Get ready for a wild ride with the new leader of the free world
Tunku Varadarajan in New York | 19 Jan, 2017
DONALD TRUMP AND Barack Obama are the most violently contrasting pair of consecutive presidents in post-war American history, the distinction having been held previously by Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, with Obama and George W Bush, arguably, a very close second.
Obama is a figure of inherent contrast, but there has been no Venn diagram of an American president and his successor quite like the one that represents him and Trump. If one were to omit the fact that they have both been elected president of the United States—and omit, also, such obvious commonalities as maleness and an absolute reliance on oxygen for survival—we’d have two clear circles sitting side by side, with no intersection at all. And both men would exult in this stark absence of overlap. “I’m not like him in any way!” each would say. “I am his polar opposite.”
AMERICA IS HEADING into terra incognita: Its 45th president is a man who has shown himself to be unpresidential by any yardstick. We do not know where he will take his country. Earlier this month, all discussion of him was of his alleged (and as yet unverified) sojourn with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel, based on information likely leaked to the media by someone within the American intelligence services. Eight years of Obama had elapsed without a whiff of sexual scandal, yet here we had Trump, just days away from his inauguration, denying that he’d paid Russian hookers to perform an abomination all over a king-size bed. Any temptation Americans had to laugh out loud was tempered by the knowledge—now undeniable, even though served up as tabloid gossip—that Vladimir Putin’s spies have a squalid dossier on their latest president.
At a press conference after the emergence of these stories, Trump got into a schoolyard-level slanging match with a CNN reporter and called BuzzFeed, the publication that ran details of the sordid allegations, a ‘failing pile of garbage’. His bully-boy performance was the antithesis of Obama’s the night before, when the outgoing president gave his farewell speech, telecast to the nation from a teeming hall in Chicago. It wasn’t Obama’s finest speech— he seemed to suffer from oration-fatigue; but it was certainly a model of the high-falutin’ propriety, the sonorous declamation, that is Obama’s political stock-in-trade. Not everyone finds Obama spell-binding as a speaker, but a good many do. His speeches can be beautiful, and he is the rare modern politician who writes his best lines himself and is informed by that vanishing pastime—reading books, and good ones at that. That fact alone confers an aura, an intellectual credibility.
After the Obama Administration’s almost-caricature version of liberal democracy—including a political obsession with such things as bathroom facilities for the transgendered—we have Trump’s unapologetic illiberality, and a disdain for compromise that we haven’t seen before in a modern occupant of the White House
Trump writes his own lines, too—on Twitter—and also has a potent aura, but he is anti-intellectual. It’s not as if Trump can’t bind an audience to a spell, but his is an allure of a different order: it’s a version of pornography. You tune into him to get a taste of bad stuff, of insults and put-downs, of an infliction of pain on others. You tune in to him to watch decency corroded, norms kicked aside, words used as shoves and punches, the effect of all of this enhanced by his swagger and alpha-maleness. He bitch-slaps his opponents, to use a distasteful American verb for which there is no perfect polite substitute. Above all, there is a verbal insouciance about him that borders on the negligent (unlike Obama, for whom every utterance is a calibrated bid for a place in Bartlett’s book of quotations). Trump tweets from the hip, and it’s not outlandish to suggest that he could become the first man in history to provoke a war because of something rash and ungrammatical that he spewed out on Twitter.
Trump is disconcerting, and therefore titillating: how can you not pay attention to a man of such immense power who is also so unpredictable, so ravenous for the bling of cheap attention. Everyone watches Trump with a touch of tension, whether they be ordinary citizens or presidents of foreign lands. Where Obama sought to soothe, Trump seeks to inflame, to agitate, even to horrify. After the Obama Administration’s almost-caricature version of liberal democracy—including a political obsession with such things as bathroom facilities for the transgendered— we have Trump’s blazing and unapologetic illiberality, and a disdain for compromise that we haven’t seen before in a modern occupant of the White House.
AS WE BRACE ourselves for the Trump presidency—which could last for anything up to four years in the first instance, depending on whether a scandal far worse than some micturating Muscovites emerges to topple him—it might help to figure out those areas of politics and life where we’re likely to notice the greatest difference.
