World, Politics

All Aboard the Starship Trump-Surprise: Fasten your seatbelts for a four-year rocky ride

By J Brooks Spector 5 December 2016

These are the Voyages of the Starship Donald Trump – its four-year mission to explore strange new policies, to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no man has gone before… J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look at how the Trump transition is going – and what it means for the American nation and the world. Unlike Captain Kirk, the Donald may not have a fully battle-tested team on his bridge so far.

It has been a strange stretch of time, now that Donald Trump is well into his stride as an explorer of new worlds from the bridge of his presidential-electedness. And virtually nobody has a clue about what will come next, perhaps not even the Thane of Trump Tower himself – that is until he opens his mouth or bangs out a tweet or two at 3am.

In the past couple of weeks, Trump has announced (or tantalised us with possible) cabinet appointments whose predominant elements have either been the absolutely outrageous wealth of those appointees and their circumstances as “Wall Street insiders”; the fact that they were generals eased out of positions during the Obama administration; or, in one or two cases, their adherence to the core principles of the social-values, right-wing conservative core of the Republican Party. However, with just a couple of exceptions, they are neither experienced government hands from previous administrations nor logical candidates to carry out that Trumpian “drain the swamp” and chase the money lenders from the temple trope he rode so hard during his campaign for the presidency. No way, on that one.

In the persons of Wilbur Ross (Commerce) and Steve Mnuchin (Treasury), the Donald has selected two really super-rich folks who, between them, have a sum total of zero, zilch, nada experience in leading large government bureaucracies that deal with national economic and financial issues. By the same token, neither do they have much experience in addressing national economic or financial issues – beyond their considerable and very successful efforts to pile up huge mounds of cash for themselves and some customers. Building wealth is not to be sneezed at, but it is not the same as dealing with a major financial collapse that transcends boundaries.

Meanwhile, in the person of retired General Michael Flynn (National Security Advisor) and – notionally – retired General James “Mad Dog” Mattis (his appointment would require legislation to remove a restriction of a military officer needing to wait seven years before serving as a civilian at the senior levels of the Pentagon), he has selected two military men who were eased out of their respective positions in the Obama administration. Flynn eventually became history from his important role in the Obama administration, reportedly because he could not work and play well with others while serving as head of the Defence Intelligence Agency. Additionally, there was also his reputation of having an increasingly lurid streak of anti-Islamic fervour and fanaticism coming out of his mouth in full public hearing.

Once Flynn went out on his own as a consultant, he garnered a few question marks (along with some good folding money) from things like playing buddy-buddy with RT, Russia’s government-owned television agitprop network. There was also his unusual point of view that RT and CNN are just two identical peas from the same pod. Fortunately for him, being the NSA guy doesn’t need Senate confirmation, as it does with cabinet officers and ambassadors, but many people will be watching his steps closely – or possible mis-steps – both within the Trump administration and without it around the globe.

Mattis, on the other hand, has gotten good reviews (despite his nickname) from many quarters for his intellectual capabilities and leadership qualities, in addition to obvious skills as a tough, hard-fighting Marine general. But, in recent years he had, apparently, pushed a bit too hard with feelings about the singularity of Iran as the biggest existential threat to the US despite an Iran nuclear accord to keep Barack Obama comfortable keeping Mattis inside the metaphorical administration’s tent.

Now, with Senator Jeff Sessions as his Attorney-General, Trump has come to embrace someone who was already found wanting by the Senate a generation ago for his racial and political attitudes, and who has, apparently, done little to soften them all that much since then. Civic society and the Democrats will be watching like hawks for any signs of a recurrence of these tendencies – especially with regard to Muslim registration or similar ideas that have been floated by various Trump sources – and alluded to by the man himself when he was a candidate.

Meanwhile, in the case of Steve Bannon as his in-house chief counsellor, Trump has picked the alt-right’s leading white knight and weltenschaaung and zeitgeist shaper. Curiously, both Mnuchin and Bannon are old hands from the Goldman Sachs trading floor where they made vast buckets of cash, and who both then made even more money out there in La-La-Land with, in the case of Bannon, owning a chunk of The Seinfield Show, and for Mnuchin, via his investment and backing of both the X Men franchise and Avatar. You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried. But in both cases, neither individual has any government experience, of course, although Bannon was a junior naval officer long ago.

