05 July 2018
World’s Worst President
And the winner isn’t…
By J R Thomas
There are currently a number of contenders for this illustrious and hard-fought title. So who is likely to be this decade’s winner? Perhaps President Xi Jinping, converting himself to President for life of the Peoples’ Republic of China; or President Erdogan, on the same mission in Turkey; or President Putin, ditto, Russia; or President Kim Jong-un who, with a clear advantage, is hoping to follow his grandfather and father in this ambition? But, if you follow the majority of the western media and opinion formers (ghastly and dangerous expression), the winner is clear. So this has to be an article about Donald Trump, right?
Well, right. This is indeed one of our occasional sorties into the swampy marshlands of American politics. But, perhaps to some reader’s disappointment, we will probably not be adding our vote to the Trump pile in the Bad President Oscar Stakes. Mr Trump is unlikely to nominate himself President for life, or jail critical journalists (true, he might like the idea of that one), or invade the Ukraine, or even knock off his close relatives. He made a promising effort on the Mexican border by separating the children of illegal immigrants from their parents. Well, actually continuing the previous Administration’s policy of so doing, though it is not very clear that either President knew about this brutal immigrant management tool. But in any case, after a bit of floundering around, the policy was reversed in favour of faster deportation in a south-westerly direction by direct Presidential intervention (by Twitter, of course). We could not claim that Mr Trump is a sophisticated or polished man, or that he spends a great deal of time reflecting on the ways of the world and how to improve them. He has written no books on his political philosophy (and the ones on management techniques seem to have been not entirely his own work). He does not take to any ranch to brood on the merits of his actions, and his retreat at Mar-A-Lago is a little brasher than those seaside retreats favoured by the Kennedy and Bush families. His art collection or library, if they exist, have not been revealed to the public, nor is the Donald often seen at the opera or playing his favourite violin by way of a little light relaxation. So this is not a man of the cultured elite, but what he is doing, what indeed he trumpets loudly that he is doing, is delivering the promises made in the manifesto upon which he was elected.
Mr Trump, as we have said here before, is a businessman, not a politician. He does not have a particular political philosophy and could easily have ended up as a Democrat President rather than a Republican one. He is, or believes himself to be, a tough guy, straight-talking, strategic, and not one for the details, which are left to the employees to sort out. And he judges his employees on as to whether they perform the task in hand. Those that do, get public commendation, those that don’t, get sacked. The Donald has a set of deliveries he wishes to make and so far he is pretty much on course. The tough talking appears to win dividends in foreign policy, with Iran subdued, North Korea friendly, Mr Putin willing to chat (though friendly Putin chats might not turn out as expected; we’ll come back to that), China still seemingly onside in spite of the tariffs, and Europe now wondering how to handle Trump’s demands that NATO members should contribute significantly to their own defence – but knowing that somehow, they are going to have find more money.
Domestically the American economy is booming, though with tariffs increasing raw material prices, how the long term play will work out is perhaps a bet needing longer odds. The Mexicans are not going to pay for That Wall – but if the volume of immigrants crossing (some of whom have travelled across Mexico with little hindrance) keeps increasing, it is a fair bet that Congress might agree to do so. And even Lady Luck seems to continue to be a Trump supporter; last week Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his intention to step down with more or less immediate effect. Mr Kennedy is of a liberal persuasion and it is a fair bet that his replacement will not be. It only needs the President to get his replacement agreed by the Republican-controlled Congress before the November elections (after which both Houses could be back in Democrat hands) to give a 5/4 conservative majority in the Supreme Court. For a President with contentious legislation on his remaining little list, that could be an enormous advantage. And there’s more; two of the Justices, both left-leaning, are over 79 and another vacancy is not impossible. Such an opportunity would give Mr Trump long coat-tails indeed.
There are threats of course: Mr Kim may not be entirely trustworthy; the Mueller report gets ever nearer to publication, with a remarkable lack of leaks that suggest either there is nothing remarkable in it or that Mueller’s next job should be head of internally security at the White House; the Stormy Waters may have calmed for the summer but could yet get rough; and above all there is always the risk of “Events, dear boy, events” (Copyright H Macmillan). (There is also the risk of rowdy rudeness during Mr T’s UK visit but somehow it is unlikely anybody other the UK media and a few under-employed rowdys will care about that.)
Which brings us back to Mr Putin. President Trump has shown an unexpected facility for, and interest in, foreign affairs. Accommodations with Mr Putin would be the big prize. Mr Trump has no known interest in fishing, but even he will appreciate analogies of the dangers of hooking a shark. Mr Putin is a serious political operator with the cunning of many years service in the KGB, who could seriously disadvantage Mr Trump. That could include turning the President’s voter base against him, unexpected revelations about the last Presidential election, some dirt on the President’s associates, or even embarrassing announcements about new Russian trade links with, say China or Iran. Mr Trump thinks these all risks worth taking; at one level, for making those skinflint NATO members even more nervous about the US’s budget contributions, but maybe at another level for creating a Trump legacy in foreign affairs. And Mr Putin, for all his power and grip on the levers of power, must be pondering how he manages his legacy, even his exit. He is 65 and a man who understands human frailty. He may also be a very rich man, one of the richest in the world (not according to him, we should say for the record – he has a little cash on deposit, a two-bedroomed flat, and his salary as President). But just supposing he has built up a few other assets, he might want to exit office in a way that will not threaten them, or him. So a toning down of aggression might suit him too.
Readers may not believe that world peace is to be the lasting legacy of President Trump, or of President Putin, and this corner of the Shaw Sheet holds a sadly cynical view of that likelihood too. But there is a danger in disliking either President so much that one wishes them to fail, or thinks it inevitable that they will, or just leaves us all unable to think at all. Nobody knows what either of them are thinking (a cynic might add that neither does The Donald), but the outlook just might be brighter than we all fear.