US President Donald Trump is a deeply unappealing leader to democrats within the US, and to most public opinion in Europe and outside America. Nevertheless, two years into his presidency he retains the support of much of his core constituency. Current predictions suggest the loss of control by the Republicans of the House of Representatives, and possibly the Senate, in the November 2018 elections. However, a second term as President cannot be excluded.
Beneath a public personality and a style of conducting politics that many find distasteful and unpleasant, he taps into substantive issues that have political traction.
Style: the twitterstorm
Much of the criticism of President Trump centres on style and personality. He appears from his overnight twitterstorms as hugely egotistical, impulsive, unreflective, combative and a bully. In his business and personal life, litigation seems to be treated as part of the normal cost of everyday transactions. Law is an instrument, not a principle.
In his business dealings the collateral damage from this way of acting was limited to private investors. The fear is that, in acting in this way as President, we are all potential collateral damage.
Beneath dislike of this style of doing things is the shock to political elites that President Trump has exposed democratic politics for what it really is. Educated liberal elites like to present politics as reasoned debate leading to reasoned policy conclusions by reflective leaders.
President Trump has exploded this myth. He exposes, for all to see, a world of short cut communication. In this world the platform is not the Town Hall debate, or contending newspaper editorials, but the mobile or cell phone, the home and the car. Traditional media, CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, can editorialise to their hearts content. Their opinion pages only reach a declining audience of the already converted.
President Trump is a fully paid up member of a twitterati who give knee jerk reactions to complex events.
This world of short cut communication through new platforms is the world of associative politics. We associate through the social media with those for whom we feel affiliation, shared interests and viewpoints. It is ‘diagnostic’ politics. We sense that, if something resonates with those with whom we like to associate, it will probably resonate in the same way for us too.
A traditional party label, such as the Republican label utilized by President Trump, remains an essential organizational tool for getting out the voters. But parties are no longer the key vehicles for messaging and persuasion.
Substance: breaking the silence
The world which President Trump exploits is a one-sided world. We tune in to those with whom we agree. We tune out dissenting voices. It is ‘dog whistle’ politics where we steer by instinct and on auto-pilot.
But there is another side. Political elites often take items ‘off the agenda’ if they are awkward for their party, or for their established interests. The new media breaks the silence. Agenda-setting moves from party elites to actors associated through other forms of social connection.
President Trump broke the silence on issues that political elites did not want to talk about; immigration, the decline of manufacturing, the blue collar losers from international trade, bureaucracy, and undesired foreign policy burdens. This has enabled him to cast himself as the champion of the underdog, even though he himself comes from the wealthy 1%.
Lying underneath specific ‘hot button’ issues, such as immigration, are more deeply rooted American attitudes. Established political elites have made their own self-serving selection from the penumbra of long-standing American traditions.
President Trump taps into alternative presuppositions about the American way. At their root these presuppositions concern both the role and conduct of government in domestic policy and American attitudes towards foreign international engagements.
Transforming the domestic order: what people do not do
The American tradition espouses a robust individualism. Hamilton believed that the new republic did not need to assert fundamental individual rights and freedoms because the people knew full well what they were anyway. (In)famously, the Second Amendment provides US citizens with the right to bear arms in the context of the defence of a free state. Yet, along with other democratic governments across the world, the US has seen an ever encroaching government.
Public policy interventions were initially justified by the need for remedies against individual actions that would harm others. They have expanded to include, in addition, remedies against failures of individuals to act that are held to harm others. Governments feel they are justified in correcting, not only for what we do, but also for what we do not do.
At the same time as government has become ever-more intrusive, those with authority have also become more distant. The central bureaucracy increasingly has to rely on extended chains of agencies, task forces and other extemporary bodies in order to bring together the expertise needed to formulate and deliver this extended public sphere. There is a whole world of experts and expertise to which people do not feel privy.
President Trump has responded to a ‘get off our backs’ mood by disregarding the experts on environmental policy (both domestic and global) and by delivering tax reforms. At first sight, tax reform is a contradictory policy. The tax reform will greatly expand the size of the US government deficit. The deficit will make it even more difficult to fund failing infrastructure in the US and its grossly underachieving system of public education. In both cases, investment would benefit those facing hard times and forced to take lower paying jobs.
Trump’s contrarian intuition seems to be that, in the same way as the private sector has raised private funding for transformatory forms of new delivery in the market, so too the private sector can structure and fund the transformations needed in the delivery of infrastructure, education and health care. The transformations in market delivery have provided much more immediate, direct and personalized services. So too perhaps they can perform the same magic in education and health care.
It is tempting to quickly dismiss Trump’s intuition as wishful thinking. However, we need to watch the moves by insurance companies to deliver services, the moves by pharmacies to deliver front-line health care, as well as the steps taken by FAANG tech companies to enter the healthcare and educational fields. Perhaps transformation is underway.
Upending the international order
It has long been pointed out that American attitudes towards foreign policy oscillate between the opposing poles of isolationism and an idealistic interventionism. Post-war bipartisanship in American foreign policy was destroyed by the Vietnam war. Nevertheless, a residual consensus has still survived in the foreign policy establishment.
The consensus has been built around the virtues of international engagement, combined with a readiness to use the UN and its specialized agencies as the main instruments for engagement. According to this consensus, international agreements and institutions should be Treaty based. In cases where detailed implementation cannot be agreed, at the least, understandings can be built around generally agreed principles.
In order to survive repeated interactions, such a policy of principled engagement requires reciprocity among the actors. Those who obey the rules need to see the rewards. Those who ignore them need to be penalized.
President Trump has pointed to the lack of reciprocity in international relations. The US has born disproportionate burdens. Rogue nations and rule breakers have gone unpunished.
Moreover, many of the institutions and Treaties on which international engagement has rested seem out of date. Trade agreements need to shift from a focus on manufactures. The key now is the world of services and such problems as cyber security and the theft of intellectual property, particularly in upcoming fields such as AI and augmented reality. There is no shortage of capital in the world. There are however increasing risks of health pandemics.
In short, President Trump seems to want a different style of US engagement with the outside world, around a different agenda, different institutions and different instruments. Sanctions, not Treaties, are his instrument of choice.
Creative destruction or just destruction
President Trump’s willingness to tap into long standing American attitudes, in order to challenge established domestic and foreign policies, contains dangers both for the outside world and for the American people themselves. Trump’s domestic agenda is of concern mainly to Americans. His willingness to point to the inadequacies of existing platforms for international engagement affects us all.
On his domestic agenda President Trump is right to look for new forms of delivery in education and health care. He is also right to voice concern about the growth of distant forms of government where channels of influence are known only to experts.
In the world of international engagement there is already instability inherent in changing power relationships as Russia tries to reassert its former influence and China asserts its new influence. Like other nationalist powers before them, they are interested in international rules of engagement only as long as the rules are theirs, or serve the interests of their domestic power elites. This instability presents obvious dangers to us all.
However President Trump is also right to point out that the international order is badly in need of reform. It requires a different policy focus and different ways of achieving global action.
We can abhor the personality and style that President Trump brings to the US Presidency. The least of the dangers is that we fall into an irreversible twittercoma. Possibly he will be ejected from office. However, we have to put our dislikes aside in order to find new platforms to address issues that have, for too long, been kept off the agenda.