Governing in earnest now begins in the US under the new Administration. The Congress, still deeply divided, will need to make sense of Trump’s sketchy proposals. They are unlikely to agree or succeed. The need for Australia to review and redefine the conduct of its relationship with the US has become even more urgent.
It is pathetic that many commentators in the media and within Congress, said that the change in the tone of delivery by Donald Trump of his speech to Congress, on 28th February, was important; he had turned the corner, “sounded Presidential”.
He was indeed less strident, less aggressive in tone than on previous occasions, such as in his inaugural address, which one commentator accurately described as having ”defiled” the occasion.
But, his speech at the Congress incorporated no change in substance from earlier major speeches. It repeated his militarism and xenophobia, made numerous claims of fact, which were false.
That the issue of Trump’s tone of delivery has been seen as salvation, shows just how far the bar has been lowered.
There are three main supports to Trump, as President, that are authentic.
First, the make-up of his base support is authentic; alienated, disadvantaged, economically suffering people. They thought Trump understood them, especially when he declared the system rigged. They felt insulted by Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” remark.
Secondly,the depth and pervasiveness of the American belief in money and material things. This includes an acceptance of greed and hostility to taxation, without any clear idea of how else public goods will be provided. Trump embodies that greed and thus his promise to his base that he will fix their economic problems was found credible, even though his conduct of his businesses has been deeply dubious.
Thirdly, he is the authentic product of the US political system. He is a minority President, but he won, under the system.
Focusing on Trump’s antics and showmanship leads us into the Trump trap: the belief that all that counts is the show. In so many ways, the mainstream media have fallen into the Trump trap, and have competed with each other in their attempts to report his show. When they have not and have called Trump out for lying, he has blatantly threatened them and, excluded them from the discourse.
Following his speech to Congress, the lines of battle around the policies of the new US government have been drawn. The Trump sideshow is over. The main act of governing has begun. The question, posed by many, of whether Trump is fit to govern will be answered, other than via Twitter.
The determining aspects of the phase which has now begun, were on display at the Congress: a President resolutely attached to his version of reality, whatever the facts, a sharply divided Congress, from which the democrats staged an uncustomary walk-out at the end of his address.
The absence of detail, in his address, the smoke and mirrors were present as usual. His foreshadowing of his coming budget proposals were cases in point: on increases in the defense budget his claim of a 9-10% increase was valid only if the increases Obama had proposed were discounted; and, how he would “repeal and replace” Obamacare remained deeply unclear.
On the alleged need for a massive increase in defense spending, no detail was given. There was simply the proclaimed goal of giving the US the mightiest military ever seen. Why, when it already spends more than the next seven nations combined?
So, what is the political prognosis for the period ahead?
The Republicans, the governing party, are in far more trouble than they would like, or like to admit. They are indebted to Trump and his base for having delivered to them dominance in the legislatures and Executive Mansions, across the country. But, to achieve this he promised policies and actions, particularly on the economy to which they are strongly opposed; massive spending on infrastructure, and immediate abolition of Obamacare without any clarity about how people will obtain health care in the future.
They are also increasingly aware of the extent to which the people closest to Trump, such as his advisor on strategy (or is it ideology?) Steve Bannon, include the Republican establishment amongst his targets for “deconstruction”.
Their major action to secure themselves against this and against actions which Trump might take in favor of the alienated class who put him into office, has been to commence immediately a widespread exercise in re-districting, gerrymandering, for future elections.
The question of Trump and the reliability of his base is an open one. The staffing of his Administration with Wall Streeters and the tax and financial and regulatory policies he begun to establish will not deliver economic relief to poorer Americans. Instead they will further enrich the “1 per cent”, and are so intended.
Trump will not reduce the rich to help the poor. So, he will fail to deliver to his base, and when he does and they depart from him, his opponents in his own party, of whom there are many, may decide that he has become too expensive, provided they’ve completed their gerrymandering. Whether they will simply block him or impeach him, remains to be seen.
On the other side of the aisle, the Democrats, are beginning a process of reform and re-grouping after what can only be called the disaster of their failing what should be their base; the workers of America. Their walk-out in Congress sent a message of sorts but they have vastly harder work ahead of them, on policies, organization, and leadership which must be pursued urgently.
On the US’ place in the world, Trump spoke at Congress on re-establishing the US’ global leadership. Such talk is acceptable, required, at the Congress, but with so much of what he says, it was meaningless, in terms of: reality itself – who wants to be so led, to what ends or destinations – and, what we know of his foreign policy stance. Virtually everything he has said, on security, trade, international cooperation, the rules of international conduct has been rejected or found to be offensive, not only by identified competitors or so called enemies, but also by the US’ friends.
Trump can’t make up his mind whether he’s an isolationist or a militant interventionist, both of which are American traditions, and he certainly can’t seem to acknowledge that the US has to share living in this world with others who may not share the US point of view or want to be led, by the US, anywhere. Stating that he will put America first is so depressingly unoriginal, an empty slogan, but it has caused deep concern, internationally.
On US traditions of intervention, a recent extensive study of declassified documents reveals that between 1947 and 1989, the US attempted to change other nations’ governments, mainly through covert action, 72 times. It is not clear whether or not this statistic includes the US’ involvement in the dismissal of the Australian Government in 1975. (Lindsay A. O’Rouke; Washington Post, December 23, 2016).
A telling example of what Trump will face, now that the main act has begun, was given when Republican Senator, Lindsey Graham, warned immediately that Trump’s proposal to fund the increase in defense spending through a 37% cut in the budget for the State Department and USAID, would be “dead on arrival” in the Senate.
These indications of the continuing disarray in the US polity and the proposed re-shaping of US policies on the basis of “America first”, are occurring at a time when Australia is examining the future shape and content of it’s Foreign Policy. Central to that work must be a review of how we conduct ourselves under the US alliance, and this at a time when a Defense Department study has been released revealing that John Howard’s decision that we should join the US in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, was for reasons of support for the alliance. It makes clear that he misled the Australian people on the reasons for which he decided we should take part in an invasion that: violated international law, was mounted on the basis of false and/or fabricated intelligence, was not consisted with the ANZUS Treaty, had no direct relationship to our own national security, and perhaps, above all, resulted in the chaos that subsequently consumed the Middle East and continues today. And, we are still there, in Iraq and Syria.
It is also alarming to note the rising tide of McCarthyism in the US public discourse on relations with Russia, especially given Trump’s various remarks about the use of nuclear weapons. (see Glenn Greenwald’s analysis of the cover story in the current issue of The New Yorker on the threat posed by Russia and President Putin; The Intercept, February 28, 2017). We are not inexperienced of US pressure upon us to join the fight against such an enemy.
The review of our foreign policy must ensure that no such calumny as that of John Howard, but then sustained by Rudd, Gillard and Turnbull, happens again. This would require our leaders being truthful about what, in fact, the ANZUS Treaty requires, and determining a new self- respectful conduct of our relations with the United States.
Richard Butler AC, was Ambassador to the United Nations and later, Diplomat in Residence at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York, and a Professor of International Relations at NYU and Penn State University.