J. BROOKS SPECTOR climbs back into the increasingly balky Daily Maverick time machine and travels forward to see how a Donald Trump presidency comes about and what the new president does with his victory in the first months of his administration.
By October, every one of the polls indicated a solid victory for Hillary Clinton in the 8 November presidential election – and a substantial Democratic recovery in the Senate. Whether they were national surveys or ones differentiated state-by-state to allow for projections of the eventual electoral vote, it seemed that it was a clear road ahead for the former First Lady, former senator and former secretary of state to become the next president. But, as Donald Rumsfeld used to say, “stuff happens”.
First came North Korea’s surprise but successful launch of an intermediate range guided missile, topped with a small nuclear warhead, that exploded, as intended, right in the middle of the East Sea/Sea of Japan, between Japan, South Korea and China. Fishermen first reported the splashdown and explosion, but confirmations came quickly from the intelligence gathering capabilities of four different nations – Russia, China, the US and Japan.
An urgent, immediate meeting of the UN Security Council failed to agree on a sufficiently harsh rebuke to North Korea, leading to Donald Trump’s quick retort to the media that the Obama administration had simply been unable to put that madman out of business and that Hillary Clinton would be unable to do any better. By stark contrast, when he, Trump, took over, “Kim Jong-un better watch his butt”. By contrast, he went on, Clinton was “unspeakably soft and squishy on North Korea. An epic fail!” Amid the frenzy over the nuclear test, the charges stuck in the media from repeated utterance – and, most important of all it had a real impact in the polling data done after that nuclear test.
The second electoral tremor came when word was leaked that the Justice Department, despite the contrary predictions of nearly every observer, was actually preparing indictments over Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of classified materials via her personal e-mail server (even though those materials had largely been classified retroactively). While she was not named personally in the indictments, several members of her personal State Department staff were. Although no indictment was actually issued before the election, the rumours of its imminent appearance were like repeated blasts of poisoned gas to her presidential campaign.
But the final blow came from well beyond the campaign itself, or even from within the US Government or by any efforts from the candidates. On 30 October, at 5am, nearly simultaneous explosions ripped through the parking garages of five Trump-branded buildings across the nation, including that eponymously named Trump Tower in downtown Manhattan.
While no one was killed by those early morning blasts, they sent a message that could not be ignored, and the GOP candidate almost immediately blasted Barack Obama and his former secretary of state for their joint failure to deal effectively with international terror. He placed the blame squarely on ISIS and its fifth column secret friends and supporters among illegal immigrants in America.
Soon after the blasts, standing in front of a still-smoking entry to the Trump Tower in New York City, and speaking to reporters, cameras and a constantly growing crowd of supporters, Trump thundered that when he became president in a few short days, “I will hunt down these cowards like the rabid dogs they are and make them wish they had never, ever, been born. Their grandchildren will curse their names. I’m smart, I’m strong, and I never make an empty threat – only a promise. You bet. Believe it.”
In truth, it was not clear exactly who was responsible since no group made any claims of responsibility for the explosions. Nevertheless, an army of FBI agents, police and other investigators converged on the five sites across the nation in round-the-clock efforts to identify the perpetrators. Meanwhile, not surprisingly under the circumstances, the Secret Service tried to add massive new coverage for candidate Trump, just as it did for Clinton. But with an insouciant, dismissive wave of his arms on national television, and a distinctly New York, “feygetaboutit” reply, Trump said he would personally pay for his own security, no matter the cost it came to be.
This third event proved to be the final straw in preventing Hillary Clinton’s inevitable march to victory. On Election Day, and on into the late evening, the results were of an unexpectedly close race clear across the country. Exit polls demonstrated voters felt that eight years of Democratic administration were enough and that, instead, the country now needed someone who wasn’t, in the words of responses to the exit pollsters, “soft on nuclear armed dictators”, “global terrorists” – and who had not “cheated on the country’s classified information”. By midnight, the results in the key swing states of Ohio, Florida and Colorado were all still hanging in the balance.
Ultimately, Donald Trump managed to win Ohio and Colorado by a few thousand votes each, although he lost Florida by about the same amount. But the big surprise came when California, with its huge block of electoral votes, ultimately went for Trump. Asian, black and Latino voters had turned out in less than expected numbers for the Democratic candidate, and, importantly, the more conservative parts of southern and central California proved overwhelmingly solid for Trump. Of course, the recriminations would also begin once it became clear that if the Green Party’s nomination of Bernie Sanders (albeit without his direct agreement for this) had not occurred, a crucial 25,000 votes might not have been subtracted from the Democratic column, and Clinton might have just squeezed through and won the state and election after all. But she didn’t.
