It’s been a weird three weeks in America. My life goes on as normal, until a radio or TV voice intrudes with the words 'President-elect Trump', and I suddenly feel queasy, as if the floor just tilted a little beneath me. But then it passes, and I get back to worrying about whether the NY Giants can actually make the playoffs this year.
In the aftermath of 8 November, my mantra has become 'judge him by his actions, not his rhetoric' and I’ve adopted the worldview of journalist Salena Zito, whose analysis of Trump is that 'the press took him literally, but not seriously, while his supporters took him seriously, but not literally'. The hope she succinctly captures is that Trump wasn’t in fact elected by a bunch of rabid gay-hating, misogynistic, neo-Nazi nutters, but instead by an overwhelmingly nihilist and disillusioned electorate that cared less about the specifics and more about the broader need for change; leaving Trump plenty of room to moderate his actual policy agenda. Rather than the 'hope and change’ of the 2008 Obama transition, we now have change – and then we hope for the best.
To date, the Trump transition has mirrored his campaign; disorganised and improvised with a broad direction of travel just barely discernible within a chaotic and often contradictory set of public statements. Rather than private meetings, we’ve had a parade of potential 'finalists’ for cabinet positions disappearing behind the golden lift doors of Trump Tower. Instead of the State Department briefing the president-elect before talking to foreign leaders, we’ve had the Australian prime minister getting Trump’s personal cell phone number from golfer Greg Norman and just calling him up for a chat. What’s clear is that, while we may get regular appearances by the Trump who 'will be so presidential that it will make your head spin', presidential Trump will continue to be joined on his reality show by his unpredictable and embarrassing doppelganger who works the night shift and suffers from Twitter Tourette’s.
Beyond tone, the last three weeks have also given us real appointments and some policy statements to chew on. In the positive column, there’s been a dialling back of some of the campaign rhetoric. In his first policy video, the campaign chant of 'build a wall' mutated into 'increased scrutiny of work visa compliance'. On climate change, we saw a pivot from 'a Chinese hoax' to 'I’m open minded'. Trump also backed off his promise to further investigate Clinton, although it shows how little he understands the US justice system that it wasn’t his call to begin with.
Finally, despite her lack of foreign policy experience, the appointment of Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina as UN ambassador is good news. It will put the daughter of Indian immigrants in a key bridge role with the broader international community, although you suspect that the majority of her time will be spent explaining that her boss didn’t really mean it.
Squarely in the bad news column is Steve Bannon’s appointment as White House senior strategist. Bannon built Breitbart News by peering into minds of angry white males and then feeding conspiracy-rich nutrients to the base instincts that live in their dark crevices. A man whose selection was applauded by the KKK and who embodies the worst rhetoric of the Trump campaign will now have unfettered access to the president and will help shape his agenda. The best case scenario is that Bannon proves to be just an economic nationalist, functioning as a populist conscience to ensure that billionaire Trump remains a tribune of the white working class.
Apart from Bannon, most of the other early appointments like attorney general Jeff Sessions, national security adviser Michael Flynn, and CIA director Mike Pompeo fall into the 'hard right but generally competent’ category, although all of them have at least some history of racism or Islamophobia.
Also in the bad news column is the realisation that the next four years are likely to see a conveyor belt of corruption scandals. Accusations of self-dealing already hang like a toxic miasma over Trump Tower, amplified by Trump’s brazen proclamation that 'presidents can’t have conflicts of interest'. It’s all very well to say the kids will run the business, but when Ivanka shows up to a meeting with the Japanese prime minister which Ivanka is it? Is it Ivanka the first daughter, or Ivanka head of international sales and marketing for Trump Hotels? Whichever Ivanka it was, her jewellery line wasted no time in sending out a promotional email marketing the bangle she was wearing at the meeting.
Without even getting into the craziness of Farage and the wind farms, we also had Trump’s first conversation with the Argentinian president covering not only world affairs but also some permitting issues for a new development in Buenos Aries. This brass-necked conflation of business and politics isn’t new in America, but it’s been a long time since we’ve had such well-founded fears that the US presidency will become a kleptocracy focused on self-aggrandisement and personal profit.
With a celebrity president the adjective 'unprecedented’ will quickly lose its potency over the next four years, so I’m trying to take a deep breath, ignore the noise, and separate the merely unfortunate from the truly dangerous. In the unfortunate category are things like a set of economic policies that owe more to the nationalism of Juan Peron in 1950s Argentina than they do to Ronald Reagan. The markets like the idea of deregulation and lower taxes, but the result is likely to be short-term gain leading to mid- to long-term pain. The same is true for his trade policy, where the ditching of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the renegotiation of NAFTA will be red meat to economic populists, but you’ll struggle to find an economist who believes import tariffs and a trade war with China will benefit the economy in the long run.
