Trump in the balance after his first 100 days

There’s far more to be encouraged about in Trump the president than there ever was in Trump the candidate.
John Robson | May 1 2017 | comment  



How are we to assess Donald Trump’s “100 Days”? Do they confirm our worst fears, redefine the presidency, sent snobbish liberalism reeling toward the dustbin of history? Or just leave us as baffled as ever?

The habit of evaluating an administration by its frantic early hyperactivity goes back to FDR and his bold experimentation to end the Great Depression which, as many of us have noted, dramatically expanded government in a range of often inconsistent ways while prolonging the depression for an entire decade. Which might be an argument against fixating on it, except that incoming administrations that do not vigorously pursue an agenda right off the bat are unlikely to find the requisite combination of courage and principle several months or years into their term, especially as the forces of inertia reassert themselves, from bureaucratic procedure to vested interests to political compromise that quickly becomes an end in itself.

With Trump there was an additional reason for paying close attention to his first three months. While some conservatives felt that he would indeed “drain the swamp” and undo much harm inflicted by partisan liberals like Barack Obama and RINOs like George Bush Sr. and to a surprising degree Jr. as well, many observers across the spectrum felt that he was temperamentally and intellectually incapable of functioning as president at all, let alone doing it well. I know. I was one. He made campaign promises that were not just bizarre, they were inconsistent with past practice, conservative ideology and reality and it was very hard to see how he could possibly govern well given the ghastly success of his campaign.

Among Trump’s genuine failings was wilful ignorance on a grand scale. I do not suggest that most politicians are well-informed. Canada’s own Justin Trudeau seems not only to be unfamiliar with contrary points of view but singularly lacking even in factual or theoretical knowledge supportive of his own worldview (and under a previous administration we famously had a Defence Minister who apparently didn’t know Vimy Ridge from Vichy France.). Likewise, Hillary Clinton was cunning rather than wise, and intelligent but obtuse.

I also realize that it is among the mud regularly spewed at Republicans that they know nothing. Reagan was widely pilloried as a senile fool despite his keen insight into matters like the imminent collapse of the Soviet system. Meanwhile George W. Bush exploited his reputation as dim and incurious on the theory that being misunderestimated was actually a political asset (which is not to deny that he talked like a conservative but often walked like a liberal).

Still, Trump was special. There was so much he didn’t know and he apparently didn’t care. When caught saying nonsense, he often then shouted it.

Part of his appeal on the campaign trail, of course, was precisely his willingness to disregard convention. And it wasn’t always a bad thing even if one grants his partisan foes much of their argument. Jettisoning the “One China” fiction would have clarified matters, permitted greater honesty and upset a belligerent “revisionist” tyranny. His chronic tweeting, often belligerent and ignorant but also refreshingly frank, also fascinated people. So it was intriguing to see what he might do in office including possibly going up in flames.

Now we have seen some of it. And he has continued his tendency to vent on Twitter like Don Cherry (for non-Canadians, a bombastic hockey commentator loved and hated for his unwillingness to respect PC conventions). The result? Everybody who hated him still does and everybody who loved him still does.

So less here than meets the eye. Except on one point. As he did on the campaign trail, he has shown a startling and refreshing disregard for the shibboleths of the mainstream media. They in turn have continued to hammer him in unrestrained and unconvincing ways, playing to their own base at the expense of their credibility. Given the economic difficulties we in the newspaper trade face thanks to that dratted Internet that just won’t go away, it is short-sighted and self-destructive behaviour on their part. I do admire Trump for refusing to worry what the editorial board of the New York Times will say about him. But in this regard I think he is more a reflection of a cultural change than a major player in it.

He also issued some bold executive orders on immigration that promptly got bogged down in legal procedure. It raises a constitutional question in that, with over 3,200 federal judges in the United States, it will become almost impossible for any President to exercise the powers of his office if court-shopping activists can find just one whose ruling will block a decree for months.

To say so is not to defend executive rule, which is itself contrary to the spirit of the American Constitution as well as its letter. But despite the unpopularity of Trump generally with the smart set, and of his immigration policy in particular (it was widely pilloried as a “Muslim ban” which was either culpable ignorance or deliberate deceit), the president does have wide power to direct members of the executive branch in the discharge of their duties. And it remains to be seen whether something resembling judicial usurpation will hamstring not just Trump but his successors here.

Candidate Trump often gave the impression that both as a matter of personal style and from ignorance of the American system of limited government and impatience with what he did know of it, he would govern like a Latin American-style caudillo. However the US system simply does not permit such conduct, as his disastrous foray into health care reform seems to have shown him. The debacle of not repealing Obamacare showed Trump at his worst: ignorant, belligerent, inconsistent and petty. But his surly declaration of war on the right wing of his own party was met with dismissive sneers and rightly so. And it seems he has actually learned from that experience.

Another significant issue was whether Trump would be able to staff his administration at all. Partly there was concern that qualified people would shrink from serving under such a buffoon, and partly that he would make bizarre choices in a bizarre way in an all-too-real version of "The Apprentice". But some of his defenders argued the precise opposite, saying that in his business career, for all his bombast, he surrounded himself with talent and listened to it.

On this score the record seems to me to be favourable. There was the debacle of Michael Flynn and his Russian contacts, now under Congressional investigation and raising the perennial political question: how did anybody think this stuff would not get discovered? But from James Mattis at Defence to John Kelley at Homeland Security to Rex Tillerson at State, these are people who raise concerns primarily in the fever swamps or among those worried that Tillerson in particular is too “Establishment.” Putting Steve Bannon on the NSC was the sort of blunder we feared we would see a great deal of, but in fact he has been evicted without lasting harm.

