The president-elect and a path into the unknown

James Zogby is worried for America in the Trump era

Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Grand Rapids. Paul Sancya / AP Photo
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Commentary on the American elections has shifted from postmortems to predictions, from how did Donald Trump win to what will he do now that he has won. Projecting what any president-elect will do is often a fool’s errand and in Mr Trump’s case is made even more difficult by the fact that it’s not at all certain that he knows what he’ll do.

Running a government is different from running for office. A candidate can go out and say whatever works for an adoring audience. Governing requires a team effort and the ability to adapt to many competing social and political realities. As a result, turning promises into policy often involves messy compromise.

It already appears that the president-elect is tempering or even walking back from many of the positions he articulated during the campaign. Remember the “big beautiful wall that Mexico will pay for”? Well, it now appears that it won’t exactly be a wall, but very tough security at the border and Mexico won’t be paying for it after all. And not all undocumented immigrants will be rounded up and deported, only those who have criminal records. Similarly, after being briefed on the provisions of Obamacare, Mr Trump now appears to have concluded that there are some good aspects of it that should be protected. It even appears that he is approaching the Iran nuclear deal a bit more cautiously. The reality is that far from being the captain of the team, a president is often the captive of his team and of the world as he finds it.

In the first instance, the president must rely of the information he receives from those who he has appointed, just as he is dependent on their ability to execute his directives. That is why it is important to see who Mr Trump appoints. His early roster of key staff appointments provide some indication as to the direction his administration may take on important issues. The fact that many are hardline ideologues is cause for concern.

The other factor that must be considered are the social and political realities that set the stage for the new president. While presidents set agendas for their administration, they are often judged not by how well they do in accomplishing the agenda they set, but in how effective they have been in responding to the agenda the world sets for them.

Remember the ambitious Middle East programme laid out by Mr Obama in his historic Cairo speech. It was undone by an obstructionist Congress, an incorrigible hardline Israeli leader and the unforeseen consequences of the Arab Spring.

While Mr Trump has hinted that he seeks to cooperate with Russia in Syria, his success depends on whether Congress will work with him, whether or not Russia’s interests align with those of the US, whether Iran will allow Russia to control their agenda and whether Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other regional partners will agree, as well.

Mr Trump has had many positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Early on he said he wanted to remain neutral so he could be in a position to negotiate an end to the conflict. He also questioned US aid to Israel and said he would not commit to taking a side on the issue of Jerusalem. As the campaign wore on, his position hardened into a lopsided pro-Israel stance. He opposed a “Palestinian terror state”, called for moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, and more, recently, his advisers have stated that he “does not believe that settlements are an obstacle to peace”. Adding more confusion to this picture, just this week, Mr Trump spoke of his interest in brokering a deal to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But having been emboldened by Mr Trump’s victory, Israel’s hardliners have begun to take steps to increase settlements and legalise the status of “illegal outposts”. So even if the president-elect has had a change of heart and wants to return to his more “neutral” position, political forces in the US and Israel will not make the effort an easy one.

The bottom line is that it is not at all certain what Mr Trump wants to do about these critical issues or what he can do.

What is of immediate concern on the domestic front are some of the appointments the president-elect has made and the policy direction they suggest. With Gen Michael Flynn as national security adviser, Steve Bannon as White House senior adviser, and Jeff Sessions as attorney general, we have reason to fear for the effect they will have on civil liberties in the US.

The president-elect has walked back his “ban on Muslim immigrants”. But with Mr Bannon seeing the US as leading the Judeo-Christian struggle against the East, Gen Flynn saying that “Islam is a political ideology masked behind a religion, using religion as an advantage against us”, and Mr Sessions demonstrating his contempt for civil rights and for Muslims during his tenure in the Senate, I am concerned.

Dr James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa