Trump is a punch in the face for politics as usual

Like him or not, Donald Trump will be a shock to the political system, writes Alan Philps

The world is entering the unknown under Donald Trump.  Kevin Dietsch / Bloomberg
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Only one thing is certain about the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, and that is the world is entering the unknown.

For Mr Trump’s supporters, his move into the White House will be a punch in the face for politics as usual, which has become stale and out of touch with the concerns of ordinary folk. For those not convinced of Mr Trump’s fitness for office, the consequences could be catastrophic – war with China, the end of the rules-based global system which Washington has presided over since 1945, or perhaps a huge (to borrow one of Mr Trump’s favourite words) vacuum in the Oval Office at a time of global turbulence.

When Mr Trump was elected in November, there were hopes that he would transform himself into a more presidential figure. That has not happened. He has not given up his intemperate tweeting, a practice which he sees as his way round the “lying press”. He still sees validation in the crowds that attended his campaign rallies. When challenged, he likes to recall the chants of his supporters on the stump.

He was elected as an anti-politician, and he intends to continue. Challenged about his lack of clear policies, he says it is a weakness of politicians to reveal their hand. He intends, it appears, to continue as a property developer, a lone wolf who kicks up clouds of dust to keep his rivals guessing.

Most troubling is that statistics mean to him what he wants them to mean. He has grossly distorted the reality of the US jobs market, saying 96 million Americans are looking for work. The actual unemployment figure is 5.4 million, a historically low number which is testament to the success of Barack Obama’s economic policies. But he needs to characterise Mr Obama as a failure.

For a reality TV star, this is perhaps not surprising. And of course the Trump method has worked. He defied all the experts by winning the election. Why should he change tactics?

One reason is that his approval ratings are shockingly low for a president at inauguration time – 41 per cent of Americans approve of his performance and 52 per cent disapprove. As the pollster Nate Silver points out, even George W Bush, who won the 2000 election after a recount and despite losing the popular vote, had a two-thirds approval rating at this stage. Mr Trump says the surveys are “rigged”.

In the foreign policy sphere, the most pressing concern is that the Trump method is transactional – all problems can be reduced in his mind to a “deal”. But business negotiation is different from geopolitics. In business, deals usually come down to money. If the deal goes wrong, Mr Trump can declare bankruptcy – he has done this six times – and escape his creditors and start afresh.

Henry Kissinger, at 93 the doyen of American diplomatic thinkers, points out how this thinking will put the US at a disadvantage in relations with Russia: Mr Trump will be looking for a quick deal, while Vladimir Putin will be thinking strategically to advance his country’s position in the world for the long term.

Mr Trump is not alone. His choices for the major posts in his administration are mainly big men, often hugely wealthy, who have succeeded in careers outside government. They are used to getting their way and saying what they think – and presumably would do so to Mr Trump – but they lack experience of the painful processes of Washington.

Both Rex Tillerson, the boss of the oil company Exxon Mobil who is to be secretary of state, and James Mattis, the retired US Marine general who is to be defence secretary, have publicly gone against Mr Trump’s casual dismissal of American’s network of alliances.

There are already signs that some of Mr Trump’s most provocative ideas are subject to serious scrutiny. His promise to make Mexico pay for the wall he plans to build along the border is not going to result in a cheque. More likely is that Mr Trump plans to impose tariffs on imports from Mexico, or change the tax system so as to penalise those US companies that outsource production to low-cost factories in Mexico. Whether this is feasible is another question.

In his interview with British and German newspapers, he declined to repeat his promise to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He also refused to say whether he would scrap the Iran nuclear deal. But his criticism of the agreement – that the Obama administration had sent Iran $1.7 billion (Dh 6.2bn) in cash – was more focused on the amount of money than any calculus of the risks and rewards of continuing with the nuclear arrangement. “Did you ever see a million dollars in hundred dollar bills?” he asked his interviewers. “It’s a lot. $1.7 billion in cash – that’s plane loads, many planes. Boom.”

Most alarmingly, he insisted that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was the man to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. “Jared is such a good kid and he’ll make a deal with Israel that no one else can – he’s a natural.” The only obstacle, in the Trump world, was that the Palestinians had been “given so much”. What the Palestinians had been given, he did not say, and his polite interviewers did not ask.

So the president-elect is unchanged – everything is a deal and the presidency is a family business with the son-in-law as consigliere. Will there be clashes with the wiser heads he has appointed? Almost certainly.

The last word goes to Dr Kissinger. He believes that there is so much anxiety in the world at America’s apparent retreat from power politics under Mr Obama that allies will be rushing to re-engage with the new administration in the hope of finding a partner that is easier to work with. And if the name of Mr Trump’s game is deal-making, then they are willing to play that game, at least at the beginning.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter: @aphilps