Trump is living up to his campaign in the good and bad sense. He appears constitutionally unable to stop lashing out at critics, even when they have a point and/or far more effective responses were available. The idea that one of the first acts of Trump’s press secretary would be to get in a row with the press over crowd estimates at the Inauguration and then double down with barmy claims of “alternative facts” is mind-boggling. And then to continue in a similar vein today with the fact-free claim that he would have won the popular vote if unauthorized immigrants had been excluded allowed the New York Times to amp up its headline to a new level: Trump Repeats Lie About Popular Vote in Meeting With Lawmakers.
Yet even this behavior, which looks deranged and was poorly executed, still plays to themes near and dear to Trump’s loyalists: that of him as the outsider under attack. Do not forget that mainstream Republicans believe that Democratic-organized minority multiple voting is a large scale phenomenon, hence the ongoing calls for voter IDs. (And as an aside, I don’t recall ever seeing the Democrats try to to split Republicans by highlighting that voter IDs would go a long way towards establishing something conservatives fiercely oppose, namely national IDs?)
And finally, many Trump voters said they didn’t like his crude language, his ill-tempered, ill-considered responses, his poor conduct towards women, his refusal to denounce racists. Yet even all this baggage, they preferred him to Clinton. The Democrats remain in deep denial and keep insisting that voters went for Trump because he legitimated all sorts of reprehensible conduct. Some, and it is not a trivial number of Trump voters instead pulled the lever for him with reservations. Even now, much of the Democratic party leadership has yet confront why their candidate and message failed with voters who weren’t enthusiastic but using their metrics, still saw him as better than Clinton.
As a result, it’s distressing to see many Trump opponents resort to demonization and Manichean thinking when during the campaign, Trump had unforced errors on almost a daily basis that fed that image. Yet it didn’t keep him from winning.
Lambert and I are keeping our focus on why the Democrats lost, what Trump really might get done, and what the opposition needs to do to stop those measures or at least water that down. That means looking at him clinically. But in the eyes of Team Dem, failing to screech from the rooftops that Trump has hooves and a tail is tantamount to backing him. We think, by contrast, that they are violating one of Sun Tsu’s most important precepts: that you need to know your enemy. Hysteria makes that almost impossible.
Yet Trump despite clear signs of disorder on his team (not having many Cabinet nominees in place; sloppiness on image-related details that Trump would presumably care about, like the design of the WhiteHouse.gov site), Trump is still moving forward with his campaign promises. And let us not forget what happened over the course of the electioneering: despite his unprecedented erraticness on many policy issues, Trump was consistent on a few themes: trade, immigration, infrastructure, cutting taxes, reducing regulation, improving relations with Russia. Those are his priorities. Given the enmity of the Dems and many in his own party (and on Russia, of much of the military/surveillance complex), it is an open question how far he will get.
Today, Trump delivered on one promise, that of ending the TPP. Trade and immigration are two areas where the President has considerable scope to act unilaterally, and Trump looks set to take ground. The TPP withdrawal should hardly come as surprising yet some media outlets presented his move if Trump wouldn’t dare pull that trigger. Of course, given that Obama had specifically promised that his first act as President would be to close Gitmo, maybe the Beltway types need to come to grips with the fact that Trump is serious
And ironically, the bogus framing used to sell the deal, that it was about trade, when economists acknowledged that trade is substantially liberalized and the TPP would do almost nothing, enabled Trump to position killing the TPP as undoing a worker-hostile “pro trade” agenda. If you had any doubt that Hillary really was in favor of the deal despite her protests otherwise, the tweets today from her allies are, as Lambert likes to say, “wonderfully clarifying”.
Both Bernie Sanders and the Teamsters praised Trump for ending the TPP. It is surprisingly under-reported that Trump met today with labor leaders, almost all of whom had supported Clinton. It is a not-well-kept secret that many union members bucked the leadership and voted for Trump. But the bosses engaging in a session with Trump that they described as “excellent” may be the start of the formal and long-overdue exit of unions from a party that has treated them as disposable for over 30 years.
