J Boima Rogers – January 2017
Donald Trump in the White House, the most powerful position in the world is an alarming prospect. His proposals and actions since his election are unprecedented and frightening. Never before have we seen a president-elect trying to assume power even before taking the oath of office and doing so in a manner that is totally unfit for the job. He has already failed his key supporters, White working class voters and his party. This is to be expected from the most unqualified president-elect who has appointed an equally unqualified cabinet. His election poses serious challenges but stakeholders must not give up hope though, the struggle must continue.
Trump’s cabinet appointments indicate that he has repudiated his key campaign slogan and core support base. Rather than draining the swamp, he has filled it with alligators, billionaires and millionaires, the very people who symbolise the huge income divide in the country and were largely to blame for shifting jobs abroad as owners, major shareholders and financiers of companies that moved abroad. He has appointed executives from the financial services sector, who were responsible for the great recession to key positions in his cabinet. He has, along with the Republicans in congress made the dismantling of Obamacare the top priority. This policy is likely to adversely affect his core support base much harder than his millionaire cronies. Trump, a rogue Republican, has turned his party’s long term and recent policies upside down. The party noted for its hawkish stand has a standard bearer who has embraced the US’s major adversary, Russia, which attacked the country by manipulating the US’s democratic process. The most recent reports are that Trump may be beholden to the Russians because they have material that they could use to blackmail him. The Republican party which has always advocated free trade and the primacy of market forces now has a leader who is taking a strongly protectionist stand. The party of small government, which in the last eight years has fought tooth and nail against the budget deficit, to the extent of closing the federal government has a president that will increase the deficit very significantly.
President elect Trump is the most unqualified candidate to be elected to this powerful position. He has no political experience and his primary claim of competence, his business acumen is seriously flawed. He did not build his business “empire” from scratch; rather he inherited it from his father. The fact that he was been declared bankrupt four times means he has a very chequered track record. Since he has not paid federal tax for the last twenty years, while no doubt making use of the government’s infrastructure and services, he is a billionaire on welfare. Finally it must be noted that having a business background is not necessarily a qualification for his new role as I demonstrated in a previous paper looking at the record of US administrations. It should be noted that Silvio Berlusconi the former Italian prime minister, with a far more impressive business background than Trump, and similar in many respects to the president elect, left that country as the most uncompetitive among the major economies in the European Union. Trump is seen by a majority of Americans (71% in a recent survey) as a strong leader but he is actually only a bully, picking on people who lack his power. He is thin skinned, impulsive and lacks the strategic focus required for this position. In a brilliant paper by Dr Michael F Oppenheimer, Clinical Professor of Global Affairs at NYU, he noted that “whatever attitudes he expresses about policy are skin deep, an incoherent, impulsive-driven miscellany of ethno-nationalism, isolationism, an infatuation with authoritarian rulers who he views as partners.” Dr Oppenheimer contrasts this with Obama’s “informed pragmatism and instinctive caution”, attributes that that are required for this powerful position.
Trump’s cabinet, made up of political inexperienced, ideologues and incompetent managers poses serious challenges. Nobel Laureate Economist. Joseph Stiglitz has noted that “America’s bog of legal corruption is likely to reach a depth not seen since President Warren G Harding’s administration in the 1920s”. Four key positions are of particular importance should alarm the US and the rest of the world. His Treasure Secretary, former Goldman Sachs Executive, Seven Mnuchin does not have the skills necessary for the role – Stiglitz notes that his key skill is tax avoidance, not constructing a well-designed tax system – and given his background his emphasis is likely to be removal of the controls imposed on the financial sector, the lack of which caused the recent great recession. His economic plan, cutting taxes, overhauling regulations, encouraging energy production and pursuing an America-first trade policy, is unlikely to generate the 3.5- 4 percent growth rate, described in a recent paper by Isabel V Sawhill of Economic Studies and Eleanor Krause as “fanciful”, citing a series of forecasts by reputable organisations including the Congressional Budget Office . To achieve Trump’s growth rate, the authors noted that US productivity would need to be trebled. To address the rigidity in socio-economic mobility, a key driver of Trump’s populism, namely, stagnant income levels of middle class voters over the last three decades, the economy should grow by 6% a year. The authors cited the study by Raj Chetty and colleagues who state that equally distributed growth would be more effective in improving the average person’s life chances than a simple increase in GDP growth.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a climate change sceptic who has spent a career fighting EPA regulations. He is likely to make as his priority striking down Obama’s environmental legislation and taking the US out of the recent Climate agreement. His Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, a diplomatic and foreign policy novice, who opposed sanctions against Russia and was awarded a medal by Putin, is likely to seek close relationship with that brutal and authoritarian regime. The most frightening prospect for the world is Trump’s choice of National Security Adviser (NSA), Michael Flynn, who according to Dr Oppenheimer shares Trump’s thin skin and inventiveness with facts. Dr Oppenheimer noted that Flynn’s “preoccupation with Islamic extremism, his intolerance of dissent, and his managerial ineptitude makes him uniquely unsuited to head the NSA”. Since we know that Trump does not bother himself with reading intelligence briefings and has started off with an acrimonious relationship with the intelligence community, Flynn is likely to have unprecedented influence on the president elect. Dr Oppenheimer believes this appointment is a recipe for policy errors by an administration that will confront complex challenges and inevitable shocks. It should also be noted that Trump and his NSA appointee’s views are at variance with the incoming Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff who stated in a senate hearing that “Russia presents the greatest threat” to US national security.
