notice” for its missile testing and telling Mexico it had “taken advantage of the US for long enough”. In parallel evidence regarding his aptitude for diplomacy, detailed leaks emerged about bizarre, rambling and at times angry phone conversations between the president and his foreign counterparts in Australia, France, and Mexico.
All of which is simply to establish this: the president America has today in the White House is very much the same as the one that was displayed in the shop window of the campaign. As Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo put it: “At this point we know Trump quite well… Like many with similar temperaments and personalities he has a chronic need to generate drama and confrontation to stabilize himself. It's that simple. It won't change. It won't get better."
For political scientists and those who share their interest in analysing the political system and its outcomes in a systematic way, this presidency offers the chance – of a kind the real world is rarely so accommodating as to provide – to see an experiment run in real time that touches on an array of widely-held suppositions, debates and hypotheses about the power and limits of political and presidential agency. It might be considered a gift from the gods to social science, were the stakes not so terrifyingly high and the likely consequences not so dire.
Among the issues familiar from the syllabi of American Government courses the world over, the following issues stand poised for the arrival of major new instalments of real-world data:
- Can the permanent bureaucracy of the federal government stymie the agenda of a president with whom it considers itself at odds, or can he and a narrow core of White House loyalists bend it to his will?
- Is an elected outsider such as Trump capable of radically reorienting the foreign policy the United States in a profound way – for example, towards Russia – even if his new direction is frontally opposed to the preferences of the military and foreign policy establishments? His relationship with the intelligence services will be especially interesting to watch, given the mutual suspicion and public hostilitybetween them during the transition.
- Can Congress summon the will to assert the vast powers accorded to it by the constitution to rein in an executive that is corrupt or criminal in its actions or monarchical in the scope of the power it asserts for itself?
- As a ‘resistance’ rises to meet the president’s agenda, including mass mobilisation, street protest and civil disobedience among its methods, how successful can these tools be in today’s polarised political environment at forcing government to reconsider or roll back policies?
Then there is intra-party coalition politics: Trump’s power to govern depends on a tacit alignment of interests between himself and a Republican Congressional leadership wedded to conservative ideological orthodoxies on cutting tax and reducing the role of the state in healthcare and economic assistance to the poor. The two can no doubt agree on tax cuts on wealthy individuals such as the president himself, and over his nomination of conservative jurist Neil Gorsuch to fill the seat currently open on the Supreme Court – the fulfilment of his single most important promise to the Republican mainstream. But how well will this tit-for-tat partnership hold up as it becomes clear parts of the Congressional leadership’s agenda may hurt Trump’s voters and thus his popular popularity? Or, on the other hand, if the kind of autocratic freedom of action Trump will claim unless checked threatens the constitutional order on which Congress depends for its powers?
How will the ideal of commitment to factual accuracy in civic discourse hold up under sustained assault from the most powerful office-holder in the nation? Politicians have long been selective and lawyerly in their deployment of facts in service of their political agendas. But Trump has been chief driver and main beneficiary of the entry of incessant, scattershot, perhaps pathological, lying into mainstream politics. Such has been his success in undermining faith in ‘mainstream’ media and encouraging paranoia and reflexive partisan commitment to falsehoods, that the viability of a shared democratic discourse itself is now under threat. As that weakens, the crumbling of support for democracy itself is not far behind. One of the key social struggles to watch over the years to come will centre on whether the relentless advance of this disturbing trend is locked in or may yet be successfully resisted by a renaissance of investigative journalism and engaged citizenry.
A final test we might mention will be one not of political science hypotheses but of character. Whether public officials, journalists, or simply private citizens, all Americans now face inescapable choices as to the contribution they will make, with what agency they themselves have, to the resolution of the issues raises above. Will they accept either the legitimacy or inevitability of Trumpism’s expanding rule and throw in their lot with it? Will they set their faces against it and seek to oppose it openly, whether in the lobbies of Congress, the meeting rooms of their institutions, the pages of their publications, or the streets of their towns and cities? Or will they seek some finer balance, bending sufficiently to avoid the risks of confrontation while finding quiet ways of satisfying themselves they have stayed true enough to their principles to be at peace?
One of few things that is certain is that one day Donald Trump will be gone, the political and cultural moment that elevated him to power dissipated. The questions all must anticipate facing when that time comes are stark: where were you during the Trump presidency, and what did you do?
Adam Quinn is Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Birmingham. He tweets @adamjamesquinn.