That’s My View

Peter Blaikie

Peter Blaikie

Napoleon is said to have remarked, “In politics, absurdity is not a handicap”. So it seems with Donald Trump.

In Hamlet, Polonius, the chief counselor (and sycophant) to the king, says of Prince Hamlet, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t”. With respect to Donald Trump one might say, “There is madness to his method”.

Finally, H.L. Mencken, the celebrated investigative journalist of the Baltimore Sun, made the following sublime observation on July 26, 1920, “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of this land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” Has that great and glorious day arrived?

Donald Trump came to the presidency as a disrupter, a destroyer of norms. There have been remarkably few real surprises since his election.

It was well known that he was crude and vulgar; that he had a very distant relationship with the truth; that he was prepared to distribute his humourless insults indiscriminately; that his own skin was transparently thin; that his business successes were, in large part, fictional; that his concept of loyalty flowed in only one direction; that, as a negotiator, he was a blustering bully; and that, if he knew any history, his hero would be Louis XIV, the Sun King, around whom everything revolved.

It must be clear to any objective observer that, far from Making America Great Again, the country has been weakened and damaged in many respects, some obvious, others less so. The damage can be seen in tone, in politics and in government, and it is difficult to determine how long-lasting it will be.

A new president, whether in 2020 or 2024, can repair the damage in tone, although even that will be not be easy. Donald Trump did not create the great divide which exists in America today. He has cunningly exploited it to become president and has continued, on a daily basis, to exacerbate the divisions which exist. To begin to heal the rifts will require the vision of a John F. Kennedy and the optimism of a Ronald Reagan. Except in rare cases of national security, where sometimes the truth, as Winston Churchill famously said, “must be protected by a bodyguard of lies”, the next president must stop lying to the American people; must stop resorting to personal insults to characterize and dismiss political opponents with whom he or she may be in disagreement; must stop treating the media as the “enemy of the people”; and must truly act as the president of all Americans, seeking to persuade, not demonize, those with different views.

Among the norms which President Trump refuses to accept, several relate to politics in the international sphere. He has made it clear that he is not a globalist and that he is an American nationalist. That is a defensible position, though not widely shared as a realistic one. What is less defensible, and what most certainly will create difficulties for America in the future, is his behaviour towards the leaders of other countries, his rejection of international treaties and other agreements, and his belligerent treatment of allies.

Almost without exception, he has spoken in positive terms about the leaders of America’s most significant adversaries. While it is perfectly reasonable to attempt to establish and maintain good personal relations with major international figures, Donald Trump’s exaggerated regard for autocratic leaders of America’s adversaries is highly unusual and problematic. Accepting the word of Vladimir Putin about alleged Russian interference in the 2016 elections, or the denials of Mohammed bin Salman as to his involvement in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, against overwhelming evidence, does not advance the credibility of the United States. His “bromance” with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is embarrassing. Equally disconcerting to most supporters of democracy is his flattery of Xi Jinping, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Rodrigo Duterte, all of whom are notorious autocrats.

By contrast, the President has not minced words in his criticism of the leaders of America’s allies, including our own Prime Minister, Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Emmanuel Macron and others. Indeed, he has done so in the most insulting, demeaning terms.

At an institutional level, Trump has been highly critical of the United Nations, NATO, the UN Human Rights Council, the International Criminal Court, OPEC, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and others. These institutions are not beyond criticism. At least with respect to the funding of NATO by most of its members, the President has made valid arguments, with some success. Since the United States brandishes what The Economist has labeled America’s “Weapons of mass disruption”, including “tariffs, tech blacklists, financial isolation and sanctions”, it is not surprising that the responses to most of the President’s threats are muted. The increasingly worrisome question is to what extent the threats create deep-seated resentment, which will linger into the future.

While arguments may be made in support of President Trump’s decisions to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia and the Iran Nuclear Deal, questions arise both as to whether these decisions are actually in the interests of the United States and as to their short and long term effect on its credibility. As regards the Trans-Pacific Partnership, America’s “empty chair” has simply further opened up the region to Chinese expansionism. Can it not reasonably be suggested that the increasing tensions involving Iran in the Middle East flow directly from America’s reneging on the Iran Nuclear Deal, one which Iran was respecting?

It is impossible to discern a broad strategic thrust directing Trump’s foreign policy. One commentator described it, accurately in my view, as “bluster, bully and forget”. North Korea was first threatened with “fire and fury”. On his latest trip to Japan, the President said he was not worried about North Korea’s testing of short range missiles, although there has been no movement towards denuclearization. A few months ago, the administration threatened regime change in Venezuela. Nicolas Maduro is still President and the Venezuelan opposition appears to be quiescent. Threatening Mexico with proposed tariffs brought its government to the table, although not, it is to be noted, on trade matters, but on immigration. Although Trump has claimed yet another victory, it appears that the agreement is largely cosmetic, making reference to matters Mexico had accepted months ago, and some of which may be illusory. There is no evidence that Trump’s bluster and bullying have brought Iran’s regime to its knees, rather than heighten the risks of violent confrontation. Although there is broad agreement that the President is justified in challenging China’s trade practices, it is not clear that the weaponizing of tariffs, the mechanics and consequences of which Trump appears not to understand, is to America’s short or long-term benefit.