In the truly dangerous category are attempts to curtail civil rights and reverse the trend towards a more tolerant and inclusive society. Bad things have already happened as a result of Trump being elected, but they are on a local and personal level; ripples from the rock of the Trump presidency being thrown into the national cultural pond. Hate crimes are up, with the perpetrators buoyed by what they see as an affirming voice in the White House. Swastikas have appeared on Jewish temples. Hijab-wearing Muslim women have been harassed in the streets, and immigrant kids are getting bullied in school. But while sad and reprehensible, none of these actions are (as yet) the result of any formal policy or legislative agenda. However, it is worrying that Trump’s ‘sore winner’ accusations of widespread voter fraud may presage federal action to raise the bar for voter registration, which in turn will suppress minority turnout in future elections. I doubt, however, that Trump will go as far as Bannon, who in a fit of nostalgia for the 18th century, has mulled over restricting voting rights to just property owners.
Also in the dangerous category are actions that could undermine NATO and embolden both China and Russia to test America’s resolve in the Baltics or the South China Sea. That is why the still unfilled roles of secretary of defence and secretary of state will be the most important decisions Trump takes between now and January. If we have experienced and moderate people like Mitt Romney and General David Petraeus in those roles, I’ll feel a lot better about the next four years. If we have war hawks and loose cannons like Rudy Giuliani, then we could have a lot more to worry about during a Trump presidency than government corruption and aggressive deportation policies. (After this piece was written late Thursday, General James Mattis – popularly known as 'Mad Dog' – was appointed defence secretary).
While I struggle to see how the next four years can be a positive for my adopted homeland, I do have faith in both the moderating effect of its public institutions and ultimately in the core values of the American people. The presidency is by design a weak executive branch that requires the consent of Congress to both pass legislation and approve treaties. While Congress remains Republican-controlled, the fact is that on many issues Trump is not a traditional Republican, and once his honeymoon is over, that inherent tension will undoubtedly create friction on policy specifics.
Without 60 votes in the Senate, the majority will also struggle to push through any truly divisive legislation like a Muslim registry. If the Democrats are smart, they won’t just hunker down and attempt to block legislation, but instead will work to peel off the many moderate Republican senators who have already signalled their intent to be a bulwark against any extreme measures proposed by the new administration. We also have the bizarre sight of solidly Democratic states like California and New York talking up states' rights as a defence against federal overreach – a classic Republican script now appropriated by anxious liberals.
The Democrats must also accept that, although many Trump supporters voted against their own economic interests, the Democrats need to resist the temptation to petulantly punish them for it. For example, infrastructure spending has been on the Democrats’ wish list for years, so they should embrace Trump’s enthusiasm for it, but then fight to ensure that it doesn’t become a feeding frenzy of graft and corruption. Rather than try and block the repeal of Obamacare, Democrats should accept that it needs reform and try and shape the future solution.
Trump’s pick for health and social services secretary is an ardent opponent of Obamacare, so the Democrats could be seduced by the idea of just standing back and letting healthcare reform unravel piecemeal. In places like Clay County Kentucky, 87% voted for Trump, but the uninsured population dropped from 27% to 10% in 3 years under Obamacare, so repeal will hurt, but Democrats need to help solve the problem not just gloat at the chaos. Come 20 January the grieving needs to stop, and the Democrats need to move beyond identity politics and be humble enough to listen and react to the economic concerns of flyover country, their ignorance of which clearly cost them the election.
Finally, despite the events of the last few weeks, I still have faith in the American electorate. These are the same people who twice elected an African-American president, and national opinion polls still suggest we are trending towards a more tolerant and inclusive society. Ultimately the swing states of the rustbelt elected Trump based on his economic message, and a lot of his anti-immigrant and anti-trade rhetoric was framed as contributing factors in the narrative of those states’ economic decline. If he focuses on economic concerns, avoids serious international blunders, and moderates his rhetoric on social issues, the Trump presidency could go down in history as an interesting experiment in economic nationalism, but not an unmitigated disaster.
If instead he seeks to govern as he campaigned, then I am confident he will eventually trigger the anti-bodies of American democracy, and some combination of the Congress, the Supreme Court, state governments, and ultimately public opinion will rein him in. As you can tell, I’m trying to view my glass as half-full, but maybe I’ll top it up with a little more bourbon before I sit down to write a check to the American Civil Liberties Union.