But how far will Trump go? The problems with TPP were much better publicized than many might assume; when Lambert saw Trump speak in Bangor, Trump referred to the TPP only by its initials, didn’t explain it, and the crowd seemed familiar with it. By contrast, other dangerous “trade” deals, like the TTIP and TISA, are still as of now, moving forward. As Lori Wallach of Public Citizen warned:
If President Trump intends to replace our failed trade policy, a first step must be to end negotiations now underway for more deals based on the damaging NAFTA/TPP model so its notable that today’s announcement did not end talks to establish the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the Trade in Services Agreement and the U.S.-China Bilateral Investment Treaty – all of which would replicate and expand the TPP/NAFTA model Trump says he is ending.
President Trump also repeatedly has said he would launch NAFTA renegotiations immediately and withdraw from NAFTA if he cannot make it “a lot better” for working people. NAFTA renegotiation could be an opportunity to create a new trade model that benefits more people, but if done wrong, it could increase job offshoring, push down wages and expand the protections NAFTA provides to the corporate interests that shaped the original deal.
Even with the Fast Track authority Trump inherits, to pass a NAFTA replacement he must ensure its terms enjoy support from most congressional Democrats and a subset of Republicans. Most congressional Republicans and many people Trump has named to senior positions passionately support the very agreements Trump opposes. Most congressional Democrats have opposed deals like TPP and NAFTA and for decades promoted alternatives that expand trade without undermining American jobs and wages, access to affordable medicine, food safety or environmental protections.
NAFTA is packed with incentives for job offshoring and protections for the corporate interests that helped to shape it,…To put the needs of working people, their communities, the environment and public health over the demands of the special interests that have dominated U.S. trade policymaking, the 500 official U.S. trade advisers representing corporate interests who called the shots on past agreements must be benched.
If corporate elites are allowed to dictate how NAFTA is renegotiated, the deal could become even more damaging to working people and the environment in the three countries. Absent high labor and environmental standards, requirements for more North American content in products could increase U.S. job offshoring. The corporate interests that have rigged past trade deals say NAFTA renegotiation is how they will revive the special protections they achieved in the TPP, for instance limits on competition from generic drugs so pharmaceutical firms can keep medicine prices high. (See Citizens Trade Campaign’s Jan. 13 letter to Trump and U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s Jan. 3 letter to Trump on what must be in a NAFTA replacement for it to provide broad benefits.)
Trump is proposing bi-lateral deals as part of his remedy. But those take time to conclude and it’s doubtful that Trump could get any done in a single term. And as Wallach implies, we have the looming questions of whether Trump really cares about having deals that work, or even if he does, whether he will be outmatched technically and politically by the beneficiaries of the current system.
Yet Big Auto believes in Trump’s seriousness enough to be worried. As the Wall Street Journal reported in Auto Industry’s No. 1 Preoccupation: Trump:
American companies, several of which have been scolded by Mr. Trump, often via Twitter, are suddenly grappling with a new, unpredictable force in their operations. Barbs have included the price the Pentagon pays for Lockheed Martin Corp. jets and whether Carrier Corp. assembles furnaces in Indiana. AT&T Inc. Chief Executive Randall Stephenson recently met with Mr. Trump, who had expressed concerns about the telecom giant’s proposed purchase of Time Warner Inc.
Few industries have spent as much time in Mr. Trump’s crosshairs as the U.S. auto sector. Less than a decade after U.S. auto makers bounced back from near catastrophe thanks to a bailout from Washington, they have been rattled by a series of tweets by Mr. Trump accusing them of not being sufficiently committed to U.S. jobs and investment, given their heavy reliance on overseas production.
Compared to dealing with legislation or trade negotiations, jawboning companies has great potential bang for the buck. But the article describes how Trump has got Ford, which it had thought it had dodged the Trump offshoring bullet, to ditch plans to open a plant in Mexico and invest more in retooling in the US, including in a Detroit operation described as “struggling”. But it also mentions cases where CEOs presented US investment plans as if they were new commitments and got out of Trump’s crosshairs.
