Well, were I a US Citizen, I wouldn’t have voted for Donald Trump but, having said that, I somewhat doubt whether any of the apocalyptic predictions being made in the wake of his victory will come to pass. He is quite clearly an egotist of gigantic proportions (although which politician isn’t?) but that may not be a bad thing. After all, he is far too arrogant to subscribe to any particular political ideology: I suspect the hard (and ‘Alt-‘) right will wind up just as disappointed in him as the left. So now that the campaign is over, it’s worth cutting away at the hyperbole and taking a more realistic look at a few issues.
Trump as a person and what that means.
Yes, he’s arrogant. His attitude towards women and minorities sucks. He is rude, threatening and unpleasant towards rivals, competitors and critics. But we all meet people like him every day. At the risk of being accused of ‘whataboutery’, the fact is that he has character traits shared by rich, powerful men everywhere and plenty of others too. Let’s be honest: Bill Clinton and even the sainted JFK were both partial to a bit of ‘pussy grabbing’; Nixon and, I suspect, a huge majority of his predecessors were demonstrably racist. Nevertheless, for many US Presidents, being in office brings out the best in them. Lyndon Johnson was a mean, vengeful, nasty, racist machine-politician but it didn’t stop him launching the ‘Great Society’. Taking a more recent European example, Silvio Berlusconi was and is a thoroughly reprehensible figure yet a not ineffective Prime Minister of Italy. With Trump, we’ll have to wait and see. Remember, the US Constitution has checks and balances built in by design. Even a conservative Supreme Court is unlikely to row significantly back on protections for minorities and, in any case, there will be another Presidential election in four years and Congressional elections in two. For all the hyperbolic bullshit about Trump’s ‘Fascism’, he remains accountable under the US Constitution and nothing he can realistically do will change that.
But personally, I doubt whether he’s really all that interested in diminishing women’s or minority rights, as the left would have us believe. He’s made racist remarks which presumably reflect his attitudes and these aren’t pretty, but they aren’t uncommon either. My hunch is that Trump will be far too preoccupied by the other concerns of his office to make any real effort to attack women’s or ethnic minority rights whatever hopes the hard right are pinning on him.
And let’s not forget: Trump is not an ideologue but a businessman. In reality he’s supported Democrats in the past, he has worked with and promoted women and ethnic minorities within his businesses and he doesn’t seem particularly uncomfortable with issues like gay marriage. He has said things during the campaign to reinforce his support from the right without, so far as I can tell, making too many explicit promises about what, exactly, he will do. We may see in the US what we saw after the Brexit vote in the UK: an upsurge of racist incidents from individuals and groups emboldened by the fantasy that their ideas have somehow been popularly endorsed; but will it make race relations worse in the US? From the outside, things appear pretty bad now despite having had a black President in office for nearly eight years and that leads me to think that it’s a systemic issue which Trump is unlikely to be able to affect much, one way or the other.
So how bad is he really? In his acceptance speech, he has just paid tribute to Hillary Clinton, a complete reversal of his ‘lock her up’ rhetoric of a few weeks ago. The realities of his office, the law and the US Constitution will most likely cause him to row back quietly from many of the extreme positions he has apparently adopted. I hope so anyway.
Defence and Foreign Policy
There is one thing that Trump is absolutely on the money about. Most members of NATO have been free-riding on America’s coat-tails since the end of the Cold War and, for some, long before. The UK, France, some of the newly joined former Eastern Bloc states and, possibly, Germany, are the only members who punch remotely near their weight. I’ve recently returned from an operational tour in Afghanistan serving with, but not as part of, the NATO ‘Resolute Support’ mission. The base where I was living was dripping with NATO personnel but, when it came down to it, it was hard to tell what a lot of them were actually doing beyond showing the flag. For all the talk of an EU Army, the best we’re going to see for years to come is an ineffectual fudge dependent on US (and perhaps, to a much lesser extent, UK) logistics and strategic lift. One reason why many European states can afford such generous, and apparently irrevocable, welfare provision is because their defence forces are chronically underfunded and little more than symbolic. They can provide a militarised diversity monitoring team here and there, but the idea of a European state other than the UK or France actually deploying combat formations in the field is laughable. We are living in an increasingly unstable and uncertain world and this needs to change.
Having said that, Trump has made a lot of undeniably stupid defence and foreign policy comments during the campaign. Will he get serious? I’m comforted by the fact that government is not a one man band and that Trump will need to bring some serious people on board but it remains to be seen who these will be. With a moderately sensible team on side, maybe the loose-cannon Trump can be reined in?
And while were at it, it isn’t like Obama’s foreign policy has been a runaway success, Nobel Peace Prize notwithstanding. Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Russia, China, Venezuela, the Philippines and North Korea have all given the finger in one way or another to US foreign policy imperatives since Obama has been in office so maybe a different approach is needed.
In any case, there are a number of realities that are unavoidable.
