by Adele Wilby
Donald Trump’s presidency has generated a greater than normal interest in American politics, but not necessarily for the right reasons. How, people wondered, could such a poorly qualified candidate, and, as we have seen over the years, of equally poor calibre possibly become the President of the United States and leader of the ‘free’ world?
Events over recent days have added to that curiosity, not least his performance during the Presidential debate on 29 September. Moreover, his refusal to endorse a peaceful transition of power should he lose the presidential race in November in 2016, is troubling enough, but equally, and arguably of greater concern, are the recent revelations surrounding Trump’s business dealings and tax returns. That a man of such purported wealth has not paid taxes for ten to fifteen years or has paid just 750 dollars since he assumed office in 2016, is not only outrageous, but is substantial evidence to raise legitimate concern about the integrity of the man sitting in the White House. Furthermore, given the business losses he is said to have incurred suggests that Trump is not the savvy businessman that he likes to portray to his base and the public, but rather is incompetent and reckless with finances: he is neither honest nor a safe pair of hands with the national economy. Worrying also are the suggestions that he has used his office for financial gain. His tax returns confirm what his reluctance to reveal them has always implied: they have been worked in such a way to his financial benefit and exempted him from paying the amount of tax equivalent to his wealth, of not paying his required contribution to the national purse.
Theories abound to account for the support that Trump has enjoyed and continues to enjoy: the emasculation of white working class men; his appeal to sections of white women voters; his criticism of globalisation and his commitment to bring jobs home again; a rejection of a liberal political elite that dominates US politics; anti-immigrant sentiments; a dislike of America’s contribution and participation in international institutions such as NATO and the United Nations; nationalism, to name a few. There are also arguments that critically examine the problems with the American Constitution and democracy, and here I refer to the way the Electoral College works to allow the individual with the least number of popular votes to assume the office of President.
Each of these theories has its own credibility as an explanation to account for Trump’s appeal and electoral success in 2016. However, considering Trump’s track record over the past four years, many people scratch their heads in disbelief as to how he became the uncontested Republican candidate for the forthcoming presidential elections. Surely his record and behaviour would deter the American public from even considering him as a potential President.
Viewed from afar, Trump’s policies appear to have limited impact in one way or another on the base or national interests he espouses to serve. He has attempted to reverse progressive social measures put in place during the Obama years in the interests of millions of Americans, such as the Affordable Care Bill. Touting tax cuts as a major strategy to regenerate the economy and make ‘America Great Again’, policies which, he argued, would benefit the middle and lower income brackets have instead filled the pockets of millionaires and billionaires, while the people under whose name he introduced the tax reforms have received a token sum in their pay packets by comparison.
There are also domestic issues that have had a profound impact on audiences observing the US from a distance. His apparent racism, and handing of racism in the US, is a case in point. His derogatory generalisations in the 2016 campaign that ‘rapists’ and ‘criminals’ and ‘drug cartels’ were entering the country through the southern border, referring to immigrants from Mexico and South America, set the ball rolling. In an attempt to offset the wider perception of him as racist, he argued that Norwegians – blond, blue-eyed and educated – were welcome to migrate into Trump’s America. Such a view is laughable given that the standard of living and well-being experienced by Norwegians is one of the highest in the world in comparison with the US coming in at twenty-eight on the global scale. His reference to Norwegians is however significant for highlighting Trump’s thinking about immigration into the US. But more explicit examples of Trump’s racism have become notorious. He asserted moral equivalence between the violence of the far right white supremacists which resulted in the death of a young civil-rights campaigner in Charlottesville in 2017, with the anti-racist protesters. Moreover, instead of acknowledging problems of systemic racism within the police forces following the death of George Floyd in 2020, Trump refers to protestors in the Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist protesters that arose consequent to Floyd’s and the deaths of other black people at the hands of the police as ‘domestic terrorists’. More recently, Trump stooped to an all-time low in standards of behaviour not expected of an incumbent president when he used a public forum to mock the name of the Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate, Kamala Harris.
The American public will have the opportunity to decide just how far they accept and tolerate Trump and his domestic policies when they go to the ballots in November, but it is the standing and image of the US in international politics where Trump’s presidency has had the greatest impact. Ironically, for a man who campaigns on a policy of ‘Make America Great Again’, his four years in office have fostered confusion as to what America actually stands for.
In what seems to be little more than a turning back of the clock to a bygone era, Trump began his undermining of America’s image in the international arena by withdrawing the US from multinational agreements on major issues that have consequences for international stability, peace and security. Indeed, the credibility of the US in any future multilateral agreements is called into question, as is its willingness to uphold international law. Trump has unwound years of painstaking and nuanced negotiations and diplomacy by opting for more isolationist policies. His disdain and rejection of global climate change and the US withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, not only astounded the world but raised questions about the US’s future leadership role on global issues.
Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Agreement of 2015 is another case in point. An Agreement reached to constrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Trump not only rejected the terms of the Agreement, but in doing so he dismissed the subtle diplomacy and intellectual energy of years of complex negotiations to reach a form of compromise for all parties involved in the process. In what appeared to be more a fit of pique against Obama’s signature achievement in office rather than considered thought, Trump’s announcement of the US withdrawal from the Agreement destabilised regional peace and security. Unilaterally rejecting international agreements is one thing but failing to come up with a viable alternative is another. Likewise, his blunt criticisms of NATO and threats to withdraw US’s support from this established Western military alliance – perhaps seen as a diplomatic stick to member states to meet their financial commitments to the organisation – raise doubts that the US remains a reliable and stable ally in future security arrangements. If the United States is capable of putting into office a president with such singlemindedness and unpredictable behaviour with the potential to destabilise international relations once, what then is to prevent them from repeating it in the future? Arguably, Trump’s bellicose posturing, crude and often offensive diplomatic processes and his nationalism will prompt Europe to rethink the continent’s security in more independent terms, rather than band-wagoning on American military capabilities.
