U.S. President Donald Trump listens during a press conference with Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos in the East Room of the White House May 18, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
“You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else,” said Winston Churchill. This observation is key to navigating a Donald Trump-led United States in political turmoil. Voters do their best with what is on offer. Last November, American voters chose Mr. Trump and the Republican Party.
Reserve judgment but
Seasoned commentators said Mr. Trump could not get the Republican nomination and would not become president. He did both. Many now say he cannot succeed as president, but perhaps he will. There is much to worry about. The United States has for some years now experienced its greatest political turmoil since the Civil War. We must be watchful and careful. We should also keep open the possibility of Mr. Trump’s success.
This was never more than a possibility. Unless the web of Russia questions can be quickly resolved, the challenge will not be whether he can succeed but whether he can last. The U.S. turmoil he exploited could now bring him down.
The big 2017 question
The United States built and led the post-1945 global order by broadening the inclusive order at home and abroad and containing what could not be included. The big 2017 question is whether a new world order can be reshaped under some form of U.S./China co-leadership. Or will the centrifugal forces within the West and between it and the rest of the world undermine that possibility? If or how Mr. Trump survives will be crucial. It is an ominous moment.
The Trump-led United States and Brexit are the greatest challenges to the West since the 1938 Munich crisis. They are key to how things now turn out with Western Europe, Russia, and China. Russia has an increasingly hostile policy of combined aggression (in the Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and Syria) and subversion of political institutions in Europe and the United States. A West subverted from the outside and undermined from within will become a weaker defender against overt external aggression (Russia).
China understands a destabilized West would hurt a Chinese economy still dependent on Western economies. A denuclearized North Korea could help make possible a United States and China-led reshaped global order. This could help fend off Russian aggression and subversion – step one of a long journey to bring Russia back into a new global order. Fortunately, the key Trump foreign-policy and security team are of high quality.
Is the United States still a world player?
The Munich failure to face up to an expansionist, authoritarian Germany came when the United States was not yet a world player. Winning the Second World War and creating the postwar inclusive global order were possible because the United States became part of the solution.
Today’s Munich comes from centrifugal forces within the West. The United States is part of that problem. If this challenge cannot be countered, the world will enter a darker, more authoritarian age. The post-1980 Ronald Reagan/Margaret Thatcher world of free markets and democracy has proved the trigger for the first global transition moment in history. Can the rest of the world help the United States as it pulls back from the Reagan/George W. Bush era of economic, financial and geopolitical overreach? Barack Obama started the country on its withdrawal path. Can a now weakened Mr. Trump (if he survives) deal with the still unfinished U.S. overreach without falling into underreach or dangerous new overreach?
The arrival of Mr. Trump
Mr. Trump rode to the U.S. presidency partly on voter disaffection with a Washington that no longer worked (primarily because of no-compromise Republicans). The other, bigger but related forces stemmed from the founding nature of the United States and the rising challenges of the American-led inclusive global order. There are big questions – Mr. Trump himself; what he most deeply wants from being president; his personal strengths and limits; and the kind of country the United States has become. Can its strengths be mobilized and shortcomings overcome so it can move beyond its current identity and existential crises? Can it be relied on to help contain the centrifugal forces in itself and the world?
Mr. Trump is faced with enormous, fast-moving, unavoidable, and interacting systemic challenges from America’s technological change, global trade, and inclusiveness strengths, now in manageability overreach. What they have brought is increasingly hard on more and more Americans. Can Mr. Trump and the Congress get on track to do better? The Republicans lack a sure governing majority, and the uncompromising Democratic side (Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) stridently oppose Mr. Trump. Now the Trump presidency has been weakened by its inability to put Russia behind it, making his prospects worse.
There are now two Americas – the people who can cope with the forces of change and those who feel they can’t. Mutual accommodation is the answer, but goes against America’s natural drive for division. Russia has become more than a distraction. At best, it is creating a wounded presidency, with reduced leverage at home and abroad.
Is America still about the future?
The United States has always been about the future – a “new world.” Now, more people are looking to the past, not because they are unwilling to move forward (only a minority are “deplorables”) but because they are afraid they cannot. They need recognition and concrete sources of encouragement. Where can that come from is one of the big questions for the West’s future. Ideology, individualism, and a culture of winners and losers are all barriers to figuring out how to move forward as one country. Both Republicans and Democrats have deep-rooted ideologies that exclude, divide, and interfere with thinking and seeing – making mutual accommodation almost impossible.
Mr. Trump realizes the need to compromise to make deals. Sometimes he shares more policy instincts with Democrats than with the no-compromise Republican Party he has taken over. But he needs more inclusiveness before he can become a full leader. That may require a national crisis. What will be the future U.S. glue? Mr. Trump does not believe in American exceptionalism. If Americans lose faith in the American dream, what will happen? Could the only American glue become shared fearfulness and enemies?
Is America no longer forward-looking?
Can Mr. Trump communicate confidence in a United States able to mutually accommodate its strengths and the everyday economic and identity challenges its strengths bring? How will the political fight go between fearful (hesitant to move forward) and confident (raring to go)? Can the two come together? It could take years unless forced by some crisis.
Many saw the Obama coalitions of 2008 and 2012 as threats to the country itself. Some version of them may return. If the 2012 Obama coalition had held in only three key states in the 2016 election, Mr. Trump would not be president. The Republicans chose as their presidential nominee a man whose policies, had he been a Democrat, they would condemn out of hand. The hardline Republican no-compromisers must now compromise to “clean up the Washington swamp.” The history of the Obamacare bill so far shows how difficult that will be.
