The US president has turned out to be as divisive and disastrous as many feared
US Presidents are traditionally awarded a verdict after 100 days by the media in terms of their initial impact. In Trump’s case there was a belief in some quarters that President Trump would turn out to be a very different beast from Candidate Trump, and that some of the sharp edges of his campaign rhetoric would be rounded off. That has occurred, to some extent, in terms of foreign policy, as his recent attack on Syria indicates that he has been co-opted by the anti-Russian agenda of the Washington establishment. Regarding domestic policy, however, we can’t say we weren’t warned; Trump has turned out to be as divisive and disastrous a president as many feared.
The appallingly surreal nature of his presidency was apparent from day one, when he became embroiled in a bizarre spat with the media over the turnout at his inauguration. Trump claimed, with typical bluster, it was the biggest ever, despite incontrovertible photographic evidence that it was clearly inferior to Obama’s equivalent in 2009. The absurdly trivial nature of Trump’s obsession with the issue was compounded by the laughable attempts of two members of the new White House team, Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway, to deny the undeniable, leading the latter to coin the immortal phrase, alternative facts (otherwise known as lies), as one of the guiding principles of the Trump presidency. These two clownish figures have somehow avoided being fired so far, probably because 'truthful hyperbole' has always been an accepted part of the Trump brand, right from early days as a property predator in New York.
More serious than the damage done to the credibility of the White House, however, was the psychological damage inflicted on thousands of innocent Muslim travellers by Trump’s much threatened migrant ban, enforced by an executive order after only a week of his administration. Characteristically, the ban was not only morally repugnant but also badly executed, as it initially included Green Card holders who have an automatic right to entry to the US. The ban also embarrassingly applied to citizens of Iraq, which is an American ally in the campaign against Isis.
This spectacularly crass piece of Islamaphobia kick-started a huge campaign of resistance outside US airports that played a major part in the prompt decision of a US appeals court to invalidate the ban. Trump displayed his minimal graspof constitutional matters by whingeing about 'the opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country', seemingly unaware that separation of powers as enshrined in the Constitution is specifically designed to prevent the executive branch influencing the judicial branch. Trump was forced to come with a revised version of the ban, but even that was soon blocked by legal objections that identified it as blatantly discriminatory, leaving the scheme rightly consigned to the legislative bin.
Wall to nowhere
The President’s other trademark policy on immigration that won him notoriety among most but support among some was the barely-believable idea of a border wall between Mexico and the US. Many of his campaign events in 2016 echoed to the moronic chant of 'build the wall'. Needless to say, Trump did not spend a lot oftime considering the financial and practical problems associated with the idea of constructing a 1300-mile border wall that would need to traverse four states and two rivers. The Government Accountability Office has estimated that the cost of such a project would be anything between $15 billion and $25 billion, plus an annual maintenance price tag of $750 million. Trump’s delusional idea that America’s southern neighbour would fund the astronomical price tag provoked the memorable response from that country’s former President that Mexico 'is not going to pay for that (expletive) wall.' Congress has recently insisted that Trump also ditch the idea they would fund the wall as a condition for passing his budget. Like the travel ban, the Trump wall is likely to disappear down a legislative black hole.
A third spectacular own-goal scored by Team Trump was the President’s inability to deliver the repeal of Obamacare he had promised his right-wing base during the election. It was apparent soon after his victory in November that Trump had identified the idea as a potent vote-winner in some quarters without identifying a credible alternative. He conspicuously failed to devise a replacement system himself and left Paul Ryan, the Senior Republican in Congress, to pick up the poison chalice. Ryan, a committed free market ideologue, came up with a plan that managed to simultaneously alienate moderate Republicans fearful of a public backlash, and Tea Party fanatics who felt it was not right-wing enough. Trumpcare never even made it to the floor of Congress as it became obvious it would be humiliatingly defeated. The President was left to whine pathetically (and inaccurately) that 'nobody knew health care could be so complicated'.
The key element of his domestic agenda in which Trump, regrettably, has enjoyed more success has been the elevation of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. This consolidates the right’s grip on the apex of the US judicial system and potentially gives the President the influence to reverse the progressive trend of recent social policy in areas such as abortion rights, gay marriage and healthcare.
Trump ignored the modern convention of presidents to shape a court that reflects the cultural diversity of America by nominating the quintessentially white, male, establishment figure of Gorsuch. The nominee was hand-picked for the president by right-wing lobby group, the Heritage Foundation, based on a reactionary judicial record that notoriously includes the case of the Freezing Trucker, in which Gorsuch upheld the sacking of a truck driver who refused to wait for roadside recovery in sub-zero temperatures. The new member of the court has already demonstrated his value to the right by delivering the casting vote in the shocking decision to authorise the execution of eight inmates in eleven days in Arkansas.
Trump succeeded in nominating his man to the court but his Republican allies in Congress could only do it by abandoning the long-standing convention that such a decision requires a super-majority. The utilisation of this so-called nuclear option is an indicator that although Trump is the most glaring illustration of the defects of the US political system, the entire edifice of capitalist politics in the country is in urgent need of an overhaul.
The establishment strikes back
The clearest case of a rogue President being brought to heel by the wider interests of the US ruling class is in the sphere of foreign policy. Trump’s dramatic intervention earlier this month into the Syrian conflict is in stark contrast to the noises he was making during the campaign about a more conciliatory attitude to Putin and Russia.
The enlarged national security state that has emerged in the US in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall requires the demonisation of Russia and /or China in order to justify its massive military spending. Any thoughts Trump might have had about downsizing America's global reach have been jettisoned due to pressure from the foreign policy establishment within the Pentagon and State Department. The dropping of Trump’s ideological guru, Steve Bannon, from the National Security Council just prior to the missile strike on Syria can be interpreted as the Washington elite reclaiming control of the direction of global strategy.
Similarly, the rapid fall of Trump’s first National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, and his replacement by Herbert McMaster has witnessed a re-orientation of foreign policy along conventional lines. The former was widely regarded as favouring rapprochement with Putin, while the latter has overseen the recent escalation that brought the US to the edge of war with Russia over the skies of Syria. In his previous career as a military scholar McMaster wrote a book called Dereliction of Dutythat accused President Lyndon Johnson on giving up too easily in Vietnam. Two years ago he drafted a report titled Russia's New Generation Warfare that promotes a more belligerent approach to Putin’s Russia. The current tension between the US and North Korea also reflects the growing influence of McMaster and those who wish to see a forceful re-assertion of American imperial power.
The US ruling class probably see developments in the Middle East and East Pacific as evidence that they can control Trump and coax him towards their version of the long-term strategic goals of US imperialism. Impeachment is not on their agenda for now. From the viewpoint of ordinary Americans who have confronted his racism, sexism and turbo-charged free market ideology, the battle to bring down the worst President in living memory has only just begun.