Trump presidency: Risks for all in US approach

Each week brings fresh twists in his efforts to project his agenda and avoid its accumulating contradictory consequences

US President Donald Trump arriving at Palm Beach, Florida earlier this week. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

US President Donald Trump arriving at Palm Beach, Florida earlier this week. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

 

President Donald Trump’s travails in office continue to fascinate and appal. Each week brings fresh twists in his efforts to project his agenda and avoid its accumulating contradictory consequences. Among these, the legal processes over his alleged links and collusion with Russia during the 2016 election loom large in former FBI director James Comey’s book about his dealings with the Trump White House. As that inquiry gets closer under special counsel Robert Mueller,Trump is tempted to dismiss those leading it. His intense foreign policy activism on North Korea, Syria and trade divert attention from that to impress his political base.

Those Americans who expect and wish Trump to be wounded and even fall as a result of the legal investigations and a potential impeachment underestimate his success in securing support from a hitherto reluctant Republican Party leadership and from the political base he has forged to underpin his own agenda. The president is stronger than he looks on both counts.

The forthcoming resignation of Senate majority leader Paul Ryan removes a possible centre of opposition. Mr Ryan’s success in achieving a tax package last year that will dramatically increase the US budget deficit and social inequalities in the medium term showed how far Trump was prepared to go politically to reinforce his dominance within the Republicans.

The political base he has built among poorer white Americans will suffer over that medium term because federal resources will not be available to fund the infrastructure investment he promised to help them. Similar cuts in healthcare will hit them especially hard.

Similar oscillations on Syrian policy between withdrawal and military engagement or on trade with the Pacific and China demonstrate how volatile and risky is this period in the Trump presidency

Those lessons are obscured by Trump’s success in playing up their fears about immigration and trade deals allegedly disadvantageous to rust-belt industrial areas. Orchestrating those fears with a hyper-activist agenda on Mexico, North Korea and Pacific trade deals reproduces his portrait of a United States suffering from bad deals only he can put right.

Those themes run through his recent international activism and are reinforced by the appointment of foreign policy hawks like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo to top jobs in the administration. They support the unconditional and if necessary unilateral assertion of US military power to ensure it stays first, as Trump demands.

Applying that standard to North Korea could conceivably produce concessions sufficient to justify Trump’s risk-taking; but if they backfire the world is put into a more dangerous place by what would follow the failure of such a peace-making effort. Similar oscillations on Syrian policy between withdrawal and military engagement or on trade with the Pacific and China demonstrate how volatile and risky is this period in the Trump presidency.

Other world regions, including in Europe, must look after their own interests and capacity to act effectively much more as these US political and foreign policy dramas play out.

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