Far from draining the swamp, Donald Trump has become mired in it, writes Evgeny Pudovkin.
“It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better”, Theodore Roosevelt, the 25th US President noted in his speech: ‘The Man in the arena’. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly”.
Fast forward one-hundred years, and another iteration of the late President’s compelling leitmotif has been delivered to the American people. Speaking at the US Coast Guard Academy this winter Donald Trump divulged the hardships he went through during his nascent leadership. “Over the course of your life”, he said, “you will find that things are not always fair […], but you have to put your head down and fight”.
You can’t really argue with Trump’s statement. His presidency has indeed been an unending war of attrition. It is a war waged against the media and the Democratic Party; judges and the establishment; the Republicans and the leakers. But the question that must be asked is whether these fights are really worth his or his Party’s while?
Donald Trump ran one of the most ambitious campaigns. He promised to bring more order to US foreign policy. No longer, he said, should the US spend blood and treasure on wars that have yielded so little for their own interests. The President also called for a reappraisal of the relations with Russia, opening the door for cooperation in the Middle East and more stable security architecture.
At home, his pledges were no less ambitions. He promised to revamp the American tax code, rebuild the country’s ailing infrastructure and making ordinary Americans more secure. As a tribute to the Republican base, the Donald said he would upend Barack Obama’s legacy in healthcare and regulation.
Bar signing a few executive orders on ‘red tape’, Trump has so far achieved none of these aims. The administration’s ineffectiveness is not attributable to a lack of enthusiasm. Rather, it is the President’s buoyancy and unchecked fervor for unnecessary quarrelling that is derailing his agenda. If temperament plays a role in politics, Trump is a vivid reminder why.
Not once on the election trail had he boasted of his dexterity in manipulating the system. In practice, his fight with the establishment has been more quixotic than Bonapartist.
Take the administration’s struggle against Islamism. To solve the problem Trump drafted an executive order, imposing a blanket ban on immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries. The measure was swiftly unpicked by judges. The process stalled. Even the supporters of the President’s tussle against Ismailism found the proposal too broad and too clumsily drafted.
On Obamacare, Trump managed to put together an offer that didn’t sit well with either moderates or his party’s more libertarian wing. Apart from that, it risks alienating his own base. Ryancare’s failure may after all be a blessing.
Then there was Russia. Unlike Obama, Trump sought to establish proper communications with Moscow. There was a chance of developing a coherent strategic plan of dealing with the Kremlin to mitigate geopolitical tensions. Or, at least, that was the idea. Until Trump almost single-handedly screwed it all up. His nonchalant attitude to sharing intelligence caused suspicions of his weakness to Moscow; the compulsive obsessions with lying on the part of his allies (and relatives) heightened them. Now every step the President makes is looked upon with caution.
Moreover, the Russian sanctions bill may have consequences that go beyond the current administration. Congressional control of the sanctions ‘off switch’ sets a dangerous precedence. In future, it can limit the diplomatic corridor for the executive. For if the sanctioned country’s leadership knows that the US President will face hurdles when removing penalties, it reduces its incentive to cooperate.
Even within the White House there is no end of tumult. Leaks proliferate. Pundits have lost count of warring factions within the administration itself. Who teams up with whom? Why did Trump fire Anthony Scaramucci? Why did he hire him?
Liberals’ worst fears have not materialised. Trump’s assault on American institutions won’t yield him a victory. Should the President continue to make missteps, the Republicans – wary of destroying their own brand and what’s left of their agenda – will not hesitate to cut him loose.
Either a knave or a fool, the President’s conduct is an ultimate guide of how not to manage things. One cannot but wonder if the American leader did not want to be in the arena in the first place.
If there is one thing that may cheer the Republicans, it is the Democrats. The thought of a liberal entering the White House in 2020 doesn’t quite seem so shattering. In the end, it took voters just one tenure with Jimmy Carter to put a Republican back in the Oval Office, even despite the recent trauma of the Nixon years.