Trump’s unbuilt wall distracts focus from his effectiveness elsewhere

US Politics: Washington is united in accepting US links with China have improved

US president Donald Trump and China’s president Xi Jinping: the bilateral relationship of old, with its polite hypocrisies and blind-eye turning, is not coming back. Photograph: Damir Sagolj

US president Donald Trump and China’s president Xi Jinping: the bilateral relationship of old, with its polite hypocrisies and blind-eye turning, is not coming back. Photograph: Damir Sagolj

 

How much does Donald Trump weigh? On the scales of history, that is. A US president must mount them for a provisional judgment at the two-year mark. It was clear by George W Bush’s biennial, in 2003, that he was to be a leader of vast if messy consequence. The 9/11 attacks saw to that. It was almost as plain by Bill Clinton’s, in 1995, that Republican spoilers in Congress would make his a welterweight presidency at best.

As for Trump, current form suggests a certain flimsiness. On Tuesday, his first televised address from the Oval Office was devoted to a wall that he is powerless to build. He lacks the funds because he lacks the congressional votes. Outside his undampably loyal following, there is little public clamour for his signature policy.

When he seemed open to a compromise, blowhards on his own side discouraged him from reopening the shuttered federal government. A man with such a fine nose for human weakness must smell that he himself at present reeks of the stuff.

All the same, historians must beware recency bias when assessing the president. The non-materialisation of the wall is embarrassing for Trump. It might even cost him re-election. The mistake is to see it as proof of general presidential weakness. If only. In ways domestic and foreign, this is the most consequential administration since the end of the cold war.

Many non-entities

At home, Trump has cut taxes at the top of the business cycle, deregulated sectors of the economy, populated the judiciary with conservatives and, as Michael Lewis maps out in his recent book, The Fifth Risk, filled lots of executive offices with non-entities or no one at all.

Taken in isolation, each of these results will affect American lives for some time. Together, they amount to a coherent theme: the draining of the state. Even the judicial nominees, so often assumed to be part of the American Kulturkampf, are chosen as much for their stingy construal of the state’s regulatory ambit. Seen from this libertarian angle, the federal shutdown is not an accident. It is the natural terminal point of the American right’s anti-government impulse, where conservatism meets a kind of nihilism.

How the president thinks this will win him another term is a mystery. After all, it was as a slayer of Ayn Rand-reading nerds that he won the 2016 Republican nomination in the first place.

But the politics is a separate matter. Historic significance is the test here. On this score, his domestic impact is, so far, up there with any president of the past generation, wall or no wall.

His domestic policies are, at least, reversible by a successor. Less so is his confrontation with America’s one rival for mastery of the century. The only proposition that unites a riven Washington is this: the US posture towards China has changed for good. It might soften a bit. Trump seems close to a trade truce. But the bilateral relationship of old, with its polite hypocrisies and blind-eye turning, is not coming back.

Geopolitical rupture

Nor is it just US diplomats who are sold on the harder line. American businesses are too. Because we are living through this geopolitical rupture in real time, we can miss its significance. Trump has altered the relationship between the two most important countries in the world in a way that will outlast his presidency, and possibly his time on Earth.

Almost two years have passed since his inauguration. At the time, liberal Americans, to say nothing of the outside world, nursed one consolation: his probable incompetence. The shrewdest case against his impeachment was the elevation of a more effectual right-winger, namely vice-president Mike Pence, what with his outlandish ability to finish a briefing note.

The empty space where a wall is meant to be has come to symbolise Trump’s long-predicted impotence. In truth, it distracts from his devastating effectiveness elsewhere.

None of which is actually to praise the substance of his foreign or domestic reforms. Some of us were happy with the world of 2016, thanks, and still hope the West will return to that status quo ante. No, this is about the scale, not the wisdom, of Trump’s doings. He is a more historic president than his present flailing suggests. And he can “achieve” more, even after his loss of the House of Representatives.

Deregulation is often a matter of executive fiat. Judicial and bureaucratic nominees are confirmed by the Senate, where Republicans have a majority. As for foreign policy, the constitution gifts him wide powers. We need not picture what an effectual populist would be like. We are living under one. Imagine his historical weight at the four-year mark. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019

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