US presidents are often deep into a second term before thoughts turn to legacy. Such is Donald Trump’s elongation of time – a decade’s drama in 18 months – the question feels urgent now. What of Trumpism will last?
Optimists expect the sensible donor class to re-capture the Republicans once he has gone. Others suspect he is all too durable: the trigger for an age of populism, not just four or eight years of it.
Either way, the president's tour of Europe has underlined the stakes. He was kinder to Russia than to Nato or the EU. In remarks he later withdrew, Trump doubted US intelligence about foreign meddling in domestic politics. If the future plays out in his shadow, then it promises nothing less than American estrangement from the west.
The mistake is to treat that future as written. A tour that accentuated Trump’s potential as a global spoiler also advertised his probable transience.
Parts of this presidency can last. Its foreign policy cannot. At home, in his fiscal looseness, protectionism and hostility to immigration, the president is working with public opinion. The wonder is that governments did not abandon the three-card trick of balanced budgets, free trade and liberal borders much earlier, given the flakiness of underlying support for that “consensus”.
Trump’s coup was to tease these latent attitudes to the surface. Whoever succeeds him will have to reckon with them.
There will be no such reckoning with an anti-western public, because it does not exist. Just 23 per cent of Americans take an unfavourable view of Nato. (Opinion in Italy, Spain, Greece and Turkey, where support is low, should disturb leaders of the alliance.)
The telling event of the week was not Trump's statement on US intelligence. It was the alacrity with which he reversed it
Attitudes to Russia have hardened at pace. As late as 2012, then president Barack Obama could deride his election rival for naming it as the principal threat to the US. "The 1980s are now calling," he said to Mitt Romney, "to ask for their foreign policy back." A majority of Americans saw Russia favourably then. They now disapprove of it by 72 to 25 per cent.
Nor does Trump have foreign policy professionals on his side. It is modish to talk about political elites as routed nobodies, as though the US were now run by an iron triangle of cable news, Trump himself and the social-media hive mind. But the government still has to be staffed. Without numbers, the president cannot impose himself on the federal bureaucracy.
Credited to Lyndon Johnson, the first rule of politics – you must know how to count – applies to the peopling of the executive as much as to the corralling of congressional votes.
Knowing this, Trump has protectionists in trade portfolios (Robert Lighthizer), deregulators in the housing department (Ben Carson) and tax cutters everywhere. Bar an oddball ambassador or two, what he does not have is a Nato-sceptic, anti-European strongman-flatterer in an international role of consequence.
Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, is no such thing. National security adviser John Bolton has little time for the Europeans but even less for external subversion of American democracy.
If Trump’s foreign policy is to outlast his own whim and fiat, he needs a cadre of professionals who will think as he does when he is no longer around. He does not even have many who think as he does when he is around. If there is a Trump Doctrine, adherents are scarce among congressional Republicans and the conservative intelligentsia, whose outlet, the Wall Street Journal, describes the president’s geostrategic posture as “Trump First”.
Yes, there are quietists who would keep the US out of foreign dramas. There are hawks who would intervene everywhere. There are senators who cough and shuffle their feet when they should scold the president. But out-and-proud enemies of the western order? Enthusiasts for a pivot to Moscow? You have to swim to the wilder waters of conservatism to find them.
The telling event of the week was not Trump’s statement on US intelligence. It was the alacrity with which he reversed it. He has political antennas, if nothing else, and they twitched nervously. His foreign agenda is anything but populist. Voters are with him on many subjects, but not this. Republicans will follow him to lots of strange places, but not here.
It is a week that helped us to answer the legacy question. What of this presidency will the body politic ingest for good and what will it spew up as an acrid-tasting mouthful? Trump’s domestic policies might endure. For all the harm it can do now, his foreign policy will last just as long as he does. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018