WASHINGTON, DC – To say that US President Donald Trump’s administration made waves in its initial weeks would be an understatement. Large protests across the United States and around the world attended his inauguration, and have continued since. Meanwhile, Trump has already declared war on the adversarial American press, and held acrimonious telephone conversations with friendly countries’ leaders.
But to make sense of the new administration’s overall performance, worried and perplexed observers inside the US and around the world should follow five general guidelines, rather than focus too much on discrete events.
First, all new US administrations are messy at the beginning: they stumble, create confusion, and say and do things that they later retract, or at least regret. Some officials will not be up to the job, and will leave the government after a few months.
Many of the missteps that occur early in a presidency stem from a flaw in the US political system. New presidents take office without a full team in place, and must wait for their cabinet nominees and other officials – the people who actually run the government – to be confirmed. During Trump’s first two weeks, his administration consisted of just a few aides rattling around in the White House. Like its predecessors, the Trump administration will settle down and settle in – unless it doesn’t.
A second guideline is to keep a close eye on foreign policy. Owing to the checks and balances built into the American constitutional order, presidents have much wider latitude in how they engage with other countries than they do in steering domestic affairs.
To be sure, Trump’s first weeks portend disturbing changes to US foreign policy. For 70 years, the US has maintained global security through its network of alliances, and kept the international economy humming through free trade. During the campaign, Trump attacked both of these crucial roles. Should his administration abandon them entirely, the world will become a poorer, more dangerous place.
And yet most of the new president’s principal foreign-policy appointees inspire confidence. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is a sober, experienced, and widely respected former general with an internationalist outlook. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, while never having served in government, gained extensive experience working with other countries when he was CEO of ExxonMobil, a large multinational energy company.
In fact, the new administration’s ability to maintain continuity and international stability will depend on it not following the example set by its predecessor. During Barack Obama’s presidency, senior officials were marginalized, and foreign policy was generally determined by an inexperienced president and his even less experienced young White House acolytes.
A third fact to keep in mind is that Trump’s most serious opposition will not come from his noisiest opponents. Public demonstrations will not throw the Trump administration off course, and they could even steel its resolve to pursue the policies that have raised the most objections. It is worth remembering that the protest movement against the Vietnam War was even more unpopular than the war itself. Like President Richard Nixon, Trump may try to exploit the public’s distaste for disruptive and occasionally violent protests to bolster support for his policies.
Another loud source of opposition is the mainstream press, which has attacked the Trump administration earlier and more forcefully than any new presidency in memory. Still, the press’s capacity to stymie Trump is limited, because it lacks credibility outside of the coastal states and large metropolitan areas where people already oppose him.
Meanwhile, Trump’s formal opposition – the Democratic Party – is weak, demoralized, and divided. But his administration could face formidable opposition from different quarters. For starters, he cannot govern without Congressional Republicans, many of whom will frustrate any effort he makes to abandon America’s long-standing alliances.
Trump may also have to deal with opposition from business leaders, who have remained largely silent, but could grow tired of his wrathful tweets. Ultimately, business leaders have a duty to their companies’ health, and they will try to block any policies that threaten it. Multinational corporations with expansive international operations will resist initiatives that could spark trade wars. At the end of the day, no Republican president – not even Trump – can afford to ignore the captains of American industry and finance.
A fourth lesson to take to heart is that American democracy will survive. Fearful pronouncements about the rise of incipient (or actual) fascism are misplaced. The basic institutions of American governance have survived greater challenges than any that Trump may pose.
Although America in 2017 is deeply divided, Americans remain committed to the central tenets of democracy: free, fair, and regular elections and the protection of political, religious, and economic liberty. It is unlikely that Trump will attempt to overturn any of them; and even if he does try, he will fail. When he leaves office, the US will essentially be what it was when he entered it: the world’s most powerful democracy.
Finally, a key question to consider is whether the Trump administration will be “normal.” A normal president pursues predictable policies that are generally supported by those who voted for him, and opposed by those who did not. Trump’s cabinet and Supreme Court nominations fit this description.
An administration operating outside the bounds of normality will pursue policies that even its supporters and well-wishers oppose, and which could do serious damage to the country, and the world generally.
Will Trump’s presidency be normal? At this point, we must defer to the twentieth-century Chinese communist leader Zhou Enlai’s purported response to André Malraux’s question about what he thought of the French Revolution: it’s “too early to say.”
Michael Mandelbaum is Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and the author of Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.
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