The American media could well enjoy a lively renaissance under President Trump, as pointed out by a commentator, Jack Shafer, in Washington’s Politico. In a column titled ‘Trump is Making Journalism Great Again’, Shafer, writing of himself and his fellow journalists, says ‘Trump has set us free.’ Trump’s hostility toward the media—which includes barring unfriendly publications from briefings and a contempt for reporters in general—will help journalists rediscover their little-used investigative muscles.
The flip-side of Shafer’s thesis is, of course, that the media had become much too fond of Obama. Besotted by his articulate charms and his restraint—as well as by his personal and political narrative—the largely Democratic-leaning corpus of American journalists have grown unused to speaking truth to power. A Trump Administration also offers the media an easy shot at redemption after its abject (and, some would say, willful) misreading of the presidential election, when reporters covered Hillary Clinton almost as uncritically as they have covered Obama. A fawning media’s tendency to overlook her many strategic mistakes did Hillary no favours.
There has been an elitist whiff to suggestions that American voters were influenced by Russian propaganda, as if the rubes who voted for Trump were as easily manipulable as marionettes
The media’s task is likely to be made easier by bureaucrats and officials in Washington, many of whom will—Shafer believes— be only too ready to leak damaging stuff and blow whistles. There will also be many from Trump’s own party who will be inclined to feed the media from their menu of discontent. All of this could result in a worsening of relations between Trump voters and the media, which Trumpers already see as hostile to American Values. There is a danger, too, that some coverage of Trump will come to be obsessional: newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times, both reflexively hostile to him, will need to find ways to advertise their ‘balance’, which could lead to some interesting contortions. (Ethics professors at journalism schools will be kept busy, as will Public Editors at the few newspapers that have them.)
There’s no doubt that Trump will seek to bypass the press to the extent that he can. Why wouldn’t he, if it suits him to do so? His reliance on Twitter is already eye-catching, and Indian observers will find in Trump’s resort to social media a pattern not unlike Narendra Modi’s. The Indian Prime Minister is no fan of journalists, and he, too, came to power in the face of almost universal opposition in the mainstream media. But unlike Modi’s tweets—which are often stilted and didactic—Trump’s are organic expressions of feeling, sudden little blasts of sentiment. Things set him off and he fires. Bam! A tweet against BuzzFeed for writing mean things about him. Slam! A diss against a venerable black congressman, hero of America’s Civil Rights movement, for saying that he wouldn’t attend Trump’s inauguration. Wham! A tweet against outdated NATO…. Now that’s when things get awkward—and ugly.
THERE ISN’T A single American ally that is entirely certain of where it stands in Trump’s plans for the world—not the United Kingdom, whose government has taken heart from Trump’s support for Brexit; nor even Israel, whose ruling hardliners welcome Trump’s assertion that he will shift America’s embassy to Jerusalem; and not India, which derives satisfaction from the fact that it is one of the few major countries that Trump has never disparaged. If Trump’s international relations are to be guided by an ad hoc calculus of what is good for America at any given time, where does that leave long-established patterns and arrangements? A president’s foreign policy cannot consist only of Advantage America.
Trump is a mercantilist-nationalist who seems to know the price of everything but the value of very little. His cabinet will have to save America from a ‘zero-sum’ Trumpian crudity that could undo every tie that holds together the Western alliance
America’s foreign policy has always been solid as a rock, with a core of allies secure in the belief that Washington is the guarantor of global peace and security, and a principled advocate for prosperity based on free trade. In his campaign for election, however, Trump disparaged such close allies as Japan, questioned the utility of NATO, and promised to do away with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that binds the US, Canada and Mexico into a single market for goods and services.
At the same time, Trump has barked at China repeatedly, sending Beijing into a tailspin of confusion by threatening to undo many of the certitudes that underlie US-China relations. The contest for global leadership between a mercurial Trump and an implacably nationalist Xi Jinping—Pax Americana versus Pax Sinica—will be a dizzying feature of the American president’s first term. Xi has already taken on the role of the champion of free trade, winning plaudits at the World Economic Forum at Davos for what seemed to be a bid to wrest the crown of globalisation away from America. Xi’s free-trade pitch has been welcomed by analysts in the West, many of whom fail to see that China’s pursuit of unhindered free trade is linked directly to its need to keep China’s people comfortable and quiescent. It is an unsavoury paradox that free trade helps to keep Chinese citizens unfree. But then, Trump doesn’t seem to be the least bit concerned about political freedoms in China.
