From Outsider to President: 100 Days of Donald Trump
di Andrew Spannaus
One year ago Donald Trump was a populist candidate railing against the system, promising to break the grip of the globalist élites on U.S. politics. Beneath the surface of his crude and provocative rhetoric, was a call for profound changes in two major areas: economics, seeking a return to the promotion of industrial production, and foreign policy, putting an end to “regime change” wars that are not in the true interest of the United States.
As President, Trump now finds himself under pressure from the institutions he is supposed to lead; he is still seen as an outsider unwilling to accept the ground rules which have guided the Western establishment’s policies for decades.
The natural temptation is to judge Trump’s first 100 days comparing him to previous presidents, such as his predecessor Barack Obama, or the figure whose success defined the metric of 100 days: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. A different approach is required for the current president, however. First of all, Trump did not win a majority of the popular vote, and has never even come close to a 50% approval rating with the American population. From this perspective, his current position of slightly above 40% isn’t far from the level of support he received in the November elections. It would be surprising if it were higher, given that most major media is heavily critical of the president; regardless of the merits of the criticism, it’s clear that Trump had no chance of benefitting from the traditional honeymoon experienced by other presidents at the beginning of their terms.
In addition, Trump’s campaign was run against his own party, against the media, and against the economic and political class in general. Even before his inauguration he found himself in an unprecedented clash with the country’s intelligence agencies, that aimed to use Russiagate to weaken his Administration from the outset. This battle is far from over, as we have seen in recent weeks. The continuous “scandals” about how one Trump advisor or another sought confidential discussions with Russian representatives, are not based on accusations of actual unlawful conduct, but rather an attempt to criminalize the very notion of better diplomatic relations with the “enemy”, as much of Washington now defines Russia. The true battle is over the direction of U.S. foreign policy, i.e. whether Trump will actually succeed in improving superpower relations and shifting NATO’s focus to terrorism, rather than continuing towards a new Cold War, but with less and less of a buffer zone between the two sides’ troops and matériel.
President Trump cannot be assessed with the same criteria used for others, because he came to office thanks to a populist revolt fed by those who feel excluded by the current system. This doesn’t mean we should ignore his obvious defects and lack of political experience, which lead him to make egregious mistakes, but rather that the judgment of traditional commentators and media outlets is less important than in the past. If the White House were to seek the favor of a newspaper like the Washington Post, it would in a certain sense be betraying its own voters.
This leads us to two potential viewpoints from which to evaluate Trump’s first four months in office. The first is that which aims to see him “domesticated”, brought within the lines of accepted policy among the current institutions; the second reflects the priorities of the angry voters who sent him to the White House, with a message of protest against the élites of Washington, New York and Los Angeles.
The President has certainly stepped back from some of his original positions, for example when he bombed the Syrian airbase at al-Shayrat to show that he is not controlled by Vladimir Putin. On trade, Trump is also moving slowly, not having developed a clear strategy to go beyond his initial broadsides against multilateral deals such as the now defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership. The White House’s attention seems more focused on traditional Republican priorities, such as cutting taxes and regulations, themes perfectly suited for the business and finance-oriented officials in the Administration, many of whom - in keeping with recent tradition - hail from Goldman Sachs.
However, it is more than a bit hypocritical to hear those who opposed Trump from the start now criticize him for not keeping his promises, such as moving forward with protectionism, or achieving a new understanding with Putin. From day one most of the institutions have worked not only to avoid such outcomes, but also to mobilize public opinion against them. The reality is that Trump’s apparent steps backward on these points are seen as positive signs by much of the political establishment; just consider John McCain’s joy when Trump bombed the Syrians, a sentiment shared by many democrats as well, demonstrating the existence of a strong alliance still in favor of “regime change” policies.
Many Trump supporters use specious arguments to defend the president, pointing to his signing of executive orders, the success in nominating a new Supreme Court judge, or progress made on repealing Obamacare. Most of these actions regard typically conservative issues, where the only question is which faction of the Republicans will prevail, not whether Trump can effect a fundamental change with respect to business as usual in his own party. The real question is if the president will move forward on the “revolutionary” aspects of his campaign: a return to the real economy, and a foreign policy based less on ideology, and more on agreements linked to U.S. interests.
On both of these points the battle is still open. Trump has called current trade practices into question, but he has yet to define a path towards an intelligent form of protectionism, in line with the most successful periods of U.S. economic growth. This would mean restoring the economic policies of the “American System” as practiced before the shift towards an economy based on finance and services, begun starting in the 1970s. The goal would not be to block international trade, but rather to protect living standards and quality production, as opposed to competition based on the exploitation of low costs and the absence of enforcement of labor and environmental standards, which have characterized the outsourcing policies of recent decades.
On foreign policy the president thinks he is able to play a complex game, showing aggression where the consequences seem limited, to then negotiate behind the scenes from a position of strength. In the case of China this has led to some positive results, such as increasing pressure put on North Korea. With Russia the path is more difficult, as Trump has to deal with institutions that certainly do not share his stated goal of improving relations.