We are but a few days away from Donald Trump’s Presidency of the United States. His policies from the campaign trail are now clarified by the people he has hired to implement them, and by the broader policy intent of the Republican Party that has strong majorities on both the Senate and Congress. This is the most powerful nation in the world, and what we should expect from this next term of government of the United States remains important to the whole world.
Many view his unexpected rise and triumph as a chance for renewal of tired political institutions that have slowed the efficiency of governing across Washington. Losing candidate Hillary Clinton felt to many like she represented that atrophy. But to renew the decay within United States’ political institutions, there is no case for optimism. Donald Trump has not proposed any institutional solution to the broad state’s capture by powerful interest groups (other than minor proposals about lobbying). The most important signal to the whole political order that he has sent is about his own business interests, which remain deliberately opaque as to paying tax, and shows absolutely no signal that he can separate his own financial interests from his powers as President. Tax is the core instrument of the state to redistribute private gain to public policy good. Trump has signaled that the incoming president primarily works not for the public, or the core idea of the public good, but first and foremost for his own commercial interests.
Similarly, the core of influence in the United States government is the power of money over the legislature and over voters. He has made no commitment to re-challenge Supreme Court decisions like Buckley V Valeo and Citizens United V FEC. These argued that public donations and spending on lobbying are a form of free speech and therefore constitutionally protected. The plug stuck under the swamp will not be pulled by President Donald Trump.
But there will certainly be churn on the surface. President Obama worked pretty hard to get things done with either marginal Democrat majorities or extremely hostile Republican majorities. He got several strong initiatives through, which I’ve commented on before. But the sense of torpor was extremely strong when the Republicans refused to approve budgets. President Trump will get activity going again because all three branches of legislation are now controlled by the one party. The legislation may not be useful, or workable in practise, or popular, but that sense of standstill will be released as all parts of government share strong political alignment.
Where Trump made huge inroads into rustbelt states like Wisconsin, his calls to clamp down on heavy manufacturing going overseas were popular. He has certainly made protectionist moves already. His tweet-influences about manufacturers choosing to stay in-state are doing what the Presidential bully pulpit should do. But if all he can do is tweet rather than enact entire policy, he will effect perhaps thousands of jobs, when the test of policy is to effect tens of millions. Who knows, perhaps he really will renegotiate trade deals and crack down on illegal immigration. But both trade protectionist and immigration control measures will spark comparable trade retaliation by other countries of a scale that will undo much of the trade dynamic that has lifted poorer countries out of poverty in the past three decades: trade and labour mobility. Britain is about to feel the consequences of similar moves as it exists the European Union.
As for the much-vaunted infrastructure plan, presidents have come and gone promising about the same. Infrastructure expenditure remains in the hands of the Republicans in the Senate and Congress. I’m not optimistic that there will be increases in public spending other than on instruments of warfare.
Those instruments of warfare will I think be less likely to be used under President Trump. He will continue President Obama’s rapid withdrawal of U.S. military influence in the world. I can easily foresee money, rather than diplomacy or hard military force, being the primary mode of international exchange – money and the deals to get there are the sole language that Mr Trump understands. The shift to mercantilist governance from one guided primarily in world affairs by military intelligence and military power will be a really important shift for world powers. Again, I’m not optimistic that the rest of the world will concur.
Donald Trump is the first major United States party candidate for whom promotion of a democratic world order – for so long at least notionally the calling of the United States – has absolutely no resonance. He above all will seek to wipe away diplomacy and military force as restraints to capitalism in the world.
I expect Trump to accelerate the trend under Obama to rapidly remove troops from U.N.-mandated conflict lines, downgrade its strong diplomatic presence from the United Nations itself in areas such as climate change, and continue to shrink the full role of the United States in the world.
That may sound attractive to some, until you look at the alternative leaders who fill that inevitable vacuum. Those who have grown used to the way the United States has operated in world affairs may not like such scale of change, because this scale of force withdrawal will be akin to the polar icecap melting: it will shift the way the political world rotates even more than the decline of the Soviet Union, and there will be damage to people along the way.
I do not yet know what the emerging world of populist nationalism will look like, but what is clear is that Trump is a part of making the whole ambit of politics much smaller: smaller states, smaller multilateral horizons, fewer and weaker cross-national binds. There will be no more Paris 21’s, no more GATTS, no more cooperation. It is the world of the strong countries and strong corporations looking after the strong, against the weak. That means us.
Trump reminds all us small states what we have strived to avoid since the whole of postcolonial liberation: we are on our own.