Most piquant of all is Trump’s equation with Russia, which has made no attempt to disguise the fact that its espionage and information agencies worked flat out to get Trump elected. The American political establishment has been genuinely taken aback by Russia’s brazen interference—whether in the form of ‘fake news’ planted on complicit websites; pro-Trump/anti-Clinton opinion pieces lubricated by Russian money; and, most galling of all, the hacking of Democratic Party servers for compromising information.
The political class has also been taken aback, it should be said, by the lack of concern shown by the American public in response to Russia. Yet there’s a reason for the absence of popular outrage: It is almost impossible to prove that the Russians actually swayed the election result in Trump’s favour, no matter how vigorous and blatant their efforts; and there is no proof at all so far that the Russians actually tampered with the voting process or machinery. Besides, there has been an elitist whiff to suggestions that American voters were influenced by Russian propaganda, as if the rubes who voted for Trump were as easily manipulable as marionettes.
Where Trump has provoked genuine concern has been in his non-stop pooh-poohing of NATO. This keeps alive the belief that Russia and Putin have a hold over him of some kind, whether in the form of financial entanglements or sexual dirt. James Mattis, the retired chief of the US Marine Corps who is Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, is a robust supporter of NATO. In his Senate hearings earlier this month, he said that “if we did not have NATO right now, we would need to create it”. It is hard to see how Trump’s contempt for the defence treaty on which Western security rests can be squared with General Mattis’ commitment to it: one man will have to give way, and I do not see Mattis changing his mind after a military career of peerless distinction.
Never has a presidential cabinet shaped up to be as crucial to America’s well-being as this cabinet of Trump’s. If America is to survive the next four years unscathed, without catastrophic ruptures with the rest of the world, it will be Trump’s cabinet that will have to come to the rescue. Never before has America had a president as unprepared for office as Trump, as devoid of political experience, as unschooled on international relations and America’s exceptional place in the world.
While Trump and Modi might seem to have more in common on the surface, there are many differences between them—of style and temperament, of spirituality and nuance—that could make a ‘bromance’ difficult. Modi is ascetic and vegetarian, Trump a carnivorous sybarite
Trump is a mercantilist-nationalist who seems to know the price of everything but the value of very little. His cabinet will have to save America from a ‘zero-sum’ Trumpian crudity that could undo every tie that holds together the Western alliance. ‘What should they know of England, who only England know?’ was Rudyard Kipling’s lament, when faced with Little Englanders who knew little of their country’s role in the wider world. The same should be said of Trump: ‘What should they know of America, who only America know?’
WHAT OF INDIA in all of this? How will Modi fare in his dealings with the Donald? At a personal level, the two have more than a little in common. They are sturdy nationalists, both, though Modi’s nationalism has a religious tinge that Trump’s does not. Both are robust foes of Islamism, perhaps even of Islam itself, though both have had to learn to express themselves a tad more diplomatically than their hearts would desire. The two will bond vigorously over a shared opposition to terrorism, and Trump is unlikely to be as tolerant (or understanding) of Pakistan as Obama has been (or Bush was before him).
China will be a subject on which the two will dwell, though Modi would do well to resist endorsing the more reckless aspects of Trump’s China-baiting. After all, the subject on which Trump is most Sinophobic is trade, and the protectionist instincts that drive him to excoriate China for beggaring America could drive him, also, to turn on India, particularly on matters of outsourcing and H1B visas. India would be best advised to tread carefully with Trump, and to continue to deepen its relationship with America’s private sector.
An improbable warmth and spontaneity marked Modi’s relationship with Obama. They were, by any calculus, the strangest of bedfellows: one an illiberal nationalist, the other a liberal internationalist. Yet they bonded over a shared sense of global history, and an understanding that the 21st century would be much better for both India and America if they approached it as partners. While Trump and Modi might seem to have more in common on the surface, there are many differences between them—of style and temperament, of spirituality and nuance—that could make a ‘bromance’ difficult. Modi is ascetic and vegetarian, Trump a carnivorous sybarite. Trump has been multiply married and is famously—grotesquely—lecherous; Modi is a celibate man with no female companion. But both men came to power in the face of elite opposition by appealing to those of their citizens who had felt excluded by events, and by history. There was much myth in their appeal, and much too much hokum. But both got to the top. Modi has had to prove that he belongs there. Now it’s Trump’s turn to do the same.