Nobody expected him to win. He was too boorish and crude. He couldn’t hold his own in a debate, even as, by his sheer presence, he seemed to be trying to intimidate his opponent. He thumbed his nose at people he thought weak and made fun of the handicapped. Far from being a polished orator like his predecessor, his rhetoric consisted of monosyllabic words spat out with tremendous ferocity, coupled with monotonously repetitious outbursts of braggadocio. He was another Brutus – not Julius Caesar’s fabled assassin, but Popeye’s animated television nemesis. Not quite a cartoon villain, his reality show stardom nevertheless made him difficult to take altogether seriously.
Yet Donald John Trump managed to win the election, even if he fell short of carrying a popular majority. The world has now had a year to become accustomed to this most unusual office-holder. At this point it is appropriate to ask three questions. First, how has Trump done since his inauguration earlier this year? Second, how have Americans responded to his presidency? And third, how is the rest of the world dealing with him?
During my lifetime I have seen 12 occupants of the White House, each of whom brought different skills and temperaments to the office. Some, such as Kennedy, Reagan and Obama, carried a certain regal bearing that propelled them into the presidency. Others, like Lyndon Johnson, were effective prime ministerial figures capable of pushing unpopular legislation through Congress, while Nixon and the first Bush were consummate foreign policy presidents, skilfully cultivating cordial relations with friend and foe alike. Yet in most cases, the office of the presidency changed its occupant, forcing him to approach the world with a great seriousness of purpose, recognizing the magnitude of the responsibilities given him. Presidents often come to power with energy and enthusiasm but leave looking grey and careworn.
It is too early to say how the presidency will change Trump, but thus far it appears not to have done so to any great extent. A more seasoned and polished statesman would not resort to a forum like Twitter to communicate with the public, but this seems to be Trump’s favourite medium. Limited to 140 characters, a “tweet” is hardly the proper venue for delving into the complexities of the policy process. At his best, a president generally tailors his public statements to bring citizens together in the cause of pursuing common purposes. Trump, by contrast, sees himself less a king than an army commander, barking out orders and expecting people to toe the line. Furthermore, his tweets tend to play up divisive issues calculated to rally his loyalists while deliberately alienating potential critics.
From an historical perspective, this makes his presidency highly unusual. Even as his predecessors might have felt compelled to pursue an unpopular policy, they would not go out of their way to attack or belittle their opponents. The canons of civility dictated otherwise, and these canons were supported on both sides of the aisle. A president is a president and not an op-ed writer on steroids.
How have Americans taken to Trump? The most recent poll numbers indicate that an average of 38 percent of Americans approve of his performance in office, which is much lower than average for a president at this stage in his administrations. By contrast, around 56 percent disapprove, and an increasing number of even congressional Republicans are unhappy with him. White evangelicals voted for him in large numbers, but many of these voted less out of enthusiasm for Trump than out of opposition to Clinton, whose agenda they mistrusted.
The best way to characterize the current political climate is one of cyclical outrage and unreasoned defence. The pattern runs like this: Trump makes a statement condemning someone or some phenomenon, and his many opponents go into outrage mode, protesting that he is belittling freedom of speech, freedom of the press or another cherished right seemingly under threat from the bully-in-chief. Henceforth any statement Trump or his administration makes, whether sensible or not, is greeted with similar outrage. The spectacle reminds one of toddlers quarrelling over a coveted toy.
On the other side, Trump has his defenders who seem altogether immune to his dark side, justifying his actions and statements against the apparent biases of the media. They relish seeing him taking apart the uppity reporter from the New York Times or MSNBC, viewing Trump as defender of all that is right and good against hostile forces from within and without. If paranoia is too strong a word to use here, many Trump supporters feel that much of the American political establishment is against them and their legitimate interests. If the President is uncouth and not entirely competent, at least he’s on their side, so they’ll be on his side too. This is the unreasoned defence.
Suffice it to say that this back-and-forth pattern of outrage and defence is not conducive to the ordinary compromises necessary for ensuring the continuation of the policy process. Everything becomes a battle with potential winners and losers, with few willing to cross the barricades and reach out to opponents. Trump is perhaps less a catalyst for than a product of this unhealthy polarization. This undoubtedly accounts for his less than successful legislative agenda.
Around the globe
Many of us can still recall a time when the President of the United States was considered the leader of the free world. Think of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech in which he promised that “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.” Aside from the fact that it is not easy today to know precisely which nations are and are not part of the free world, it would be difficult to argue that Trump has the stature to take on this role. Some have argued that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a better candidate.
While foreign leaders are compelled by diplomatic niceties to treat the President respectfully, one can readily perceive their discomfort around him. Meet-and-greet photo ops show Trump trying to appear dominant while his fellow heads of state look either ill-at-ease or condescending. Few expect much of him, and his frequent sabre-rattling undoubtedly makes them nervous to at least some degree. Yet when Trump issues one of his provocations to North Korea’s Kim Jung-un or Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, other world leaders appear to understand that this is just the way he is. This recognition may be preventing antagonism towards the United States as a whole.
How long can this extraordinary situation continue? There are any number of grounds on which Trump could be impeached and removed from office. His grasp of the difference between private and public interests is shaky at best, and he could get caught in a web of corruption. Or perhaps the Russian connection will bring him down. While I am hesitant to make predictions, we should not be surprised to see a President Pence at some point. In the meantime, both political parties would do well to revisit their procedures for nominating candidates to public office. Failing that, we are likely to see more Trumps in the future.
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