The US and the world are in for some turbulence and the signs so far are pretty gloomy. Obama rescued his country from the great recession, with the US performing better than other developed economies in terms of the speed in getting out of the recession, economic growth rate and job creation. He implemented a health care system that all developed countries take for granted. He rebuilt relationships with allies that had been seriously frayed under Bush, negotiated a historic agreement with Iran and mended relationship with Cuba. Working with other world leaders, he negotiated an agreement that most scientists say is crucial to address climate change. He worked with allies to impose sanctions on Russia for that country’s invasion of Ukraine.
Trump, in his statements and appointments will unravel many of these achievements and introduce major risks. His economic plans and cabinet choice will not achieve his stated economic growth rate and there are serious risks involved in his protectionist agenda. EU leaders are worried by the fact that he has lauded Brexit, suggested that more countries should follow Britain and met with fringe and extremist politicians like Nigel Farage and Marie Le Pen who oppose the EU project. NATO members are worried about his embrace of Putin who he regards as “smart”. In a recent interview he stated that NATO was “obsolete”. His obsession and that of his NSA Adviser with Islamic extremists, support for the Russia’s actions in Syria and his Ambassador to Israel are likely to embolden Islamist extremists and help them in their recruitment. IS must be very happy with these developments, because he has appointed an Israeli Ambassador who provided financial support to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Trump’s statement that he will move the US Embassy to Jerusalem. Breaking with US tradition and policy of the last fifty years he spoke to Taiwan’s leader soon after his victory and has questioned the one China policy. He is likely to anger Latin America with his position on Mexico and opposition to the US-Cuba rapprochement.
Trump’s election poses serious challenges to his party, the Democratic Party, the media, civil society and the US. The Republican Party needs to reassess its position in terms of its ideology and how it chooses its leader. In particular, how a candidate with views that contradict its core values can end up becoming its standard bearer. Democrats need to reassess how they can lose a natural base, White working class voters, to a candidate that has failed them even before taking office. They need to take a hard line, like the Republicans did when Obama was elected, use guerrilla strategies and tactics to obstruct every move by this administration. One symbolic move could be to stand up and say “you lie” as the Republican Congressman did to Obama, in this case there will be much justification. They must seek electoral reform so that the Electoral College votes are in line with the population. The media was complicit in Trump’s victory. Trump the serial liar was able to set the agenda, not with serious policy statements, rather by tweeting and using his showman skills. The media should highlight lies, focus on real policy issues and ignore gimmicks. Opponents of Trump should continue to dig and I am sure that they will find grounds for his impeachment.
The US must review its policy on interference by foreign actors in its elections. Seventeen of the US intelligence agencies have concluded that the Russians took actions to assist Trump and he invited them to do so. The US electoral system for candidate Trump was flawed because the winner lost by a very significant margin, assisted by a hostile country.
In considering Trump’s administration we should remember the last Republican President, George W Bush, who gave us the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and the great recession. The Iraqi war gave birth to IS. Trump is far more toxic and he has a buddy, who helped him get the job, Putin.
J Boima Rogers is Principal Consultant at Media and Event Management Oxford (MEMO), www.oxfordmemo.co.uk