One of the most alarming aspects of the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency is how little serious analysis there has been in the public domain, outside academic and policy-making circles, of his impact.
The ‘Trump phenomenon’ is a complex one, yet the reporting has been dominated by simplistic knee-jerk responses to the form, rather than the content, of his administration.
It is almost as if there has been no adjustment in the media’s approach since he first took centre-stage as a presidential candidate. But President Trump was elected in America, by Americans.
Recently published poll figures may put him as one of that country’s least popular leaders ever, but that does little to diminish the fact that Trump still has a very loyal portion of the electorate. His rhetoric resonated with their world-view, in events that are part of what Klaus Schwab refers to in his WEF report as indicating how our world is not only multipolar, it is multiconceptual.
Essentially, this means American politics remain highly polarised. The Democrats must contend with a substantial number of Americans who feel excluded by their rhetoric of inclusiveness. This is a difficult situation to confront. How can their ideology continue to conquer the world, if it faces such criticism at home?
Trump’s strategy to date has been fairly standard: casting himself as an outsider, a voice for the voiceless who will bring the marginalised to the fore. This succeeded in motivating a section of the electorate that had been largely passive in recent years.
It worked in the campaign, and perhaps his team feels it can work similarly now he is in office. But one of the realities of politics is that what makes a successful campaign is often very different from what makes a successful term in office.
Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric and outsider status resonated with part of the electorate suffering, inter-alia, from a protracted economic crisis, lack of opportunities, and social inequality stemming from liberal economic reforms and globalisation
Trump’s platform was divisive, and yet he still won. But if his campaign was successful in large part because it was rooted in a popular mood of disenchantment, governing as a president requires something different. The ‘attack mode’ that got him into the White House now needs to change.
And this is where Trump seems a little uncertain. As president, if he is to be successful, he has to govern – not for his friends, his business contacts and golfing partners, not even just for his electorate or party – but for the country as a whole. Particularly those voters who believed he would lift them out of poverty, and return their jobs from China.
This requires a broader vision and the ability to extend his campaign into a platform for governance that reaches across the political divide that brought him to power.
Continuing to attack the political establishment – as president – is a risky strategy that could (partly through the administrative disarray it engenders) undermine Trump’s work to deliver on his mandate.
Even his loyal supporters murmur that they wish he would lay off social media. As criticisms go, this is fairly tame. But it is indicative. They don’t care what he tweets. They are watching for whether or not he delivers. Because that is what matters – both to his base, and more fundamentally – to whether or not his term in office is a success.
And the clock is ticking. While a presidential candidate can present themselves as an outsider who knows the remedies to society’s ills, a president is, unavoidably, the establishment.
Again, part of what worked in the campaign was the direct, unfiltered, quality to his communications that is a world away from the heavily crafted PR-approved slogans and spin that has become an integral part of contemporary politics in many countries. And this continues to dominate the news cycle and media analysis of Trump’s time in office.
But there is a world beyond Twitter. And it is there that he will succeed, or fail.
The political standoff that so defines his campaign and his presidency could have serious consequences not only for American society which remains deeply divided, but also for Europe and the wider world.
The only alternative development path would involve all sides taking a step back from ideology-driven politics, and embarking on a more pragmatic course in domestic and international affairs. A ‘compassionate conservatism’ could, perhaps, serve to unite enough of the fractured electorate. If successful, there would be an opportunity for policy-making to return to the fundamental issues that face us, leaning on developments in both the social sciences and digital technologies.
The challenges that America faces domestically and internationally remain as great as they were before he took office. And on international issues, such as Israel-Palestine, he has engendered some crucial changes of direction and emphasis in US rhetoric – and policy.
America remains one of the most important global voices on international relations and, in particular, in conflict zones. In a number of areas, Trump has changed direction from his predecessors – notably over the Paris climate accord, with his decision to supply arms to Ukraine, and moving the US embassy to Jerusalem.
Trump has also been making progress on his domestic agenda. International corporations have listened and brought some jobs to US soil. It will take time before the economic impact of these domestic policies can be adequately assessed.
His low approval ratings offer little comfort to an administration that has seen both a very high staff turnover and widespread media hostility. This hostility is clearly ideologically driven, and inhabits the realms of caricature – depicting him as at best a clown, and at worst a willing tool of dark international forces.
The fact remains that for the moment, debate about Trump’s performance remains locked in a scenario of hostile and highly politicised claim and counterclaims, as can be seen from discussions about whether he has signed the most or the least number of bills into law. In reality, as has also been noted, what matters is the impact the legislation has.
Whatever one’s verdict on Trump’s style or approach to governance, there is no doubt that the Trump phenomenon has already seriously disturbed America’s political establishment and the global order.
At last there is no doubt that Trump will provide a rich resource for political science students in the years to come.
It will certainly be interesting to watch the discussion around President Trump’s successes and failures move away from the cartoonish depiction of him that we have seen to date. Equally interesting will be whether he can move away from public confrontation with people he identifies as enemies – much of the media, Democrats, and old-guard establishment figures.
Trump has been working towards some of the issues he campaigned and won on (tax regulation etc) and the business community’s response has been positive. Many of his predecessors may have been more polished and articulate, more able to give the establishment and the pundits the messaging they wanted to hear. But delivered less of what they campaigned on. And with Trump, the jury is still very much out.