Donald Trump begins building an America that everybody can understand, but nobody can believe in.
The cultural identity of America is changing. Theresa May’s assurances over American support for NATO being described as a political ‘win’ shows just how different the world’s expectations are when dealing with the US. David Rothkopf’s ‘Pox Americana’ article distilled this shift by breaking down those decisions made so far: alliances and treaties hang on bare threads as Trump runs about with open scissors, undemocratic powers are being embraced where before they were at best tolerated and climate change agreements disputed and undermined.
Of course, President Trump’s first few weeks in office were only ever going to be about one thing: himself. That’s why the discussions with the other branches of government, or experts, have reportedly been so few. His campaign promises were made without them, and given for the most part they disagreed with them to start with, their input is unlikely to amount to much now. To friends and foes alike, the President needs to prove his frequently self-professed capacity for getting things done. Campaign promises are being kept because that’s who Trump needs to be to the American people – in the words of his Vice President, he’s the doer in a game of talkers.
He is, in more ways than one, the pinnacle of every leader or political figure to have emerged from a festering pool of distrust and disaffection. From the UK, to France, to Hungary, each have been able to address those who look on at the political correctness gone mad with a blank, demoralised face. All of this is obvious, it’s been said so many times before that it’s boring. But something that hasn’t been touched on as much is how immobilising running on this kind of platform can be.
“Policies that resonate as well as they do on the building site”
The appeal of a leader like Trump is millions of Americans listen to him speak and say, “you know what, I’ve been saying this for years”. It’s the same thing in the UK, or any democracy in fact. Everybody is an armchair expert. Obviously, no one likes the real experts, they “would say” whatever it is they’re saying. Instead, Trump/Le Pen/Farage/Orban come along with “common sense” policies that resonate as well as they do on the building site, over dinner, over a pint, in the hairdressers, or in a smoking area.
The obvious flaw in the plan is that not a single decision made by a leader, let alone the leader of the free-world, will be common sense.
” A President inaugurated to the backdrop of global outrage and protest”
Trump’s authenticity is the card he holds against every political opponent he encounters, and that’s intimately linked to the idea of a common sense politician. They’re authentic because hearing them speak sounds exactly like you’d hear in the back of a taxi, or in a smoking area, or over a pint, or anywhere you might find normal people talking about politics without much political experience. Trump, of course, is an ultra-extreme example of those without political experience, but he has enough sense to understand the danger his approach poses. If his leadership turns out to be just politics as usual, that support will drain away quicker and angrier than it came to him. He also knows there’s no selling the opposition on his vision. And a President inaugurated to the backdrop of global outrage and protest can only have his resolve steeled given that, after all, the irony of a majoritarian system is that even when the world feels like it’s falling apart, he still has the mandate (electoral college gripes aside).
But the bigger problem that comes from this is just how little room to manouvre he’s now left with. Criticise Obama’s compromising over the Iran nuclear deal, Assad’s use of chemical weapons or the Crimea – but it’s laughable to suggest the United States as an entity is considered ‘compromising’. For some, Obama’s apparently more deliberative approach was a welcome relief: a cool head taking the helm after 8 years of hot-headed Bushism. But for as many others he represented either a continuation or a deterioration in America’s attitude to the rest of the world – Pakistan being the most obvious, but far from only, example.
“All the hyperbolic nonsense that serves as white noise to the discussion”
Those who want Trump’s ‘stronger’, ‘harsher’ leadership see America as weak and ineffective. When Trump talks about how he’s going to destroy ISIS, or stop illegal immigration, or stop refugee terrorists, he does so in ways that feel practical to millions of people. Build a wall, bomb them, ban them from entering, take their oil. The minute Trump steps outside of the authenticity bubble, ‘he’s one of them’ and all is lost. And yet for all the hyperbolic nonsense that serves as white noise to the discussion, talk of America being a symbol is backed up by a history littered with proof that ideas and principles shape our world. Common sense, however, rarely extends to symbolism. Symbolism is complex, and trying to establish a nation as one is even more so.
So common sense ideas like migrant bans or wall-building, or removing funding from overseas abortion clinics, or sending ‘The Feds’ down to Chicago to sort the mess out – and their inevitable consequences for America as a symbol, are in a lot of ways inevitable, because common sense is now governing the United States, and those that put it there will take their support away in a split second if they spot signs of anything nuanced coming in.
This isn’t meant to bash on Trump supporters as being uninformed. Their problems are real. The responses to them from governments have often been ill-thought out or even gimmicky, and they’ve failed to address their roots. It is, however, meant to bash those in positions of power who sell falsely simplified solutions to incredibly complex problems to incredibly desperate people.
“The US already utilises a vast arsenal of blunt force very poorly”
Nor is this any kind of sanctification of what the US has stood for in the past. Awful crimes have been committed in its name, and its mistakes are magnified to gargantuan proportions because of it’s sheer size and influence. And there’s plenty of philosophical or ethical discussion to be had over how Western-centric its ideals are or how much it imposes them on the rest of the world. In truth, the US already utilises a vast arsenal of blunt force very poorly. It’s drones have been cataclysmically unpopular within the nations they’ve been operated in. America needs to do more to convince the world of it’s principles, not less. Much of the world still sees the US at best as overbearing and at worst, imperial.
But if you want to oppose the actions Rothkopf and I have discussed, you have to get where it comes from. In this case, it comes from an inherent weakness within the President’s strategy – that his position is so uncompromising and his promises so grand that no criticism, constructive or not, can get through. So for those that are hopeful the outrage sparked in these early days might temper the President’s future decisions, you’re out of luck: it’s time for him to double down.