Part of Trump’s pitch for normalizing Russia was that China is a bigger threat to the US. And Trump’s team has been saber-rattling with China, to the degree that China experts are worried. At the same time, the idea of China creating islands out of atolls that are submerged for part of the day and using that to advance territorial claims is quite a stunt, and the US has been at a loss as to how to calibrate a response. The latest from the Financial Times:
The White House on Monday said the US would protect its interests in international waters in the South China Sea but refused to say whether it would attempt to block China from accessing artificial islands in the disputed area….
Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil chief executive nominated by Donald Trump for secretary of state, angered China this month by declaring that the US would attempt to prevent China from accessing islands where it has been building runways and other facilities that have potential military use…
“The Chinese will want a better explanation of the policy on the South China Sea,” said Mr [Dennis] Wilder, who was the top White House Asia adviser to George W Bush. “It shows that Tillerson and the new (White House) press secretary are just not yet steeped in the arcane nature and legal niceties of the South China Sea issue.”
Trump is fond of maximizing his bargaining options by taking inconsistent positions and not bothering to clean them up. So even though Tillerson and Spicer not being on the same page is likely due to a lack of coordination and appreciation of the issues, Trump may not deem it to be in his interest to sort matters out.
More broadly, Trump faces hostile Democrats and a lot of opposition within his own party. He’s likely to be willing to concede a lot on other issues, such as Obamacare or Medicare “reform”, which aren’t priorities for him, to get what he thinks he needs (whatever that might constitute) on his pet issues. But those might not even amount to concessions given Trump also being keen to deregulate. One of the best pieces on the Trump inaugural speech by Chris Caldwell, warns:
Yet Friday’s inaugural address seems to have thrown Mr Trump’s adversaries into a state of shock. It turns out he actually meant those things. He spoke of “America first” as his principle; “protection” as his policy and “buy American” as his motto. Millions gathered on Saturday in cities across the country and globally for “women’s marches” to protest against his presidency. Mr Trump accepts the radical implications of his world view. In fact, he has a good chance of enacting it.
That Mr Trump’s oratory has the power to shock is a vindication of sorts. His campaign was about things that are invisible to ruling-class America, starting with non-ruling class America. Invisibility, anonymity, voicelessness was the theme of the whole speech: “One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores,” he said, “with not even a thought about the millions and millions of American workers that were left behind”….
There is nothing especially radical about Mr Trump’s diagnosis of globalisation, except that he seems sincere about it. Every western politician of the past 20 years, from Hillary Clinton to Helmut Kohl to Jeremy Corbyn, has bemoaned that it leaves people behind. But they did not understand that the New Economy was a new economy. It involved phasing out every aspect of the old economy, including its personnel.
The theorists of the New Economy said it should be possible to compensate the “losers”. But that never happened. Because when the money came in, the people who managed the new economy did not recognise the losers as belonging to the same community.
Perhaps the surprise is that it took as long as it did for a US politician to argue that, if the system’s leaders cannot be trusted to reform it from within, they must be ordered to do so from without.
With Trump, we have, far more visibly. the same question that dogged the Obama Administration: what does he really stand for? With Obama, we learned that he was conservative and cautious, but also very much liked the appearance of getting things done. His press office repeatedly cited how much legislation was passed on his watch, as if volume was more important than quality. Trump is likely to have the same orientation. It’s easy to assume, as critics do, that Trump wants to become even wealthier. But Trump more than anything wants to be visible: his splashy/trashy buildings, his TV show, his relentless self-promotion, his reckless tweets. While Trump in oh so many ways looks like a classic narcissist, one departure is his need to mix things up. Most narcissists are working above all to have their environment reflect back a good image of them. Trump’s regular undermining of his own image is at odds with that.
There are far too many moving parts to have any firm view as to how the Trump Administration will pan out. But even though there was good reason to suspect that given the record of both celebrity politicians and DC outsiders, that Trump would wind up as Jimmy Carter squared, a President that didn’t get much done, the flip side is that underestimating Trump has proven to be a losing bet. Stay tuned.