Even populist politicians need to build bridges
Published by The i paper (20th February, 2017)
Donald Trump can be accused of many things, but certainly not lack of ambition. The 45th president of the United States has been in office only a month, is still struggling to put together his top team, remains dogged by rumours of links to Russia and has barely begun the gruelling slog of government. But on Saturday he was back on the campaign trail in Florida, launching his bid for re-election before thousands of chanting, flag-waving fans.
Perhaps he craved the adulation after that crazed press conference and ceaseless feuding with the media. Maybe he is simply more of a politician than he admits. Yet one of the many strange things about this very strange man who has seized the White House is his determination to carry on campaigning rather than knuckle down to his new job. Witness his continued attacks on Hillary Clinton. ‘You won. Get over it,’ as one television pundit put it.
Beneath the froth lies hard politics It is easy to focus on his ranting, his raving and his ridiculous antics, especially here in Washington where I write this article. Yet behind his daily froth that dominates the headlines lies hard politics. Trump won the presidency against all odds because enough voters wanted change and worried about the economy. One exit poll showed this was three times more important than terrorism, their next most pressing concern. Now Trump must confront harsh truths as his ratings slide.
During that bizarre press conference last week, the bristling president boasted of his popularity based on a poll that put approval at 55 per cent ‘and going up’. He ignored ten more showing plunging ratings to much lower levels after the shortest honeymoon in recent political history. He was the first president to take office without majority approval, while his predecessor was 25 points higher in polls at the same point in his presidency.
This presents a problem for Republicans. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell sees two sides of Trump: one firing off furious Tweets and revelling in controversy, the other spearheading a staunch conservative agenda in tandem with a Congress that fell fully under their control in his slipstream. So despite their distaste they have made a Faustian pact with the demonic president: that behind the firestorms he delivers their most fervent desires, from tax cuts and slashing red tape through to taking over the Supreme Court.
Despite the botched immigration ban Trump has made significant steps with his barrage of executive orders, from abandoning a Pacific trade deal to easing banking rules. Yet his populist policies fail to add up. How can he thwart globalisation when supply chains stretch across continents and General Motors sells more cars in China than the United States? And how can he slash taxes, pour billions into infrastructure, bump up military spending and build a border wall without sending debt spiralling, which would infuriate fiscal conservatives?
Assuming he finally gets a grip on his team and starts to focus on government, Trump must build Congressional alliances to pass major legislation. Yet this looks daily more difficult – even for this boastful businessman who takes such pride in his dealmaking – given his maverick behaviour and chaotic team. ‘Who’s in charge? Who’s making policy? Who’s making decisions?’ asked Senator John McCain last week.
Now consider Iowa, one of the states that swung hardest to Trump. It is the nation’s leading corn producer – and its senators are showing nerves over his antipathy to free trade following moves in Mexico to stop any purchase of US corn. This exposes how Trump’s impact already ripples around the globe. In Mexico, a nationalist resurgence in reaction to his hostility. In Germany, a sudden rise of the left that could eject mighty Angela Merkel.
Polls show a majority of Iowans disapprove of Trump’s performance. ‘He scares me every time he tweets,’ said Clarissa Gadient, 58, a jobless carer who doubts his readiness for the top job. Such non-aligned voters were the people who put Trump in power – and now they show worries. ‘They wanted change but not constant attacks on the media, which is damaging the presidency,’ said Steffen Schmidt, the prescient professor of political science at Iowa State University.
This is reflected in those national surveys. The latest Pew poll found approval for Trump at minus 17 per cent, a record low at this point since such records began. Yet support among Republicans remains very strong with 84 per cent job approval. The gender and education divide is also noticeable, with more enthusiasm among men and less educated voters. So even if his presidency crashes in flames, party moderates fear successors will appeal to similar electoral dynamics – thereby causing long-term party distress by alienating younger, smarter, female and ethnic minority Americans.
Trump is riding waves of real anger against elites in Wall Street and Washington among some sections of society. This is how he won and this is the audience he still focuses on, whether attacking journalists or holding boisterous campaign rallies. But to win power even populists must build coalitions. And once in government, they will be seen through similar prisms to other politicians – especially by all-important switch voters.
Trump defied all rules to reach the top, from his loathsome sexism through to his constant lies. But eventually even this disruptive politician must surely see it takes more than showboating, slogans and stunts to run the world’s most powerful nation. But will he realise this before causing more damage to his nation, his party and the rest of the planet? This is real life, Mr President, not reality television.