Trump’s governing style and the risks to America’s interests

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“He can elevate them and destroy them without danger.” What description could better fit US President Donald Trump’s behavior? In barely 14 months, he hired National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, only to fire him three weeks later. He picked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, only to keep him blind about major foreign policy decisions before finally put an end to his misery by mid-March. He fired FBI Director James Comey first, and then Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. He hired Reince Priebus as Chief of Staff (arguably the most important position in the modern American cabinet), only to let him go a few months later. In the last month he also lost Deputy Chief of Staff Rick Dearborn, his Communications Director, and trusted adviser, Hope Hicks, not to mention the Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn, and various mid-level figures. The daily news cycle is dominated by rumors about the next victim: Will it be National Security Advisor H. R. McMasters or Chief of Staff John Kelly? "Thursday, the answer arrived: McMasters was fired, and the new National Security Advisor should be John Bolton."

The quote I used at the beginning doesn’t come from The New York Times or The Washington Post – both fiercely critical of this presidency –, but from the work of Turkish historian Halil Inalcik. In The Ottoman Empire 1300-1600 he chronicles life in the sultans’ palace, striking similarities to today’s White House. Inalcik writes, "The sultan, by delegating authority only to those who owed him unquestioning allegiance, assured his own absolute rule.” In Washington, it is a political truism that Trump values personal loyalty above anything else. That’s why he has put people close to him in key positions, including relatives (daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner), his personal assistant John McEntee, his twenty-something spokesperson Hope Hicks, and even minor TV personalities like Omarosa Manigault.

In Istanbul, meanwhile, "The degree of proximity to the sovereign determined the importance of lands and persons. (…) His Palace was the source of all power, favor and felicity. Government was conducted at his gate and its officials were his slaves.” Selîm I was blunt in telling his staff that “no one had the right or competence to question what the sultan commands or forbids,” an iron law that many Trump White House officials didn’t learn until it was too late.

However, what is relevant here is not Trump’s authoritarian streak but its consequences for US governance. As historian Archie Brown pointed out, “When corners are cut because one leader is sure he knows best, problems follow, and they can be on a disastrous scale." (The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age). Indeed, the weird behavior of a leader who one day boasts the dimensions of his “nuclear button,” and the next offers to meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un seems to be a perfect example of the problems that surface when political and bureaucratic processes are cut short.

Even more concerning for other world governments is Trump’s decision to slap tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, a move that could trigger retaliations from trade partners and possibly start a commercial war with dire consequences for the world economy. Also in this case, the decision was the President’s, and he tweeted that “Commercial wars are easy to win!”

Like a sultan, Donald Trump wants to be seen “as the highest representative of justice and as a symbol of mercy who could remove all injustices” – as Halil Inalcik defines it. Unfortunately, as Brown explains, “The idea that the more power one individual leader wields, the more we should be impressed by that leader is an illusion.” And the British historian add that “The extent to which both the ‘political class’ and broader public opinion in many countries accept the idea of the elevation of one leader far above others within a democratic government is puzzling.”

The point made by Brown, is that one-person governments are, by definition, weak and inefficient because they squander the resources of careful analysis and long-term planning available to complex organizations. Wide consultation and the ability to listen to different points of view are not a guarantee of good decision-making, but the opposite is certain to produce flawed, often disastrous, decisions. Trump’s moves are, more often than not, gestures toward his political base, regardless of the wisdom of his orders - as was apparent in the case of the steel tariffs, announced one week before a ferociously contested by-election in Pennsylvania, where the Republican candidate lost anyway.

A more important aspect of the Trump administration’s frantic turnover has not been caught by the daily headlines: The empty seats in many key positions, and the demoralization of the surviving staff, prevent the forming of a coherent foreign policy, not to mention a domestic policy different from rewarding wealthy donors with tax cuts. In Syria, the US does not have clear goals and it has not shown consistent purposes in Afghanistan, Iraq or Yemen - despite Trump’s cabinet being the most military-oriented in history. So far, the only guidelines seem to be reversing the choices of the Obama administration, as in the case of the Iranian nuclear deal, a permanent target of Trump’s ire.

What about Congress, the body to which the Constitution gives preeminent responsibility for governing the Republic? Minutes after passing the “Tax reform” in December it plunged into campaign mode: Americans will vote on November 6 for the entire House of Representatives and for 35 out of 100 senators. As both bodies could change hands because Republicans have a razor-thin majority in the Senate (51-49) and are in danger of losing the control of the House, incumbents are happy to leave Trump alone, as long as they can go on fundraising.

Maybe someone should remind the Washington elites that inferior policy-making is the surest path to the decline of an Empire, as happened in Athens, Rome, Byzantium, Istanbul and London in their times.

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