The concerns and conflict that are already central to the Trump presidency will be key to understanding Trump as future history
The Trump presidency is still in its first year. It has barely begun, but already the possibility that we are entering one of history’s defining moments looks increasingly likely. Trump is future history, and yet we still know relatively little.
To a future historian, armed with retrospection, President Trump will not be an evocative blank. He may be a source of incomprehension perhaps, in the sense of ‘what were people thinking’, but not a blank. In the spirit of future history, what do we know now, six months into his presidency? Trump was elected on a platform of making America ‘great again’. Taken at his word, he wants America to stand up, but it is still not clear what he stands for. His election may well have underlying causes and a recognizable context, but there remains a suspicion that he did not really want the job (rather than the status and aggrandisement entailed in running for the job) and few knew what they were actually voting for (rather than against) when they voted for him. The accidental president may well turn out to stand for nothing in particular, and yet as president he may well be positioned to privilege his immediate family, business connections and any grouping who can capture his attention. This may be part of his enduring legacy.
To understand Trump as future history we need to consider what we know about how malformed the governance of the most powerful nation on earth currently is. Six broad areas of concern and conflict can be identified:
- At all levels for which the president is responsible government staffing is still incomplete (hundreds of senior posts are unfilled); lines of communication for briefing, information sharing, instructions and feedback with key federal agencies and with Congress are not clear. The president seems fixated on Fox News and unable to project a consistent position via Twitter or through Sean Spicer’s increasingly precarious role as White House press secretary. Trump has already retreated frequently to the golf course.
- Conflict persists between groupings of staff around the president: notably between a business and Wall Street-friendly faction around his son-in-law Jared Kushner and a more radical economic nationalist Breitbart-originated (though also Wall Street-connected) group around Steve Bannon. Influence is also apparently exerted via Ivanka Trump, his daughter who is credited along stereotypically gendered lines as softening the White House stance, providing a ‘caring voice’ (though this seems self-serving as narrative). Chief of Staff Reince Priebus is widely considered to be failing as an effective intermediary with Congress (and awaits replacement if one can be found), and Trump’s relationship with Paul Ryan as Speaker of the House is fractious at best.
- US international relations, political and economic, remain in flux, and multiple points of potential conflict have emerged. ‘Isolationism’ seems to have given way to, by turns, token military intervention, threat and confrontation and simple neglect. Although National Security Advisor, General McMaster, and Secretary of Defence, General Mattis, were both appointed on the basis of some autonomy, it is not clear to what degree this has operated or what the US strategy of engagement is, including diplomatic or otherwise via Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in terms of key flashpoints (Syria and Russia, North Korea and China, the ‘war on terror’ etc). The rhetoric of clash of civilizations is not a policy format, merely a fear inducing paranoia. Relations with traditional allies are dissolute and seem subject to a thin veneer of forced politeness beneath which lurks mutual contempt.
- Despite Republican majorities in Congress, Trump’s first federal budget remains mired in controversy, federal spending continues under extraordinary measures in relation to the debt ceiling and a basic tension is yet to be reconciled regarding long term fiscal planning, notably in terms of significant increases in military expenditure, and radical and pervasive cuts to federal agencies, social spending (including health care), automatic stabilisers and investment of all kinds (despite a converse policy of mainly privately funded infrastructure transformations).
- Again, despite Republican majorities in Congress, key legislation remains embryonic and is not yet properly developed in key policy areas previously set out by Trump (e.g. healthcare, tax simplification and reduction). Much of it reads as back-of-an-envelope hasty sketches and attempts to pass initial bills have involved bypassing usual conventions of oversight. Many of the president’s executive orders and memoranda are being opposed in court, and the more controversial have required alterations and remain partial. Withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership has left an institutional vacuum, and the future status of NAFTA remains undecided. Trump’s domestic fossil fuel energy policy and withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement (COP21) has placed the already problematic attainment of global emissions reduction in doubt.
- The White House is suffering from a slowburn cumulative aggregation of scandal: Trump faces the spectre of impeachment, the press openly discuss whether the president is fit for office or of sound mind, investigation of Russia’s role in the presidential election continues to broaden and Trump’s response to the issue and to criticism simply serve to underline the concerns (from the Comey affair to his bizarre CNN wrestling video).
Any two of this list would signal problems in a ‘normal’ presidency. However, there is nothing normal about the Trump presidency even if its ultimate consequences may (though may not) be an angrier version of business-as-usual from the point of view of the 99%. Confusion, delay, contradiction and underachievement are dismissed by the White House as ‘fake news’ and a relentless message of great activity and greatness is broadcast. The dissonance this evokes speaks to the world of hard-headed authoritarian dictators of one-party states. Fortunately, checks and balances apply to Trump.
However, recall that in campaigning Trump perpetually resisted being pinned down on detail whilst simultaneously he and others on his behalf claimed that he had the answers to all questions. Healthcare would be simpler, cheaper and better; a secret plan to eradicate hostile Islamic fundamentalism was in-hand; a raft of well-crafted policies were just waiting for the president’s signature and would immediately liberate American capital to leap into life; jobs would come flooding back to the US; Trump, the electorate was assured, had the measure of opponents in all fields and all places -China, Mexico, Russia, Europe on the finance of NATO etc. However, as it turns out, the devil is in the detail, and non-statement, seemingly, was not strategic, it was ignorance, over-confidence or simple artifice for electioneering. Trump may have known how to succeed in business (even through failure and bankruptcy), but he has not yet demonstrated he knows how to govern. This is deeply concerning, since the presidency is not a job one wants the incumbent to learn on the hoof.
As Orson Scott Card once said, the essence of training is to allow error without consequence. Trump’s on-the-job training is proving deeply concerning. In a reversal of the TV show that helped make his name he is now in the position of apprentice, but seemingly with no master other than his own ego. This too is disturbing, since it raises questions of whether he is in fact learning, or indeed has a concept of what a fact is. An egotist creates his own autochthonous singularity, which reverses ordinary causation in the name of a spurious control that operates as a self-defence mechanism. One hears but rarely listens, one lashes out rather than learns (what do others think of me? I’ll let you know when I’ve decided what they should).
Trump is likely to be fertile ground for future historians. In the meantime, analyses have begun to appear that will form part of the archive that history will draw on. For example, Real World Economics Review (which Edward Fullbrook and I edit) recently published Trumponomics: Causes and Consequences, a set of essays that ranges across the political, environmental and social significance of the early Trump presidency. With future history in mind, this collection is a good place to start in looking for intelligent answers. Future history relies on analysis of the present and now is the time to start analysing the Trump presidency.