The Mr. Trump of “the deal” had only himself to satisfy. He could always leave the room. Now he has political supporters, a country, and a world all with a stake – a room he can’t leave. No U.S. president can. Mr. Trump understands successful business deals require “enough” for all parties.
Politics is harder; governing even harder. Mr. Trump is not stupid – he knows he cannot always get what he wants. But he has never had so much reality to respond to, with so many people affected, or so many people out to get him. Does he get what is great about the United States, and what keeping it great will take? Does he realize the ability to attract more and more followers is how one becomes great?
Which Mr. Trump has come to Washington?
Voters will pressure Mr. Trump on his vow to make Washington work – a promise even bigger than ending Obamacare. His leverage with the Republican Congress will increase or decrease, depending on how the public likes what he does. Two Donald Trumps will likely emerge in this Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde world. The U.S. political system works only if the president has political leverage. The growing Russia issue risks losing that. It makes Mr. Trump much harder for the Republican Congress to live and work with.
Mr. Trump faces a series of mutual-accommodation challenges, beginning with himself. Then there’s the challenge of mainstream Republicans on both the domestic and foreign-policy fronts, where he’s considered, respectively, too liberal and too isolationist. Other challenges come from his own base.
Negotiators should warily take the slow and bumpy path toward one-at-a-time normalizations (real relationships likely beyond reach) and reasonable accommodations. The world is in a dangerous situation right now as it waits for what happens in Washington. The United States began to lose its domestic post-1932 capacity for mutual accommodation after the civil-rights legislation split away the Southern part of the Democratic coalition. After the 2008 election, mutual accommodation became almost non-existent. If the United States is to move forward, some mutual accommodation is essential.
Have Brexit and Mr. Trump brought a new world?
The post-1945 forces of integration and disruption on the world stage are becoming unmanageable; the centrifugal pressures from within, hard to contain. Mr. Trump cheered them on, particularly during the U.S. election. Meanwhile, Britain decided to pull out of the European Union (Brexit). As the United States experiences its most divisive moment of political turmoil since the Civil War, the remaining months of 2017 will tell much of the story. Will the big systems push back and find a focused path forward that works? Or will things move farther further down a path of divergence and dangerous division? A defiant Mr. Trump doubled back to his earlier calls for closer Russian ties after firing FBI director James Comey. Will he bring himself down?
Since its foundation, the United States has followed an individualist and isolationist path, except in the period from 1945 to 2000 (when it responded to the global failures of 1914-45). The current U.S. political turmoil, and the challenges coming from the European Union and Britain, have created a dangerous global moment. The United States has huge economic, military, technological, and innovation strengths. These strengths are vulnerable in a racially divided country split between rich and poor, the confident and the left out fearful; and one awash with guns, drugs, and more demoralized people.
The world has to figure out how to deal with this deeply challenged nation led by a man who uses people of opposite views to create a chaos of differences which he then navigates for his own purposes. As president, he inherited an ongoing chaos of views among his own base voters and the Republican Congress. He has never had to deal before with systemically interconnected markets, the responses of other countries, and uncompromising Republican and Democratic parties at home. More divisive decades likely lie ahead, as American limitations from its past and a weakened president interact with today’s global centrifugal forces.
Is a new-compromise Washington possible?
The biggest realistic hope of the 2016 election – a new-compromise Washington – was dealt a big blow with the first Obamacare-bill failure. However, no one becomes president of the United States without having many strengths. Mr. Trump’s greatest survival strength may be his remarkable “dot connecting” ability (so far, he has not done a very good job on connecting the domestic politics of the Russian dots). His greatest weaknesses may be his short attention span and self-centredness. What Mr. Trump proposed to Ohio governor John Kasich as his possible running mate now looks prescient. Mr. Kasich as vice-president would do domestic and foreign policy, leaving it to Mr. Trump to make America great again.
Mr. Trump’s first job is to move immediately on Russia and reconstruct his White House team with one or more people able to play the role Mr. Trump envisaged for Mr. Kasich. The second is to face how difficult it is to develop policies that work in today’s complicated world. The third is to overcome the deep divisions within the Republican Congress and combine Republican and Democratic votes when essential. Mr. Trump could still surprise one more time. If not, who then knows? There is always the possibility of another deal – but not of another United States. Can Mr. Trump extend himself once more and expand the art of the deal to include a capacity for leadership based on more inclusiveness and accommodation? This goes against both Americans’ and Mr. Trump’s natures.
Mr. Trump may prove to be an agent for two of the changes the United States and the world need: a return of compromise to Washington and a reshaped, somewhat less inclusive and less global order, co-led by the U.S. and China. The post-war inclusive global order is now under threat. It will only survive if it can become somewhat less inclusive and somewhat less global. The element needed to get there would be the containment of a nuclear-threatening North Korea. This would give China the stable trading order it needs and avoid a potentially disruptive U.S. on the trade front.
This is a huge opportunity for China and the United States – a safer world and reinvigorated global vision and new project. But hard to get from here to there. The increasing U.S.-governance and rule-of-law stresses do not help. No matter what, there will not be much rest on the Trump journey ahead. Until it is behind Mr. Trump, the Russia problem will at best get in the way of success on all fronts; at worst bring the end of his presidency. The U.S. has two sources of political turmoil – its own historic nature and Mr. Trump. The first will last long after Mr. Trump.
Breaking good news
The Department of Justice announcement of the appointment of former FBI director Robert S. Mueller as special counsel to an investigation into Mr. Trump’s Russia ties late last Wednesday will stanch the bleeding for the moment. Nothing less could do that. Adults are at last in charge.
William Macdonald is a corporate lawyer turned consultant with a long history of public service and social engagement.