And then of course there is the hostility with China on trade and other issues. Most people are aware that any agreement between states might, over the course of time, implementation, and international contingency, contain within it the seeds of discord and perceived irregularities that might require the revisiting of the agreement. Such processes are usually undertaken by diplomats and mediators in the quieter behind-the-scenes corridors of power with a gravitas that reflects the seriousness and possible consequences of disputes and disagreements in trade relations for both the national and the global economy. Instead, Trump’s trade war with China has had little benefit to the US domestic economy, but his publicly articulated anti-China sentiments have thrown the world back into hostile relations between the two world powers reminiscent of those chilly political and diplomatic days of the Soviet era of politics.
A veritable list of policies exist where Trump’s influence has either turned back time, as if a return to the past was the way to the future, or added to regional tensions: the recognition of Jerusalem at the cost of the voice of the Palestinians; undermining the relations betweenEurope and the US and a cooling of relations with Germany; a penchant for anti-democratic strongmen, such as Putin, are just a few of Trump’s ‘achievements’.
But as we learn from Jon Meacham’s eloquently written book, The American Soul: The Battle for Our Better Angels, the US has a long history of electing presidents whose calibre for such high office and power, has been questionable. However, what distinguishes Trump from the others is how they have often redeemed themselves by burying their personal or ideological preferences, risen to the office and acted in the interests of all Americans and the wider interests of the country.
The persistent tolerance and support for Trump from sections of the American people is confounding; the answer could lie in what Meacham refers to as questions over the nature of the ‘soul of America’. What exactly is the ‘American soul’? Trump has come to represent what Meacham would call the ‘darker forces’ in US politics as opposed to the ‘better angels’. In those terms, the forth coming election represents a decisive moment in American history, and many people would agree, indeed both the Democratic candidate Joe Biden, and the Republican Trump have argued as such in their recent acceptance speeches at the respective national conventions. For Biden, ‘America is at an inflecting point, a time of real peril’, while for Trump ‘the country is at a crossroads’. Trump’s penchant for rhetoric was at play when he commented during his acceptance speech at the Republican convention that the choice for the American people at the 2020 elections ‘is the most important election in the history of our country. One to secure the ‘American dream’ and one to destroy it’. But who is the destroyer, and who holds onto the ‘American dream’ is the question? While Trump clearly sees himself as the embodiment of the ‘American dream’, for others he represents the antithesis of the American dream, if by the American dream is meant equal opportunity for all; a place of refuge for immigrants; the upholding of democratic principles and human rights; a multilateral player in an increasingly interrelated and complex world with common problems that require global solutions. Biden on the other hand, positions himself on the side of the ‘better angels’ in the presidential election, and connotations of this can be drawn from his acceptance speech when he calls for the US to be an ‘ally of light not of darkness’, a clear reference to how he perceives Trump’s presidency, a ‘dark’ period in American history, and there are many who would concur with such a view.
Observers from afar of US politics and elections have always had their preferences as to whom they would want to see in the White House, not least as a signifier of what lay ahead for the world, and in many instances, for their country. The election of Trump, however, has elicited different responses to the US from different quarters. While he has his admirers, the laughter and derision and indeed the outrage for the US that Trump has evoked amongst just ordinary citizens has been unprecedented. Jaws have dropped and heads have shaken in utter dismay and disbelief at the rhetoric, misinformation, and just plain lies that have spewed from the president’s mouth over the past four years, and it is difficult to see his positive impact on either the US domestic polity or on global politics more broadly. The recent revelations concerning his tax returns add to those concerns. Another recent case in point has been his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. While the leaders of most Western states, and may other countries, have taken what could be considered draconian measures in a bid to contain the spread of the virus and prevent the premature deaths of many of its citizens, Trump has ploughed his own path, and consistently rejected the advice of his public health doctors and officials in the management of the pandemic, and, as we now know, has himself become a casualty of the disease. Indeed, the fact that he admits that he was aware of the lethal potential and underplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus and failed to inform the American public to ‘prevent panic’ before it took a grip amongst the population, is not only an act of poor leadership, but downright negligence and irresponsibility and a gross lack of concern for the lives of the citizens he is duty bound to protect, and indeed for the global efforts to contain the disease. America, the richest country on the planet, now has the dubious reputation of having the highest coronavirus death rates in the world.
Most political pundits would agree that there is much at stake in the forthcoming election concerning what the US actually represents and its standing in the world; the struggle between, the ‘darker forces’ and the ‘better angels’ is being clearly played out for all to see. But so much does Trump represent the ‘darker forces’, scepticism remains as to the duration of impact of that force even should he lose the election. Can America recover its image and standing, or are we witnessing a more permeant decline of the US?
Trump’s presidency has generated serious questions and debate about what the US actually stands for. Only time will reveal just how far the American people will opt to be with the ‘darker forces’ or try to re-stake a position with the ‘better angels’.