What to expect of a Trump administration
It is an old adage of American politics that when a president leaves office the electorate – craving change – selects the candidate from the opposing party who is least like the incumbent.
It holds water if you cast your mind back over the past few administrations. After Jimmy Carter’s quiet, equivocal administration came the charisma and ideological certainty of Ronald Reagan’s. From George HW Bush’s country club respectability to Bill Clinton’s southern hucksterism. From the wars of the cowboy George W Bush to the fraught peace of Barack Obama, a young black intellectual, certain that his own basic decency, faith in democracy and soaring oration could unite a divided nation and lead it into a new age of reason.
In the 2016 election, Americans clearly outdid themselves on this score.
Almost a year ago, the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote that he would miss Barack Obama, not because he supported the Obama administration, but because of the personal qualities he brought with him to office at a time when, “a tone of ugliness [is] creeping across the world, as democracies retreat, as tribalism mounts, as suspiciousness and authoritarianism take centre stage.”
By comparison, he wrote, “Obama radiates an ethos of integrity, humanity, good manners and elegance that I’m beginning to miss, and that I suspect we will all miss a bit, regardless of who replaces him.”
From what we already know of Donald J Trump, it seems unlikely that he will be remembered for similar qualities.
Given Trump’s performance this week during his first press conference since winning the election, it appears he is determined to govern as he campaigned – with a combative disregard for long established standards of presidential behaviour and without a guiding political ideology or philosophy that can be easily aligned with either of the two major American parties.
While media attention was focused on the unverified allegations that Russia had gathered compromising material on Trump – and delivered information on his political enemies to his campaign – the President-elect gave other clues as to what we might expect in the coming four years.
At the news conference Trump, who has far more experience as a performer than as a politician, had staff members in place to cheer his answers and jeer reporters who dared ask tough questions. He refused to answer questions from CNN, whose reporting he did not like. He declared he would not divest himself of his private holdings, rather he would pass on control of his company to his two sons, prompting rare criticism from Walter Shaub, director of the US government’s ethics agency. Piles of what Trump said were signed documents showing he had passed on control sat next to him in manila folders on a table by the podium, though reporters present said that they appeared to be blank.
Trump attacked his own intelligence agencies, which he said had leaked the Russia dossier against him. He also finally confirmed that he believed Russia may have been been responsible for hacking the Democratic Party during the election, yet at the same time celebrated as “an asset” Vladimir Putin’s apparent preference for him over his defeated Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
He stood by his promise to build a southern border wall, and to somehow make Mexico pay for it.
But he also noted the power of the lobbyists of the pharmaceutical industry who work in DC to ensure that Americans pay, and in a departure from the Republican playbook he insisted he would bring them to heel.
As Trump addressed media in New York, his secretary of state-designate, the former chief executive of ExxonMobil Rex Tillerson, was on Capitol Hill facing confirmation hearings and filling in other gaps in our knowledge about the incoming administration.
During a combative session Tillerson appeared to confirm Trump’s signals that he would draw closer to Russia while taking a tougher stance against China. This despite the fact that Trump’s choice as defence secretary is the retired General James Mattis, a man known to view Russia with far more skepticism.
Most notably Tillerson (who has his own close network of business contacts in Russia) said that the US would block access by China to islands in the South China Sea, a stance that will undoubtedly raise tensions in a region already considered to be one of the world’s most dangerous.
Confirmation hearings for other key posts in the Trump administration continue and they are likely to be colourful, given how counter intuitive some of his picks appear to be. Trump has reportedly named a prominent anti-vaxxer to lead a presidential commission on “vaccine safety and scientific integrity,” a climate change sceptic to lead his Environmental Protection Agency, and a fast food executive who opposes the minimum wage to head his department of Labor.
There are other contradictions too. While Trump campaigned by saying he would keep key popular elements of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), his Republican colleagues in Congress have already begun to dismantle it.
All that is now clear about the Trump administration is that it will be turbulent. He enters the White House with no experience in government, with an historically low primary vote, and with an historically low approval rating, with vast divisions within his own team, within his party and within his nation at a time when the current world order seems to be in flux.
From next weekend, all these problems will be his.