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Trump and the politics of uncertainty

The Trump Presidency’s domestic situation: opportunities and tough wagers
Rome, 25/07/2017, International Roundtable

Looking at the Trump presidency, the international media – and actually, the American media, too – have lost sight of some background data that have to do with America in general, and far less with the White House. This point emerged from a discussion with Walter Russell Mead, known above all for his studies on the various schools of American foreign policy (from this standpoint, Trump is a “Jacksonian President”) but also thoroughly versed in the United States’ political culture and electoral cycles.

Mead’s thesis – discussed at a roundtable at Aspen Italia – is that the President’s domestic agenda, despite the serious political obstacles he is encountering in his own Republican Party, has real possibilities for success in certain key sectors, thanks to the country’s economic dynamism. This is certainly the case with the energy multiplier: low prices, thanks above all to the “shale gas revolution,” increasing the whole economy’s productivity. And it might be the case with a set of old and abysmally maintained infrastructures. However much Trump’s investment plan has yet to materialize, there is still the trend of building new plant, or even new urban centres, in the all-American frontier spirit: an abundant land on which to build from the ground up. A construction boom might be linked to an innovative application of technologies now ripe for “smart commuting” – from smart cars to teleworking. A final sector in which the Trump agenda has good possibilities of finding enthusiastic private partners is deregulation, and not only in banking. In essence, given the difficulties of reforming Obamacare (linked to available federal resources, and thus to possible tax cuts), a top-down application of Trump’s economic agenda begins to appear unlikely. And indeed, the markets are beginning to cool, particularly with regard to the possibilities for tax reform. But the country still shows what may be called a “bottom-up” impetus to make concrete progress in some of the directions indicated by a President who for now has promised much and achieved little, due also to the Republican Party’s internal divisions.

Of course, it is by no means certain that, in this hypothetical scheme, things are going in the right direction; but these areas of action are suited to a pragmatic approach, even in an ideologically polarized climate. And they can build consensus even among those voters who for now appear to have abandoned Trump, at least judging from opinion polls. In this perspective, at least a partial success of Donald Trump’s “industrial populism” becomes thinkable: as we know, he is a President who wishes to bring back to the United States some of the manufacturing jobs lost during the years of booming Chinese exports. The operation does not come only – or perhaps at all – from levying tariffs or renegotiating NAFTA after leaving the Trans-Pacific Partnership; it comes to a great degree from the vitality of the American economic system, which need only be encouraged and supported.

But there is a caveat, and not a minor one at that: the various controversies surrounding the White House are creating a political risk – a risk liable to strongly damage a simple but decisive line of action like the one mapped out. Here, the factor to keep in mind is timing: despite the many simplifications we read in this regard, Trump will not be exposed to impeachment proceedings before 2019. Since proceedings of this kind are by nature political rather than legal, economic performance will largely determine the decisions of a Republican Party that, after the midterm elections in November 2018, will foreseeably have lost a lot of seats in the House, but will hold onto a slim majority in the Senate.

In the meantime, international challenges are also becoming part of the domestic agenda: this is doubtlessly true for China, for the German trade surplus, and for the symbiotic yet conflicted relationship with Mexico; and this is certainly true for the relationship with Russia – a “radioactive” issue for Trump and his entourage, in which Congress, with the decision made in July, has clearly overridden the President in the matter of sanctions.

If Trump appears to have built foreign policy on unpredictability – in a historical phase in which old alliances are becoming mobile alignments – he also needs to manage bilateral relationships, with adversaries and partners alike, with greater continuity: otherwise, the distinction between the two categories of country will tend to blur, and the United States will risk finding itself in a position of “America-only” and not “America-first.” Otherwise, an excessive inward-looking focus risks compromising the spaces for possible successes in the domestic sphere. And in the final analysis, it is on these that the Republican Party’s continued existence depends: in coming months, governors and members of Congress will decide whether, and how much, to wager again on “their” President.