Bill Emmott: Will the Trump years be a blip, or the start of a decline in US standing?
By Bill Emmott
Throughout Donald Trump's occupancy of the White House since January 2017 I have had in my mind comparisons with the previous billionaire, narcissistic populist that I studied; Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's prime minister from 2001 to 2006 and again from 2008 to 2011. The reason is that both their style and records in government have been quite similar. Not identical of course, but strikingly similar. This helps, I think, to interpret and understand the impact of America's last four years.
One reason to think about Berlusconi when assessing Trump is that both men have been consistently under-estimated by political pundits and opponents. This is because what they share is their mastery of communication through modern media, their basic support from their national business communities founded on the belief that they will impose lower taxes and friendlier regulations than the alternative government, and their total shamelessness in telling lies and changing their positions, even daily, to suit their situations and audiences.
Clearly, the international status and role of the United States is very different to that of Italy, so that the framework these two political leaders have worked in has been different. Yet their basic attitudes to governance have been very similar. Why? It's not just that they are both outsiders to politics, from a business background. The main reason is that with that outsider background they have been interested in only two things: the use of power to serve their interests while in office; and in getting re-elected.
This has shaped America's drift and decline, just as it previously shaped Italy's. Looking back at Trump's time in office, he has shown strikingly little interest in the actual processes of governing and of congressional politics. Whenever things have become complicated by legal obstacles or the difficult need to gain congressional support, he has backed off. This is why two major 2016 campaign promises have never been implemented: reforming and replacing the Affordable Care Act, the health laws known as Obamacare; and introducing a major programme of publicly funded infrastructure investment.
Trump has no real ideological principles about domestic American policy, so he hasn't even attempted to lead a transformative administration. Yet he knows how to wield power in his own political interests. When he or his cabinet have been able to act directly, through Executive Orders or under departmental powers, the Trump administration has moved quite decisively. He has appointed more new federal judges than President Obama did, as well as three Supreme Court justices, thanks in part to the fact that Obama's appointments were blocked by a Republican-controlled Senate, and this has shifted the judiciary in a conservative direction. Under him, business regulations have been rolled back, especially by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Along with cuts in taxes and increased federal borrowing, well before COVID-19, this has helped raise business profitability, which explains why big business supported him at least in his early years. But such measures made little difference to overall economic growth, with an annual average growth in real GDP of 2.5% in his first three years; a figure essentially identical to the record under President Obama. He did succeed in reducing immigration, which will please some supporters, although the famed "wall" he wanted built along the Mexican border is still not there.
In terms of direct domestic policy impact, the Trump administration of 2016-20 was unremarkable. His bigger effect has lain in what the great American statesman John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State under President Eisenhower in the 1950s, called "conduct and example." By his conduct, President Trump has pushed back against some of what were supposed to be legal constraints on the office of the presidency, such as bans on the use of the White House for political campaigning or his linking of foreign aid to Ukraine to request political favours, and he has been allowed to do so by the Republican-controlled Senate. Moreover, he has chosen to flout conventions that presidents should act and speak with decorum, choosing instead to tell lies quite brazenly, to insult his opponents and to offer tacit support to extremist groups.
This change in conduct has, however, been seen even more starkly in foreign policy. President Trump has not been the isolationist that some foreign-policy experts feared four years ago; in fact he has sought to build and use American power overseas in fairly conventional ways. But his differences from predecessors have lain in his very personal approach to foreign policy and his attitude to America's closest allies.
Rather like Silvio Berlusconi during his time in office in Italy, the businessman president has seen foreign policy as transactional rather than strategic. And like Berlusconi, he realises that dictators are easier to make transactions with than democratic governments. Thus, he has preferred speaking with Vladimir Putin of Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey or, most prominently, Kim Jong Un of North Korea, to dealing with Germany's Angela Merkel or France's Emmanuel Macron. And his priority has been trade policy, through the use of tariffs and trade sanctions, rather than either diplomacy or military action.
The difficult question to answer is what lasting effect these past four years will have on America's role in the world. Certainly, by revealing an America that looks more unstable and unpredictable than in the past, the period has harmed the country's credibility. Trump's failure to extract any concessions from North Korea despite multiple meetings and lavish mutual flattery similarly dents US credibility. But that harm could prove temporary. So, too, might be the harm done to relationships with NATO in Europe or South Korea in East Asia: the effect of insults and transactional bargaining over military costs may fade with time.
More important, in the end, will be the question of whether the United States re-emerges after this period stronger and more united, or whether it proves to have lost what was previously its greatest asset: its ability to reset, rethink and reorganise itself after setbacks. If it recovers, then American leadership and credibility will revive, even if in a changed global environment. If not, then the decline of America's world role will have been confirmed.
(Bill Emmott is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs)