Donald Trump continues to break conventions. Whereas typical politicians fail to honour their election pledges, this US President keeps his word. For all the spin and flip-flopping of modern politics, here’s a bloke who practises what he preaches.
The list is long and growing. He pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris climate pact and the Iran nuclear deal. He will move permanently the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. He has slashed the US company tax rates and stacked the judiciary with qualified conservatives. He has put a “travel ban” that restricted entry to America from several Muslim nations, which the Supreme Court upheld this week. On July 16, Trump will broker detente with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
One can oppose Trump on these issues and much else and still recognise his positions were advertised in the 2016 preview guide. But hatred of Trump runs so deep in some circles that many people cannot see straight.
Even Trump’s diplomatic outreach towards Kim Jong-un was flagged on the campaign trail. In May 2016, he suggested that as president he would welcome direct negotiations with the North Korean dictator. The response, from left to right, was hostile. Appeasement, weak, naive, delusional – all these barbs were hurled at the foreign-policy novice.
And yet, notwithstanding last year’s “fire-and-fury” bombast, Trump has held a high-level summit with the leader of Hermit Kingdom. Although the jury is still out, Pyongyang has released US hostages, halted missile and nuclear tests and signalled a willingness at least to talk about denuclearisation. It’s a far cry from Rocket Man’s provocations a year ago.
Trump’s base is prepared to overlook his character flaws. At one level, this is difficult to stomach, because the rude-and-crude buffoon has debased public discourse time and again.
However, in a polarising culture in which Trump’s supporters are denounced as “deplorables”, many ordinary folk stick with the devil they know. And Trump’s enemies only play into his hands.
This week, a restaurant owner in the state of Virginia refused service to Trump’s press secretary, because she did not like her politics. Activists harassed Trump’s homeland security cabinet secretaryat her home, shouting “no justice, no sleep”.
Meanwhile, America is in a bullish mood. Everything that should be up – growth, confidence – is up. Everything that should be down – jobless rate, inflation – is down.
The upshot is that Trump’s tax-and-deregulation agenda appears to be working, assuming his import tariffs – another election promise to working-class folks displaced by globalisation – don’t disrupt the boom.
On foreign policy, it should be noted that for much of 2017 the establishment had boxed in Trump. The only time he’s received media applause was when he enforced his predecessor’s red line by bombing Syria. These days, Trump is untethered and doing pretty much whatever he wants. He resembles a force of nature.
When John Bolton became national security adviser in April, the conventional wisdom said Trump would adopt a tough and assertive world role, forever flexing Uncle Sam’s muscles. In any case, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis was there, helping uphold the mythical “rules-based international order”.
For the most part, Trump is doing it his way, keeping America out of Middle East quagmires while playing nice with the Kremlin and Kim regime. Although this resonates with a war-weary American public, it is anathema to neo-conservative interventionists and liberal hawks. As America’s leading Russian historian Stephen Cohen tells me: “It seems the Russia-gaters and Trump-phobes would rather impeach Trump than avert nuclear war.”
Bolton, whom I’ve known for more than two decades, is a skilled and practised bureaucratic infighter, but he’s no match for Trump. The Republican hawk tried to sabotage the Singapore summit with Kim and failed. He is now playing kissy face with Vladimir Putin.
So, where does Trump’s foreign policy lead? His tariffs will only increase consumer prices while dampening global growth. But they may also amount to a negotiating tactic to force the Chinese to open up its economy to US imports.
The foreign-policy establishment types say Trump will lead to serious trouble. But these are the same elites who have been wrong about so many issues in the post-Cold War era (NATO expansion, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, China, GFC) that it is hard to place much faith in their judgements. After all, it was their failures that help explain why the man they so despise is now in the White House.
Tom Switzer is executive director of The Centre for Independent Studies and a presenter on ABC’s Radio National.
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