Commentary on the U.S. 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 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 than running for office. Campaigning is, at least on one important level, an individual sport. A candidate can go out and say whatever works for an adoring audience. Governing, on the other hand, requires a competent and compliant team effort and the ability to manage or 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 eleven million undocumented immigrants will be rounded up and deported, only the two to three million who have criminal records — something President Obama has already been doing. Similarly, after being briefed on the provisions of “Obamacare,” Trump now appears to have concluded that, instead of scraping the whole thing, there are some good aspects of the legislation that should be protected with improvements being made to make health care more affordable. It even appears that he is approaching the once reviled the “Iran Deal” a bit more cautiously, suggesting that instead of tearing it up, he may opt for more strenuous enforcement.
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 Trump appoints to sensitive administrative posts. While all we know about the President-elect’s views are his top-of-mind pronouncements designed to elicit cheers at campaign rallies, his early roster of key staff appointments can 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 program laid out by President 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 the president-elect has cryptically hinted that he seeks to cooperate with Russia in ending the conflict in Syria, his success depends on whether Congress will, in fact, work with him (some Republicans have already made it clear that they will not be supportive); whether or not Russia’s interests, in fact, align with those of the U.S. (it appears that in anticipation of a more compliant Trump, the Russians are taking advantage by becoming even more aggressive in Syria); whether Iran will allow Russia to control their agenda; and whether Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other regional partners will agree, as well.
The president-elect has had multiple 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 U.S. aid to Israel and said he would not commit to taking a side on the issue of Jerusalem. As the campaign wore on, and after his scripted appearance at the annual AIPAC (the Israel lobby) conference, his position hardened into a lop-sided pro-Israel stance. He opposed a “Palestinian terror state”, called for moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and more, recently, his advisers have stated that Trump “does not believe that settlements are an obstacle to peace”. Adding more confusion to this picture, just this week, in an interview, speaking of his interest in brokering a deal to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Trump said “I’d like to do it… for humanity’s sake.”
But having been emboldened by Trump’s victory, Israel’s hardliners have begun to take steps to increase settlements and legalize the status of “illegal outposts.” So even if the president-elect has had a change of heart and now wants to return to his more “neutral” posture, his own hardline staff and advisers and political forces in the U.S. and Israel will not make the effort an easy one.
The bottom line is that it is not at all certain what Trump wants to do about these critical issues or what he can do. About the only thing that’s clear to me is that this is a worrisome and unsettling state of affairs.
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 General Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor, Steve Bannon as White House Senior Advisor, and Senator Jeff Sessions, as Attorney General — we have every reason to fear for the impact they will have on civil liberties here in the U.S.
The president-elect has walked back his “ban on Muslim immigrants.” But with Bannon seeing the U.S. as leading the Judeo-Christian struggle against the East, Flynn saying that “Islam is a political ideology masked behind a religion, using religion as an advantage against us”, and Sessions, who has demonstrated his contempt for civil rights and his anti-Muslim animus during his tenure in the Senate — I am concerned that they will reinforce their boss’ worst instincts. We may be one terrorist attack away from an unprecedented wave of repression.
In the end, none of us really know what Donald Trump will do. What we do know is that he is uniquely unprepared for the job. That, coupled with his demonstrated impulsiveness and the frightening early choices he has made for key Administration posts, is enough to keep us worried about the fate of our nation.
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