US affairs: America first in the White House

Divisive at home and unpredictable abroad, Donald Trump brings nativism, populism and nationalism to the presidency. What can we realistically expect for his first 100 days?

November 12, 2016 20:41
US flag

US flag. (photo credit: INGIMAGE)

NEW YORK – Rainclouds obscured the top floors of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue the day after its penthouse inhabitant, Donald J. Trump, shocked the world and won the White House.

Protected by massive blockades surrounding the iconic black skyscraper, his team huddled to prepare their transition from a ragtag campaign to a presidential administration. They now have two months to hire over 4,000 people, build a plan for the first 100 days of his presidency, learn the inner workings of government, and attempt to unify a country bitterly divided along lines of race, ethnicity and class – divisions aggravated by the president-elect’s unconventionally coarse candidacy.

The forces of nativism, populism and nationalism are not new to American politics, but they are new to the presidency, where sober, educated and experienced hands have long exercised reserve in decision- making, and where occupants from both parties have interpreted America’s founding principles as fundamentally pluralistic, cross-cultural and color-blind.

But Americans were seeking change – and they got what they asked for. Trump’s supporters came out in droves, as if motivated by his lack of experience, convinced that familiarity with Washington, the process of policy-making and the machinations of public service all count against a candidate for the world’s highest office. They were undeterred by his categorizing of Hispanic and Latino immigrants as rapists and criminals, blacks as ghetto-dwellers, Jews as shrewd deal-makers, and women as sex objects. More than anything else, they wanted change and strong leadership, and they saw those qualities overwhelmingly in Donald Trump.

And so an unusual figure who is divisive at home and unpredictable abroad will take office on January 20. But what can we realistically expect for his first 100 days? If Trump does ask Mexico to pay to erect a wall on their shared border – the Mexican peso plummeted on Wednesday to record lows – then he is in for a rude awakening with the nation’s southern neighbor, whose leadership is under enormous pressure to stand up against him. That will put the US at odds with a hemispheric ally for the first time in decades. He will also face another challenge with Mexico City: Renegotiating NAFTA, a critical campaign promise he made to the white working class voters who gave him the White House.

Should he prove serious about deporting Mexican immigrants currently in the US without papers – estimated in the millions – then the country will face something of a humanitarian crisis, with children forced to either separate from their families or else be ripped from the only homes they have ever known.

He will have to absorb diplomatic fallout from tearing up an intricately negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership, and will face similar challenges regarding ongoing transatlantic negotiations. In threatening China with a spike in tariffs, he risks sparking a trade war that economists warn may dip the world into recession.

Trump has said he will repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act otherwise known as Obamacare, but has only said that he will replace it with something “really great.” Whatever he replaces it with will have to somehow cover the 20 million Americans currently enjoying coverage under the current scheme without hiking costs further than they already stand.

He has threatened to appoint a special prosecutor to reinvestigate and possibly indict Hillary Clinton, after first tolerating and then stoking calls at his rallies for her to be locked behind bars. Despite campaigning on a platform of restoring law and order, we do not know how a president Trump will approach enforcement of Supreme Court decisions he dislikes, laws he considers inconvenient or other regulations imposed by the separation of powers.

Trump called for unity in his victory speech, but his election taught him that division is a winning strategy. Thus we cannot say with certainty in which direction he will choose to go. Whether he will decide once in office to emphatically condemn the xenophobic forces that backed his candidacy – and, to a certain extent, delivered him critical votes – is entirely unknown.

Among Democratic officials and their allies, a debate is already emerging over what went wrong with their nominee.

No doubt, Clinton failed to attract the number of voters that Barack Obama had. But Trump’s numbers were below Mitt Romney’s turnout, as well. The debate is now focused on whether race or class was the primary line of division between their constituencies.

The answer appears to be a mix of both.

Data shows that Trump performed better than expected among blacks and Hispanics, but won the election in a surge of white votes who comprised 70% of the electorate, according to exit polls. Predominantly, his voters were poorly educated lower to middle class whites who are simply sick and tired of Washington and those who represent it.

And the coalition that elected him matters, because the president-elect is likely to work toward the policy goals of the people who put him in office.

They voted for an entrenched America that turns inward – “globalists” is an epithet amongst his supporters – while outwardly projecting brute force against its enemies.

Concerns expressed by the Anti-Defamation League that Trump was adopting the populist, antisemitic “America First” slogan of the 1940s did not bother the Trump campaign. It stuck with the theme, which indeed has become a fitting motto for the campaign and for the sentiments of his supporters. Trump repeated the refrain on election night.

“I want to tell the world community that while we will always put America’s interests first, we will deal fairly with everyone, with everyone – all people and all other nations,” Trump said in his victory speech. “We will seek common ground, not hostility – partnership, not conflict.”

Exit polls found that 58% of Americans were concerned or scared on Election Day at the prospect of a Trump presidency.

The reality television star – with no experience whatsoever in public service, neither in politics nor the military – has begun receiving the same classified intelligence briefings as are given each morning to the sitting president.

“I can’t put it any better than Jackie Kennedy did after the Cuban missile crisis,” Hillary Clinton said upon accepting the Democratic nomination in Philadelphia over the summer. “What worried President Kennedy during that very dangerous time was that a war might be started – not by big men with self-control and restraint, but by little men moved by fear and pride.”

America enters the Trump era already at war in the Middle East, operating in Iraq and Syria in conjunction with a complex coalition of allies he has repeatedly dismissed as useless. Trump’s policy ideas for Syria are somewhat contradictory: He has vowed to “knock the hell out of ISIS” while conversely seeking to partner with nominal Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose targeted killing of innocent civilians facilitated ISIS’ rise.

His proposal to distance the US from NATO and partner more closely with Russia – cast in suspicion over his alleged business ties with Moscow – may provide the Kremlin with space to interfere in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. It is not yet clear whether Trump will choose to police the Iran nuclear deal – which he has characterized as the worst deal in history – into the ground, or whether he will choose instead to tear it apart.

The president-elect has questioned America’s longstanding policy against the use of weapons of mass destruction, in particular nuclear weapons. Washington is capable of deploying a nuclear weapon anywhere in the world within four minutes. Declaring the US military a disaster, he’s threatened to fire its generals – an unprecedented act – and has expressed his desire to torture foreign enemy combatants and kill their family members in direct violation of international law.

His policies at home and abroad are impossible to predict based on past experience, because he has no such experience.

We cannot say whether he will stick to his campaign promises because he has never campaigned for anything before.

Both in foreign and domestic policy, Trump is entering the White House with one coherent doctrine: unpredictability.

If it resembles anything we have seen elsewhere in geopolitics, it may track most closely with the structured chaos exemplified by North Korean leadership, which has discovered that fear of the unknown provides them with dynamism and influence. Trump seems to believe the element of surprise – in entertainment, in politics and in warfare – provides him with enormous power. Unknown is what he is willing to do with that power, and in that uncertainty, a world braced for the unexpected moves forward.

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