Will the Trump Years be a Blip?

07.11.20 Publication:

Throughout Donald Trump’s occupancy of the White House since January 2017 I have had in
my mind comparisons with the previous billionaire, narcissistic populist that I studied,
namely Silvio Berlusconi, the man who was Italy’s prime minister from 2001 to 2006 and
again from 2008 to 2011. The reason is that both their style and their records in government
have been quite similar. Not identical of course, but strikingly similar. This helps, I think, to
interpret and understand the impact of America’s last four years.

One reason for thinking about Berlusconi when assessing Donald Trump has been
that both men have been consistently under-estimated by their opponents and by political
pundits. This is because what they share is their mastery of communication through modern
media, their basic support from their national business communities on the belief that they
will impose lower taxes and friendlier regulations than the alternative government, and
their total shamelessness in telling lies and changing their positions, even daily, to suit their
situations and their audiences.

Clearly, the international status and role of the United States is very different to that
of Italy, so that the framework within which these two political leaders have worked has
been different. Yet their basic attitudes to governance have been very similar. Why? The
reason is not just that they are both outsiders to politics, from a business background. The
main reason is that with that outsider background they have been interested in only two
things: in the use of power to serve their interests while in office; and in getting re-elected.

This has shaped America’s drift and decline, just as it previously shaped Italy’s.
Looking back at Trump’s time in office, he has shown strikingly little interest in the actual
processes of governing and of Congressional politics. Whenever things have become
complicated because of legal obstacles or the difficult need to gain Congressional support,
he has backed off. This is why two major campaign promises from 2016 have never been
implemented: to reform and replace the Affordable Care Act, the health laws known as
Obamacare; and to introduce a major programme of publicly funded infrastructure

Trump has no real ideological principles about domestic American policy, so he
hasn’t even attempted to lead a transformative administration. Yet he knows how to wield
power, in his own political interests. When he or his cabinet have been able to act directly,
through Executive Orders or under departmental powers, the Trump administration has
moved quite decisively. He has appointed more new federal judges than President Obama
did, as well as three Supreme Court justices, thanks in part to the fact that Obama’s
appointments had been blocked by a Republican-controlled Senate, but this has shifted the
judiciary in a conservative direction. Under him, business regulations have been rolled back,
especially by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Along with cuts in taxes and increased federal borrowing, well before Covid-19, this
has helped raise business profitability, which explains why big business supported him at
least in his early years. But such measures made little difference to overall economic
growth, with an annual average growth in real GDP of 2.5% in his first three years, which is
essentially identical to the record under President Obama. He did succeed in reducing                                                  immigration, which will please some supporters, although the famed “wall” he wanted built
along the Mexican border is still not there.

In terms of direct domestic policy impact, the Trump administration in 2016-20 was
unremarkable. His bigger effect has lain in what the great American statesman John Foster
Dulles, Secretary of State under President Eisenhower in the 1950s, called “conduct and
example”. By his conduct, President Trump has pushed back against some of what were
supposed to be legal constraints on the office of the presidency, such as bans on the use of
the White House for political campaigning or his linking of foreign aid to Ukraine to
requested political favours, and he has been allowed to do so by the Republican-controlled
Senate. Moreover, he has chosen to flout conventions that presidents should act and speak
with decorum, choosing instead to tell lies quite brazenly, to insult his opponents and to
offer tacit support to extremist groups.

This change in conduct has, however, been seen even more starkly in foreign policy.
President Trump has not been the isolationist that some foreign-policy experts feared, four
years ago; in fact he has sought to build and to use American power overseas in fairly
conventional ways. But where he has differed from predecessors has lain in the very
personal nature of his foreign policies and in his attitude to America’s closest allies.

Rather like Silvio Berlusconi during his time in office in Italy, the businessman
president has seen foreign policy as transactional rather than strategic. And like Berlusconi,
he realises that dictators are easier to make transactions with than democratic
governments. Thus, he has preferred speaking with Vladimir Putin of Russia, Recep Tayyip
Erdogan of Turkey or, most prominently, Kim Jong Un of North Korea, to dealing with
Germany’s Angela Merkel or France’s Emmanuel Macron. And his priority has been trade
policy, through the use of tariffs and trade sanctions, rather than either diplomacy or
military action.

The difficult question to answer is what lasting effect these past four years will have
on America’s role in the world. Certainly, by revealing an America that looks more unstable
and unpredictable than in the past, the period has harmed the country’s credibility. Trump’s
failure to extract any concessions from North Korea despite multiple meetings and lavish
mutual flattery similarly dents US credibility. But that harm could prove temporary. So, too,
might be the harm done to relationships with NATO in Europe or South Korea in East Asia:
the effect of insults and transactional bargaining over military costs may fade, with time.

More important, in the end, will be the question of whether the United States re-
emerges after this period stronger and more united, or whether it proves to have lost what
was previously its greatest asset: its ability to reset, rethink and reorganise itself after
setbacks. If it recovers, then American leadership and credibility will revive, even if in a
changed global environment. If not, then the decline of America’s world role will have been

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay