24 January 2017

Where will Donald Trump take America?


Tim Montgomerie spent much of the past year in the United States covering one of the most extraordinary presidential elections in history. In a three-part series, he is summing up the key lessons from that campaign, and from Donald Trump’s early days in office. (The first part can be found here and the second part here.)

The political class has proved itself to be as unprincipled as Trump said it was

Crooked Hillary. Low Energy Jeb. Lyin’ Ted. Little Marco.

Donald Trump had a playground-style putdown for nearly all of the politicians he had to defeat on his way to the Republican nomination, and then to the White House. And it’s hard to argue that his disdain, even contempt, for the political class hasn’t been largely vindicated.

Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, exemplified the somersaults performed by so many Republican politicians as they tried to keep up with the Trump juggernaut. Jindal first advised his party not to put faith “in an egomaniac who has no principles” and that Trump was “a madman who must be stopped”. But within a few weeks, Jindal was urging his fellow Republicans to back that same madman – seemingly determined to prove that his party was, as he had also warned, in danger of becoming “the stupid party”.

Stupid – and, in the opinion of Bret Stephens, Marxist. By Marx, the Wall Street Journal columnist meant Groucho Marx. In his final article before the presidential election, he wrote:

‘These are my principles,’ Groucho once cracked, ‘and if you don’t like them, well, I have others.’ Everything Republicans once claimed to advocate – entitlement reform, free trade, standing up to dictators, encouraging the march of freedom around the world – turns out to be negotiable and reversible, depending on Donald Trump’s whims and the furies of his base.’

The accommodation to Trumpism continues to this day, with leading foreign policy hawks such as Senators McCain, Graham and Rubio now agreeing to Rex Tillerson’s nomination as Secretary of State, even though they admit that they are worried about the former Exxon CEO’s closeness to Vladimir Putin.

At some point, a critical number of Republicans will stand up to Trump. Won’t they? Very few have so far.

Trump’s first acts signal a movement away from multilateralism as well as from free trade

Within the first week of his presidency, Donald Trump has formally withdrawn from the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal. Talks with Theresa May on Friday are set to confirm his administration’s interest in a bilateral trade deal with the UK – but a largely post-industrial Britain does not threaten the livelihoods of blue-collar workers to the same extent as the TPP. In states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, competition with TPP signatories like Vietnam, Mexico, Malaysia was certainly perceived as a direct threat.

Yet in many ways, the TPP was already at death’s door. Negotiated by Barack Obama, it had been abandoned by Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and a decisive number of other Democrats and Republicans – so the protectionist President Trump was merely delivering the coup de grâce.

The contrasting fortunes of the TPP and of a US-UK deal illustrate how the global conditions that gave birth to both Brexit and Trump also signal a movement away from multilateralism and towards bilateralism.

Whatever the shortish-term difficulties that Britain might face as part of its divorce from Brussels, our great long-term advantage is the new nimbleness with which we can forge deals that suit our export markets, without us being inhibited by the demands of French farmers, German savings banks or Polish mining firms.

Trump, who has no regard for organisations like the EU and UN, rightly seeing them as talking shops, will likely form ad hoc alliances with whatever groups of willing nations he can assemble for whatever foreign policy task is currently his priority. This will take us into uncharted territory in international law.

Trump might be cavalier with established norms, but he is not wrong to recognise that much of the existing international architecture is past its sell-by date. Progress through the EU and UN can only be as fast as the slowest member of the convoy – and that slowest member is often completely stationary.

Expect lots of change on energy and tax policy – but not so much change on healthcare and banking

Obamacare may be as much of a political nightmare for Team Trump as it became for Democrats. Obama’s flagship reform was certainly unpopular, due to the high insurance premiums it caused – which largely explains why Republicans have won control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. But the Affordable Care Act did succeed in providing health coverage to more than 20 million extra Americans. The uninsured rate has dropped from about 15 per cent to 9 per cent.

Unlike the newly insured, most of the voters who want Obamacare repealed are Republicans. But if the “ACA” is repealed without something being put in its place, there will be endless heart-rending stories of people suffering – and Trump’s attempt to style himself as a president for the “forgotten” will be in grave danger.

Obamacare won’t just be tricky to repeal because of these electoral considerations. It will also prove difficult because it is the law of the land, and the Democrats with 48 senators have the numbers to filibuster repeal-and-replace measures.

The banking regulations introduced by Obama were also carved into law in Obama’s first two years, when he had even greater control of Washington than the Republicans have for the coming two years.

Don’t be surprised, therefore, if Trump, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell make limited progress on banking and health – and instead move forwards much more radically on environmental deregulation (where Obama used easily reversible executive orders), tax reform and infrastructure investment.

Trump has no plan to tackle social decline, even though it drives much of the angst and inequality dividing America

This is a huge topic that I shall make no attempt to address properly here, but Robert Putnam on the Left, Charles Murray on the Right and the likes of David Brooks and Steve Hilton somewhere in the middle have all written in powerful ways on this subject.

In America,  the poor enjoy only a fraction of the community connections and family support mechanisms available to the wealthy – and this gap in social capital underpins so many of the anxieties of our time. Solutions will be very difficult to identify and execute. But Trumpism, much like Mayism, is not even really trying.

After three controversial and largely unsuccessful presidencies, the free world needs America to be great again

I’d argue that each of the last three American presidencies have failed to build on the status that the US appeared to enjoy when the Berlin Wall came down. The president of the time, George Bush Sr, talked of a “new world order”. The US was seen as more than the only superpower – it was the globe’s hyperpower.

The Clinton years which followed were very much focused on domestic issues. Just as he promised after the First Gulf War and the recession of the early 1990s bit deeply into the well-being of so many American families.

Clinton’s “holiday from history” was followed by the unsuccessful and costly Iraq and Afghan interventions under George W Bush. Those campaigns, especially as they were still being prosecuted at the time of the 2008 crash, turned the Americans into a war-weary people.

Barack Obama was the opposite of Bush. But his obvious reluctance to be the world’s policeman only encouraged Russian expansion into Ukraine, Syrian use of chemical and other deadly weapons, and a Chinese military build-up in the Pacific.

We find ourselves, therefore, with power in the world shifting. While America remains richer, more militarily powerful and more technologically sophisticated than any other nation on Earth, it is far from being as dominant as it was 24 years ago.

Many now worry that the democratic model is proving to be less effective at addressing certain challenges, including the renewal of infrastructure and the containment of welfare spending, than the authoritarian models of the rising global economies.

The US will only stay dominant if it remains vibrant as an economy and if President Trump does deliver the rebuilding of US armed forces that he has promised. But America will also need to ensure the alliances that have also underpinned US power in the post-war era are maintained.

Like him or loathe him, anyone interested in the US being the world’s dominant power – rather than some Russian-Chinese-Iranian alternative – has to hope Trumpism succeeds in making America great again. Or at least a little bit greater, until a better, wiser, bolder president can succeed him.

See also: Trump told America what it wanted to hear (part one of this series) & How Trump has rewritten the political rules (part two)

Tim Montgomerie is a Conservative commentator