Fintan O’Toole: How Trump blew his first 100 days
US president could have got cross-party support but chose reality TV-style conflict instead
It is a bit of a stretch, but imagine if Donald Trump were a smart politician. What would his first 100 days have looked like? The answer is blindingly obvious – infrastructure. Trump who, after all, does know something about both building and branding, would have branded himself as the president who was rebuilding America. He would have rolled out a plan with a major infrastructural project in every single state of the union. And if fiscal conservatives or sulky Democrats had opposed him, so much the better. Trump could have campaigned against them in their own states as the can-do patriot who would steamroll the weak, petty business-as-usual partisan careerists. To understand the failure of his first 100 days, we have to reflect not just on what he has done, but also on what he has not done, which is to project himself as Don the Builder.
One of Trump’s key selling points in the primary and presidential campaigns was his bluntness about the appalling state of the roads, bridges, tunnels, rail lines and dams. He promised to spend $1 trillion (€0.9 trillion). And the promise made complete political sense. It appealed, of course, to his own vanity and grandiosity. It could give substance to his America First nationalism and nostalgia for male muscle: big American men working on big American projects with big American machines. But, crucially, it could also force Democrats to row in behind him.
To get a sense of how this might have worked, look no further than Trump’s own city of New York. Its main transport hub, the grimy, shabby, overcrowded Penn Station has been grinding to a halt. When a single train breaks down or derails the system collapses into chaos for days. The entire system depends on a single century-old rail tunnel under the Hudson river. It was badly damaged in Hurricane Sandy in 2012 but can’t be properly repaired because closing it for repairs would bring chaos.
So of course Trump was out announcing that he was going to drive through the long-delayed plans for a second rail tunnel, the so-called Gateway project? And he was cheered to the rafters by the furious commuters who were thinking that, for all his bombast, here was a man who would get things done? No. Almost incredibly, Trump has actually done the precise opposite: his budget blueprint unveiled in March proposes to defund the Gateway project entirely. And his tax plan unveiled this week has no mention of the $1 trillion for infrastructure. He is planning to make America great again by letting it fall apart.
On the face of it, Trump’s failure to stamp his presidency as a literally constructive project is inexplicable. His promise on infrastructure is, by a very long distance, the most popular of his signature policies with 80 per cent approval. This is vastly higher than for any other aspect of the Trump agenda – ideas like banning Muslims or building a wall across the border with Mexico actually get negative poll ratings. Moreover, the advantage of this wildly popular policy is that Trump didn’t have to actually achieve anything – nobody expects a rail tunnel to be built in 100 days. He simply had to publish a plan and start beating the drum for his beautiful, incredible, unbelievably great national project.
So why hasn’t he done it? In part, sheer laziness. Trump in office has invited the taunt with which he damned his putative Republican rival Jeb Bush: “low energy”. It’s a weirdly manic form of low energy, beset by Twitter storms and sudden outbursts. But Trump has shown himself to have no patience, no political stamina and no ability to concentrate or grasp boring detail. His much-heralded tax plan, in preparation since November, amounts to a single page – little more, in effect, than a series of tweets.
But there’s a more important reason why Trump has failed to do the bloody obvious. It is a weird reason, but then this is a weird presidency. The problem with prioritising infrastructure is precisely what would make it so attractive to any other politician – its great popularity. It has behind it something like a popular consensus. And that’s a bad thing because Trump needs conflict. He is a reality TV star before he is a politician and reality TV requires a diet of constant conflict.
Trump, like any star, is relentlessly focussed on his own fans. A normal president, especially one elected with a minority of the votes, would ask: how can I get the approval of people who didn’t vote for me? Trump asks: how can I hold on to my people? He holds them by ramping up tribal divisions. Consensus would go against that strategy.
And, up to a point, this strategy is still working. Trump’s approval ratings may be historically low but they are pretty much the same as the proportion of the vote he got in November. Both reportage and polling show that, so far, there is no buyer’s remorse among Trump voters. His fans are still with him because they still see him as the great disrupter of the status quo.
His problem, though, is one that every TV show runner dreads – he is burning through his best material very quickly and to little effect. The Muslim ban and the Mexican wall are losing altitude. Obamacare is still in place. The trade wars he promised are largely off the agenda. China is not evil after all. Trump’s supply of inflammatory issues is diminishing and the ones he has already used are not really taking fire. Already, he faces his greatest fear – not that liberals find him incompetent and horrifying but that his fans will soon start to find him boring.