Building a Wall with Mexico. Last time I checked, the writ of the President of the United States of America was not valid in Mexico, so if Trump wants Mexico to agree to this (and pay for it – right), he’s going to have to negotiate an agreement. That isn’t going to happen overnight, if ever, so don’t wait up. Even if, by some miracle, Mexico agrees, don’t expect it to happen quickly: the logistics alone make that impossible. Could he get it built in four years? I doubt it. Could he do it in eight? Maybe if he lasts that long in office. Maybe.
Russia. Some disturbing things have emerged in recent months about Trump’s links with Russia and the Putin government. I have no special insight into the truth of these and it remains to be seen what evidence can be found but notwithstanding this, there is certainly an argument for re-setting the US-Russian relationship which was profoundly damaged by the acceptance of former Warsaw Pact states into NATO. In my view, this was a good thing but it took place against the backdrop of what Boris Yeltsin, Putin’s predecessor, thought was a promise that it wouldn’t happen. Russia’s interference in neighbouring countries, cyber warfare against the west, the Russian annexation of the Crimea and invasion of the Ukraine and Georgia is at least partly explicable in this context. An increased military presence in eastern Europe is absolutely necessary at the moment but it needs to be followed by negotiations and an agreement to prevent matters from deteriorating further. Maybe Trump can do this. He’s a businessman and at root, I suspect, a pragmatist: Obama couldn’t and I doubt if Hillary would have been able either; it isn’t just American voters who don’t trust her.
Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a generations-spanning problem. Afghan governments cannot survive without significant outside support and haven’t done so since the British got ensnared there in the 1830s. Why not? Because they can’t raise revenue in a country which has a distinct national identity but is, at the same time, comprised of a collection of mutually hostile ethnic, tribal and clan fiefdoms. The British footed the bills for a hundred years or so; then a broader group of international actors; then the Soviets; then Pakistan and Saudi Arabia; and now, primarily, the US and its ‘western’ partners. If Trump pulls the plug on US involvement in Afghanistan and support for the National Unity Government, it will not take long for the Taleban to re-establish themselves as de facto rulers of the southern half of the country whilst other factions strive for control in the rest. It’s worth noting that these factions will include both Al Qa’eda, who have never been completely eliminated there, as well as Islamic State, in the form of ‘Islamic State in Khorasan Province'(ISKP), who have been steadily increasing their strength for several years. This will not be good for anyone. The Central Asian republics and China fear the rise of Islamism – as does Russia to the north – and even Pakistan, which harbours the Taleban leadership, but has its own problems with the Pakistani Taleban, its offshoot ISKP and AQ, not to mention Baluchi separatists in the west. A disintegrated and ungoverned Afghanistan without an effective counter-terrorist presence – and none of the local actors would be inclined, or probably able, to provide one – gives rise to similar conditions that led to 9/11. So what? In the short to medium term, at least, the US is stuck there, no matter what President Trump might want. In the much longer term it’s possible to envisage a settlement in which the Taleban return to participate in government in Afghanistan on the basis that they will keep a lid on AQ and ISKP but that will require the US to give up a number of liberal ‘red-lines’ – full-on women’s rights springs to mind – as well as ramping up the pressure – in co-operation with regional players – on Pakistan to to bring the Taleban to the table. I don’t think this would be possible for Hillary Clinton but may be for a President unencumbered by liberal baggage.
Syria and Iraq. Aside from the humanitarian imperative, which is stark, the Syrian civil war risks developing into a much larger regional conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam which would have unknowable impacts globally. The Obama Presidency sloped its shoulders and allowed others, notably Iran and Russia, to make the running. IS is the first priority and needs to be defeated, although that will take time if it is not to morph into a different but equally unpleasant threat. Trump has an opportunity here to make a break with his predecessor and adopt a more forward looking policy and co-operative policy which might actually be a game changer: if he listens to the right people at least.
‘The people have spoken – the bastards!’. Trump is going to be President and things are likely to change. I don’t doubt that he isn’t a particularly nice man who has said and done bad things in the past but equally, I doubt he’s an idiot either. It’s easy for western liberals to imagine that he’s going to impose some kind of authoritarian reign of terror but somewhat less easy to work out how he might do that for real. If we are being honest with ourselves, the Obama Administration has failed to achieve almost everything it set out to do not least because a significant – and now decisive – proportion of the US population was not ready for the kind of progressivism that was on on offer. Trump is a pretty clear break with the past and with a Republican House and Senate, may be able to de-stagnate the American political process and make the kind of changes that a lot of American voters evidently want. Whining about his character doesn’t change the fact that the US is a democracy and has just elected him to do a job. Strategic forecasting is a mug’s game and I’m not going to indulge in predicting how things will turn out, but believing ones own side’s propaganda is equally silly. What’s Trump going to do? We don’t know yet; we’ve heard the rhetoric from the heat of the campaign, now we will see the reality.
As I said above, I wouldn’t have voted for Trump, but nor am I going to lose any sleep now that he’s been elected. Rather than wetting our pants about our imagined fears, let’s wait and see what he actually does.