In the end, the collective tough-mindedness of Trump’s surprise running mate, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and his surprise, unprecedented announcement, just before the election, that, if elected, he would name John Kasich as his secretary of defence, John Bolton as secretary of state, and Robert Zoellick as the new secretary of the treasury all also contributed to his sudden stature as the right man for the tough challenges ahead. And these decisions went a long, long way to cementing relations with the old GOP establishment, assuring them that well-known, experienced hands were ready to board the Good Ship Donald Trump.
Of course Rice, Kasich, Bolton and Zoellick also had had to swallow a fair amount of humble pie, themselves, over their earlier support for the Iraq War and global free trade in a prior administration, as part of the intricate negotiations that had led to their names being appended to Trump’s campaign. But ambition is a strange thing. And collectively they probably lost several minutes sleep over the respective deals that had led to their being named.
Rice, of course, had been George W Bush’s leading foreign policy advisor. Kasich had, as a congressman, been in the trenches on the defence budget and policy for nearly two decades; Bolton had been the Bush administration’s resident super-hawk as ambassador to the UN, while Zoellick had spent decades in support of the familiar Republican positions on free trade. But that was then, this was the present. And all four clearly contributed to a sense Trump had truly decided to get serious about his international policies and positions, rather than making it up as he went through his day.
Still, there were his (potentially troublesome) initial keystone policies to address or finesse somehow. These included that Mexican wall, a hardnosed approach to China trade negotiations, Muslim non-entry to the US, and renegotiations of Nato budget support with the Europeans. And those were just for starters. Now that Trump was president-elect, each time he reaffirmed his support for those core positions, he sent a serious shudder through global markets. There were successive waves of uncertainty as analysts and investors tried to figure out the impact of each new comment that roiled stock and commodity prices, international exchange rates, and global investor confidence.
In the time between the election and the time the president-elect to be inaugurated as the new president, international unhappiness with a Trump presidency had become palpable in many places, well beyond the financial markets, and those paying attention to such things. In anticipation of the putative Mexican wall, there were sporadic acts of violence against US consulates in Mexico as well as some private business offices (even though the American Chamber of Commerce in Mexico quickly issued a strongly worded statement of support for the US’s continued participation in and partnership with the Mexican economy).
And in China, growing protests against the Trump presidency – even before he took office – were held in cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, Chengdu, Nanjing and other centres. Naturally, too, president-elect Trump’s plans to shut off entry to the US by Muslims generated rather less pacific and more uncontrolled demonstrations in Arab capitals across the Middle East region, as well as in non-Arab states such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, Iran, and Central Asian states from Kazakhstan to Afghanistan.
But on the day of the actual inauguration itself, before half a million Americans standing in front of the Capitol Building (many pro and some not), television channels around the world showed split screen pictures of violent demonstrations in many different locations, juxtaposed with the actual ceremony taking place in Washington. While the Washington police managed to keep the crowds in the capital relatively calm, demonstrators across the US held smaller demonstrations in sympathy with those anti-Trump events taking place throughout the world.
Trump, pugnacious as always, departed from his more carefully modulated, prepared text to speak directly to the demonstrators he was learning about, telling them in his remarks, “And to those of you who have chosen to express your dissatisfaction with America and with me on this glorious day; just remember, we are number one; we are smart; we are large and in charge; and we will deal with you if you harm a single American today, wherever you live. I promise this.” Not surprisingly, as news of those off-the-cuff additions to a more largely temperate speech spread quickly and globally by social media, crowds in several cities managed to breach security cordons in their respective countries to enter into some serious shoving and pushing matches with uniformed forces. By the end of the day, two US embassies were set on fire, although major damage was contained.
Thereafter, the Trump administration was soon pushing ahead to carry through on its initial plans. Because of the Trump electoral victory, the new president had a Republican Congress to work with, and so his congressional allies proposed an immediate 15% budget increase for the defence department, well beyond the more restricted “budget sequester” levels that had been set several years ago as part of the budget agreement between Obama and the Republican Congress. In addition, his supporters introduced legislation for the major tax changes he had proposed, as well as a congressional resolution calling for the president to abrogate the terms of the North American Free Trade Association that had been crucial for so many corporations establishing assembly plants in Mexico.
Yet more legislation called for the US to decline to sign the TransPacificTrade Pact and to cease discussions on the potential TransAtlantic equivalent. The most important early decision carried out by the Trump administration was to revoke all executive orders signed by the previous president on immigration reform, and to propose stricter arrest/detain/deport controls on every immigrant who could not furnish proof of residence or citizenship in random street checks. This was in addition to calling for new guidelines for harsh restrictions on visas for anyone attempting to enter the US from a majority-Muslim society.