Trump’s appointments are not ideologically uniform. It is hard to see how they could have been given that Trump himself is not -- a protectionist free market interventionist who favours a robust withdrawal from global affairs and is for and against abortion. But domestically, too, he has made some excellent choices, especially staunch backer of school choice and vouchers Betsy DeVos for Education.

It remains to be seen what influence Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner will wield and how much harm it will do. Nepotism is discouraged not only because unqualified people tend to get plum posts but also because it’s sort of hard to fire your own child. And like too many in Trump’s inner circle Kushner has odd Russian connections.

Some people worried that Donald Trump would be too prone to angering people on purpose as President, something he certainly wasn’t shy about as a candidate. But this concern seems to me to be partisan. Trump can be vulgar, and he can be offensive in his disregard for truth and decency (conspicuously, linking Ted Cruz’s father to the Kennedy Assassination, something more suited to political parody on "The Simpsons" than to real life). But when I reflect on FDR saying that big business, a.k.a. “the forces of selfishness and lust for power” are “unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred”, or Barack Obama’s clueless way of issuing offensive calls for unity around, of all things, his own positions, I think it is unreasonable and partisan.

Trump is a boor and, some of his remarks on women suggest, a pig. Those who know him have said he is quite different in person. But one of my reasons for declaring him unfit for office is that I would not want my daughters in the same room as him. That being said, as a politician I think he is distinguished more for knowing when he is being offensive than for being so.

His economic policy is a mixed bag. He has denounced Canadian protectionism in the dairy sector, and rightly so. But he still hews to a protectionist line generally, which is bad for America and ominous for the world. On the other hand, he wants sweeping tax reform to lower rates and boost growth. Whether he will see it through politically remains unclear but it’s certainly a good start.

Finally we come to foreign policy, the most important area because national security is the first responsibility of any government. For Trump in particular it was a crucial area because (a) America has the world’s biggest nuclear arsenal (b) governments that bungle national security lose everything (c) the United States is the hyperpower that stands between us and tyrannical chaos (d) the president has wide discretion in this area and (e) crisis can and do erupt with sudden urgency (f) Barack Obama did an awful job on national security and (g) candidate Trump was prone to strange pronouncements from making Mexico pay for a border wall to praising Vladimir Putin.

He was not wrong to put America’s interest first. The president is constitutionally and morally obligated to do so. But he should not have used the phrase “America First” with its lamentable historical associations, nor claimed protectionism and isolationism served America’s interest.

Once he was actually president, the first crisis geopolitically and intellectually looked like North Korea until it became Syrian use of sarin gas. The President had been backpeddling on campaign promises like labeling China a currency manipulator despite it being obviously true and, sadly, abandoning the “One China” fiction. The Mexican wall is probably still going ahead though not paid for with pesos. The US isn’t leaving NATO, which to be fair he never said he would, just mused that it was obsolete -- which, if members don’t start spending on defence, is true. He’s not hurrying to tear up NAFTA. So foreign affairs looked a lot like Reality 1, Trump 0. Then came those Syrian atrocities.

It is a mess he inherited from Obama, something liberals in politics and the press could have been more forthcoming about. Sometimes your guy and the other guy are both bad. But despite his “America First” rhetoric Trump rose to the occasion when reality intruded.

There is the geopolitical reality that, as Richard Nixon put it on April 30, 1970 (while invading Cambodia, if it matters), “If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world. It is not our power but our will and character that is being tested…”. And there is the moral reality that we cannot be indifferent to sufficiently hideous and brazen atrocities. In that sense Trump showed himself not just resolute and decent but also teachable.

He also showed that he is no Russian stooge. Despite earlier odd statements about Russia and its leader, and the weird web of business ties still entangling members of his administration, he acted resolutely against a Russian client in defiance of Kremlin protests. How much further he will go in Syria and to what effect remains to be seen. But since the subject here is the first 100 days, it is hard to see how he could have done much better. And it certainly caught people’s attention not only in Damascus or Moscow but also Beijing and even Pyongyang.

In light of these realities, what are we to make of the Trump Administration early on? I certainly do not think conservatives should support him wholeheartedly. Many were so delighted at the defeat of the Obama-Clinton worldview, and the manifestly ethically unfit Hillary Clinton herself, that they overlook failings of character, procedure and philosophy in Trump that they would denounce in almost anyone else.

For instance many Evangelicals supported him because they believed he was temperamentally unlikely to pursue the actively anti-Christian policies of the Obama and if elected Clinton Administrations. And I agree with this assessment. But shall we do evil that good may prevail?

Trump appears to regard many of the deadly sins as virtues and it should not be overlooked or excused. But if he follows through on campaign promises to appoint judges who would overturn Roe v Wade and possibly same-sex marriage, defund Planned Parenthood, and let churches engage in political campaign activity it would certainly suggest that he has become alert to the importance of moral issues at least intellectually. And better late than never.

So how do we judge his “Hundred Days”? I am not one who measures government by the number of new ways they can find to meddle in our lives. And I’m very cognizant of Sir Humphrey Appleby’s observation that “politicians love activity; it’s their substitute for achievement.” But Trump’s first 100 days have been a lot better than I expected not least because they have not been a flaming, off-the-bridge-into-the-ravine train wreck.

If this be eating crow, make the most of it. Because I do hope the United States has a successful president again after decades without one. And there’s far more to be encouraged about in Trump the president than there ever was in Trump the candidate.

John Robson is a crowdfunded documentary filmmaker and freelance journalist in Ottawa, Canada. See his work and support him at www.johnrobson.ca.   



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