He can’t govern in slogans but they’ll take him a long way
Inaugurations set the tone for a presidency and Trump undoubtedly set his yesterday: life will be different – for DC, for Europe, for China and for the world. In an extraordinarily pugnacious address, which might have been lifted direct from his campaign rallies, Trump served notice that the Old Order is dead as far as he is concerned. There will be no more Beltway politics, benefitting lobbyists and politicians at the expense of the public; no more Pax Americana, underwriting the global order.
Whether he can deliver on that is another matter. That he and the Washington elite kept the common folk waiting for over half an hour at the inaugural parade while they lunched was hardly a good pointer. His speech proclaimed that “we will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action, constantly complaining, but never doing anything about it. The time for empty talk is over.” Yet the speech was just platitudes and slogans, and a litany of complaints about the state of the country without any detail on how to address them. By his own measure, he fell short.
Trump has however kept surprising pundits and commentators with his capacity to succeed by (or despite) doing the unexpected and unorthodox. We’re in that place again. He is relying on the people that he berated in his inaugural to pass his legislation and budgets – and relying on the lobbyists and donors who might feel differently not providing an equal counterweight.
One might expect that someone who really has little support in DC, who has no political experience and who doesn’t respect diplomatic niceties (whether domestic or foreign) to fail in delivering anything that congress doesn’t want. I wouldn’t be so sure.
Trump has three main cards he can play. The first is the simple fact of his election. It might be a weak mandate but it’s a mandate all the same. The establishment lost and for the time being, that means his opponents can’t be entirely sure that they’re on solid ground going against him. Secondly, he has initiative. He has set out his new direction for America and beyond and while others can respond, he’ll be setting the terms of debate.
But thirdly and most importantly, his America First platform will be difficult to argue against without sounding unpatriotic, and patriotism, while the last refuge of a scoundrel, is also the first claim of a politician – and in particular, an American politician. No matter that ‘America First’ as a slogan hardly has an unsullied past; no matter that the practical objections of limiting trade or building walls are evident to those prepared to think. Trump cannot fail politically now unless congress blocks him and congress has already made and won the case as to why America First is wrong – and that will be extremely hard.
Of course, Trump could fail elsewhere. His businesses give ample scope for conflicts of interest and his style of management is not one that is well suited to the office he now holds. He is without many friends internationally and those he has are in it solely for what they can get (which is not without irony).
That foreign policy marks the biggest shift in priorities. The US is heading back towards isolationism, though Trump’s comments about fighting extremist Islam run counter to the general drift. All the same, the TPP is out, NAFTA may be out, co-operation on climate change is out – and NATO might well be out too. If radical Islam is the US’s number one perceived threat then the Kremlin is an ally rather than an opponent, while the European states are fighting the wrong war with someone else’s – his – soldiers. But Europe is rapidly becoming a backwater to the US’s strategic considerations. If radical Islam is the number one threat then China is number two. Again, Russia is a potential ally and Europe is of little consequence.
That shift in foreign priorities is unlikely to be unpopular in principle. In practice, ‘bringing jobs home’ is likely to be rather harder to achieve and putting up trade barriers will probably be counterproductive. But when emotions are running high, short-term politics trumps longer-term economics in decision-making.
However, as populists throughout the ages have discovered, the price of neglecting longer-term economic considerations will have to be paid eventually. And turning away from the industries of the 21st century in favour of those of the 19th and 20th is neglecting them. Regulations might bring cost but they also stimulate innovation.
For that reason, I expect Trump to lose in 2020. By then, the America First campaign is likely to have run out of steam and he’ll find it harder to hide. It’s rare for a party to hold the White House for a single term (Carter was the only example in the 20th century), but Trump is exceptional. He only just won this year against a very weak Democrat opponent and has set himself huge targets. I think he’ll get a longer run than many expect but will ultimately fail and against a stronger Democrat – there must be a moderate, sensible, successful governor thinking of having a go, surely? – will lose.
But until then, it’s going to be a hell of a ride.