It is certainly too early to tell whether, in any of the foreign policy arenas, Trump’s approach will make the world a better place and the United States safer and more prosperous. Perhaps. On the other hand, his approach may well prove to be, as Macbeth declares, “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

The President’s disruption is equally evident in domestic politics and government. There are virtually no domestic institutions with which Trump is not at odds, if not at war.

To this day, Trump refuses to accept the fact of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, dismissing the unanimous view of the country’s 17 intelligence agencies and more recently the unequivocal conclusions reached by the Mueller Report. Even his strongest supporters acknowledge that fact, a fact that has exposed a serious threat to the most fundamental of democratic institutions, the electoral process.

After triumphantly and falsely claiming that the Mueller Report fully exonerated him regarding any possible connections with Russian electoral interference, Trump indicated in a recent interview with ABC News that he would have no real difficulty accepting electoral help from a foreign adversary of the United States, even though that is clearly illegal. He later declared that his chosen head of the FBI, Christopher Wray, was “wrong” when Wray made it clear that Trump’s position on the legitimacy of accepting foreign “information” was incorrect. Only after withering criticism from some of his staunchest political allies, did he later try to nuance his position.

The Trump administration’s systematic refusal to accept any oversight by Congress is a direct challenge to the Constitution. In recent decades, in the face of a submissive legislative branch, presidential authority has continued to expand. This president refuses to cooperate with the House of Representatives’ oversight authority, challenges every request for documents, orders witnesses not to appear before committees of the House, and exercises executive privilege even where that is clearly not applicable. All these matters will ultimately be resolved by the courts, quite possibly in Trump’s favour.

Although politics and government are inseparable, they are in some ways distinct. Politics is the visible part of the iceberg, whereas government largely functions below the surface. In Canada, when a new party takes power, there are relatively few immediate changes in the senior ranks of the civil service. By contrast, in the United States each new administration makes some 2,000 senior governmental appointments. Obviously, if a new president is from a different party, those appointments are extremely important.

Many scholars have written that a bungled transition from one presidential administration to the next will lead to a bungled presidency. In practically every respect, the transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump was bungled by the latter. The Obama team spent months preparing detailed briefing books describing the operations of every federal department and agency. Trump deeply resented having to prepare for his presidency; as a “very stable genius” he had nothing to learn! Shortly after his election, he fired his entire transition team. In one agency after another it was like waiting for Godot; nobody from the Trump team showed up. To some extent, the bungled transition explains the chaos described in books about the early months of the Trump presidency.

The rate of turnover among senior administration officials is well above anything in modern history. Some 200 positions requiring Senate confirmation remain unfilled. There are some fifty countries awaiting the appointment of an ambassador from the United States. There has been no Ambassador to the United Nations for several months. Because he likes the “flexibility” of the situation, Trump has also named several people to very senior positions in an “acting” capacity, thereby avoiding the need for Senate confirmation. These include the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Homeland Security and even his Chief of Staff.

Trump claimed that he would “Drain the Swamp” in Washington, DC. All but the most rabid Trumpians describe the current administration as the most corrupt in modern history. The President, exempted from the rules of conflict of interest, seeks to monetize his presidency; nepotism is rampant; and several Cabinet members have been forced to resign for financial and ethical breaches.

“Trump has made battles with Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell (his own appointee) public, calling the FED “very destructive” and claiming “they are not my people…”

In a globalized world, central banks have become increasingly important. In order to fulfill their mandates, they should operate independently of political pressure. Historical battles between presidents and chairmen of the Federal Reserve have generally been private. Trump has made his battles with Jay Powell, his own appointee, public, calling the Federal Reserve “very destructive” and claiming “they are not my people”, by which he means not loyal to him personally. Donald Trump would like to have the Federal Reserve simply follow his instructions, claiming that, if it did, “the stock market would be 7,000 to 10,000 points higher”. He looks longingly at Xi Jinping saying, as regards the Central Bank of China, “He can do whatever he wants”.

Although Trump was long pro-choice on the subject of abortions and has condemned the most extreme anti-abortion legislation passed by several states, he would accept limiting abortion rights to cases of rape, incest and the life of the mother.

The Constitution requires the census to count every person living in the United States. However, the Trump administration wants to add a citizenship question. The issue was recently argued before the Supreme Court. Opponents believe that, in the present inflamed debate on immigration, many will fear to respond to the census, leading to an undercount that could be as high as 6 million. As population figures and geographical distribution determine how many seats each state has in the House of Representatives, and how federal funds are allocated, many see this as a blatant attempt to enable gerrymandering and voter suppression.

As head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Trump appointed Andrew Wheeler, for years a coal industry lobbyist. This is part of the administration’s attack on science, especially climate science. Published research is to be labeled “preliminary”; there is to be no admission that climate change exists; “worst case” scenarios are to be eliminated from climate assessments; regulations on power plant emissions are to be weakened, as are rules on vehicle emissions.

As they say, enough already!  With the presidential campaign in full swing one has a choice – opt out completely or enjoy a wild ride.

Peter Blaikie is a successful attorney, business executive, opinion leader and world traveller. He has been active in politics, serving as a past president of the Federal Conservative Party. (Then the Progressive Conservative Party)