As Donald Trump approaches the end of his first 100 days in the Oval Office, has the new president joined the very establishment he once threatened to overthrow?
Despite the fanfare it receives, the “first 100 days” watermark is a fairly poor way to assess the merits of any particular U.S. president.
Created and propagated by journalists and pundits, rather than serious historians, the benchmark neither offers any real insight into the president’s technical acumen, nor does it reliably predict what political vision the office-holder will pursue for the rest of their term.
What it can highlight well is the extent to which – after almost a quarter of a year cocooned in the most immersive job in the West – the newly-elected president still prioritises the core pledges and themes they espouse on the campaign trail.
Judged from this perspective, the Donald has disappointed.
It’s not the near-weekly golfing retreats to Mar-A-Lago resembling those he so vehemently lambasted Obama for last year. Nor even is it his failure to pass the promised healthcare, tax and infrastructure reform legislation (despite proclaiming during the campaign that all three would be a doddle to enact).
It’s that Trump is now beginning to sound and act like the archetypal Washington politician he so convincingly railed against a few months ago.
“These politicians!”, Trump harrumphed to cheering crowds last year, “all talk, no action!”. In a disjointed, angry way, the critique harked back to the Republic’s famous Allegory of the Cave. The regular politicians, trapped yet simultaneously content within the cave, pass their time merrily discussing the cave’s shadows that pass for knowledge. Only the philosopher-king has the requisite intellectual framework to escape the ignorance of the sub-terranean abode and step out into the light to view “true” knowledge – the Form of the Good.
And what was this Form that philosopher king Trump spotted from his New York tower, illusive to seasoned politicians for? Happiness; and how to get it.
He astutely calculated that Americans were tired of the magniloquence of statesmen who dragged their electorate on tedious ideologically-driven journeys that brought no benefit to ordinary people. Rather, these political missions were seen as either benefiting strangers (e.g., Mexican immigrants, Syrian children, corporate lobbyists, etc.), or part of a self-indulgent game of political football, played among professionals for their own amusement. From Bush Jr. making America the lead combatant in the nebulous and never-ending “War on Terror”, to Obama’s liberal lecturing and steady-as-she-goes gradualism, politicians had forgotten, amidst all their Hopes and Changes, to talk about how they were going to make the people that elected them – and paid their salaries – happy.
So Trump would be the utilitarian president, maximising the greatest good for the greatest number through policies on jobs, wages and security.
Indeed, Trump kept to this ideal for the first few weeks of his presidency, saving 1,000 jobs in Indiana in February, before signing an Executive Order banning from American soil citizens of countries that refuse to share intelligence with the United States (the “Muslim ban”).
This agenda began to go awry when Trump launched a missile strike on Syria, after its government allegedly deployed chemical weapons in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun.
Perhaps team Trump thought the strike would show assertion and decisiveness where others had dithered. If so, such thinking disregards a crucial element in Trump’s initial popularity. Yes, the Donald Trump of the campaign trail was liked because he would act, but only because he would act for the direct benefit of the American people.
Trump intervening to save jobs in blue collar states ticks this box; Trump randomly intervening once in a complex civil war that has been rumbling on for six years 5,000 miles from the American coastline does not. Horrible as the chemical attack by Assad’s forces had been, wasn’t Donald Trump the President who once said he would look an orphaned Syrian child in the eye and tell him he couldn’t come to America? From now on, wasn’t it supposed to be America First?
Perhaps a surer sign that Trump has been swallowed by hawkish Washington establishment group-think is his renewed interest in, as he puts it, “dealing” with North Korea.
On the campaign trail, Trump pretty well ignored North Korea. Yes, he made some noises about how China could take firmer action against the rogue state if it wanted to. But his big gripe with China was bilateral trade – which Trump said he wanted rebalanced in America’s favour. Kim Jong-Un could wait until the American worker had received his fair dues.
Less than 100 days into the job and the prominence of these two policies has now been reversed. Trump has backed away from reforming trade links between China and America (reneging, for instance, on his pledge to label the former a currency manipulator). Instead, his main focus is on roping China into getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear programme – a goal now so totemic to the Trump administration it warranted the dispatch to Seoul of the Vice President. For a president who once accused China of “raping” America, this is an extraordinary volte face of priorities.
And why? Disregarding the fact North Korean sabre rattling against its southern neighbour and Japan is nothing new, candidate Trump built part of his popularity on advocating a repackaged version of American isolationism. Now President Trump seems to be treating Kim Jong-Un as George W. Bush treated Saddam Hussein in 2002/3: as an existential threat to the international order that must be dealt with, by unilateral American power if necessary.
Moreover, this bellicosity comes when signs are emerging the so-called “Trump Bump” within the U.S. economy is fading. Surely beginning work on his much-vaunted tax and economic stimulus package would be of far more direct benefit to the American people than playing around with aircraft carriers in the Sea of Japan.
What’s more concerning about Trump’s sudden interest in solving the Korean peninsula is that it has the distinct scent of political gamesmanship. Devoid of successes domestically, Trump is hunting for quick-wins abroad (even where they contradict or come at the expense of some of his presidency’s supposed goals). In doing so, the president falls into the very caricature he once made of the establishment politicians: namely, that they treat world affairs as a game, as a canvas on which to enact their own vainglorious ideas in order to sell them back to a people who will receive no benefit from them.
Viewed from another angle, with bland social conservatism at home and aggressive, posturing neo-liberalism abroad, the Trump administration thus far looks much like that of Bush Jr’s in its hey-day. Given Bush’s reputation as a doyenne of the Republican elite, this hardly looks like draining the swamp.
All the while the happiness-maximising governorship that candidate Trump espoused on the campaign trail, and that seemed so refreshing to (especially working class) Americans has fallen by the way. “I’m with you – the American people!”, Trump would loyally intone at rallies. If Trump cares about retaining those same American people who voted for him last November, he would do well to ask himself, “I’m with who?”
Darius Meehan is a graduate of Christ’s College who now labours fruitlessly in the corporate world.
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