Plans were quickly put into place for summits with the increasingly furious Mexican president, with Russian President Vladimir Putin and with Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader. And it was announced that at the next Nato summit, Trump would present his new formula for foreign participation in Nato defence budgets.
About the second month of this, four separate bills of impeachment had already been introduced by some of the Democratic Party’s more liberal members in the House of Representatives, and there were well over half a dozen civil suits in federal courts for real damages caused by these sudden changes in international agreements.
By this time, too, columnists in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, in various weekly magazines across the political spectrum from The New Republic to The National Review, as well as on dozens of internet blogs and think tank electronic newsletters, were all chastising the new president for attempting too much too soon, for unnecessarily disturbing international trade, and for generally turning even the country’s best friends into potential enemies.
Columnists were increasingly falling back on the lessons of how Harry Truman had told one of his aides, just as Eisenhower was scheduled to take over as president, that “Ike” had been commander-in-chief of allied forces in Europe during World War II but it would be different as president. Truman had reportedly said, “Poor Ike. He’ll sit here and say, ‘do this, do that’, and nothing will happen” because the president’s powers are largely those of “some damn fool to do something he should have thought of in the first place”, rather than his telling them to do it. Trump’s problem, the columnists were unanimous in arguing, was that he had now told pretty much everyone in the world what to do, but he had not yet managed to persuade virtually anybody to do any of it.
By the third month, with summits looming with the Mexican, Russian and Chinese leaders, the new president was actively planning how he could work a deal with Vladimir Putin vis-à-vis China, and vice versa, as well as how to convince an increasingly angry Mexican government to take tangible action to restrict the flow of migrants moving across the mutual border – including many from further south.
By this time, however, the cabinet inner circle – Bolton, Kasich and Zoellick, along with the vice-president – were already discussing how they could rein in their president before he started a shooting war somewhere over personal pique, or out of a grave misunderstanding at a current hotspot like the eastern Ukraine or the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
Thus it came as a tremendous global surprise when Trump, sitting alone with Putin and only one interpreter, offered the Russians a grand bargain: the withdrawal of economic sanctions against Russia, acquiescence over the quasi-annexation of the Crimea in exchange for an end to support for rebels in the eastern marches of Ukraine, and increasing joint pressure against the Chinese economic juggernaut. For the Chinese, in his meeting with Xi Jinping, Trump had agreed to reach an amicable arrangement over the sea lanes through the waters around the Spratlys and Paracels in exchange for cutting off trade and aid to North Korea (until such time as that country wound down its missile and nuclear weapons programmes). For Trump, that would be the set-up to reach further on trade issues once the time was ripe.
Pleased with himself, President Trump prepared to go on national television to explain how his unparalleled understanding of the art of the deal had gotten him where he was today. The Mexicans and the Muslim world were another set of problems, of course, but he would deal with them once he had tidied up these first two negotiations as tribute to his superior intellect and skill as a global dealmaker extraordinaire. (The howls of protest from long-time allies and partners, from Japan to Australia and from every Nato ally would just have to be roadkill on the way to a new Trump-ian global architecture.)
Not surprisingly, the global markets were also extremely unhappy with these Trump-ian grand strategic designs as they reacted to the growing chaos Trump’s diplomacy was engendering. The sectors where he had expected to gain the most support for his unexpected moves, US big business and institutional investors, turned on him with a vengeance for destroying their revenue and seriously debasing their investments throughout a globally connected economy, although many in his electoral support base continued to cheer him on.
But Republican senators and congressmen, already looking forward with trepidation to the 2018 mid-term election, began muttering darkly about what they had allowed to happen to their party with his candidacy. Increasingly, they wondered if they should start – already – to oppose any bid for a Trump re-election in 2020, and if they could find a suitable alternative before the very man they backed ended up thoroughly wrecking their party’s future as a viable American institution, as well as the reputation and the economy of the country itself.
Of course, none of those three imagined triggers of a Trump victory may come to be. And if not, and if the current polling is accurate, a Clinton-Trump contest would be a likely blowout – leading to a memorable Democratic victory. If that occurred, Republican domination of the Senate and the House of Representatives might both come under threat instead, as many Republican incumbents end up being defeated by Democratic challengers in November.
Should that happen, all of the global and domestic challenges Donald Trump hoped to solve with his blunderbuss and broadsword style of “speak loudly and carry a big stick too” would become Hillary Clinton’s to deal with instead. We have half a year left in which to find out how it comes out. But because there are still opportunities for the unexpected to occur domestically or globally, the presidential race may yet be shaped in ways we still cannot imagine. DM
Photo: US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (C) appears with his wife Melania (L) and daughter Ivanka Trump (R) on a NBC Town Hall at the Today Show in Rockefeller Plaza in New York, New York, USA, 21 April 2016. EPA/PETER FOLEY.
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