Meanwhile, Trump has tapped Governor Nikki Haley as his ambassador to the UN, zillionaire (courtesy of Amway and her late husband) Betsy DeVos as education secretary, and Dr Ben Carson as Housing and Urban Development head. Haley’s qualifications, besides being a reasonable governor of South Carolina, would only seem to have been her participation in several international trade missions for her state. This may not be enough for the rough and tumble of the UN. (Of course, she is also a possible candidate for the GOP nomination for the presidency in 2020 in case Trump doesn’t want to try again – or if Mike Pence stumbles).

Naturally, DeVos hates the nation’s normal public schools (but absolutely loves school voucher programmes and independent charter schools). And as for Dr Carson, he appears to have little background for his tasks, save for having grown up poor in Detroit, before heading off to university and medical school, and then onwards to a career as a world-renowned paediatric neurosurgeon and, more lately, as a motivational speaker. He brings a bit of racial diversity into the cabinet and, once his own presidential bid shrivelled away, became a surrogate for the Trumpster.

Oh, and then there are Congressman Tom Price, Congressman Mike Pompeo, and Elaine Chao, the wife of Senator Mitch McConnell, who are all joining the cabinet as well. Presumably the hand of Vice President-elect Mike Pence can be seen in such appointments, given his congressional nous and hard-right credentials, plus their respective Washington right wing, insider bona fides.

Chao is a certified Washington veteran power broker who previously did a stint as labour secretary and as the deputy at transportation for the Bushes (père et fils, respectively), and who now gets the transportation portfolio on her very own. In the headline for its profile of her, The Nation magazine (admittedly no fan of the GOP generally, the Trump presidency, or Elaine Chao) said, “Elaine Chao, Ruined Department of Labor, Picked to Ensure Safety of Nation’s Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.” Hooboy. Trump has been wont to speak much about reducing government regulations, and so Chao would appear to have been heaven-sent for just such a dismantling task, no matter what it does to transportation safety for any of us who might use planes, trains, buses, boats, and cars.

Meanwhile, as for Price, from the moment of its passage he has been a dyed-in-the-wool, fight-unto-the-death, fanatical enemy of Obamacare. Given Trump’s promises on the campaign trail, Price’s central task would now seem to be to figure out how to disassemble that landmark act, and wreak some serious damage to Medicare in the process. But he’ll have to do these things without provoking a revolt among the Trumpenproletariat, once they discover their new healthcare arrangements become much dearer and shrunken as part of these “reforms” – regardless of whether Obamacare was more expensive or more limited than they thought it should have been.

In so doing, the new Republican congressional mantra for Obamacare is now being reported as “repeal and delay”, in order to keep the baying crowds from deciding to attack Trump Tower once they figure out the real effects of the three card monte scam they have been deluded by finally kick in.

And Kansas Congressman (and a charter member of the Tea Party contingent that came to Congress in 2010) Pompeo has been a leading partisan in pursuit of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton through all those interminable investigations of the Benghazi deaths. Expect a thorough re-combing of all available CIA records for some scintilla of potential proof that somehow Hillary Clinton was at fault for it all, this being aside from what CIA directors usually must do 9-5 on the real issues facing the nation.

Surprisingly, Washington Post reporter Chris Cillizza – usually a serious critic of most things Trump – had some respectful words to offer about the cabinet choices so far, arguing that they seem to be more strategically planned than most observers seem to believe. As he wrote the other day,

The one major Cabinet pick that is still outstanding is secretary of state and, depending on what Trump does, it will either bolster my theory that he deserves more credit than he’s getting for his Cabinet picks, or it will take that theory down a few pegs. The four candidates are former general David Petraeus, 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Picking Romney would be the most newsworthy and would affirm my theory of Trump’s surprisingly savvy approach to Cabinet selection. Corker and, to a slightly lesser extent, Petraeus would also broadly confirm the idea that Trump isn’t solely picking people he agrees with or are nice to him. A Giuliani pick, particularly given the mayor’s total lack of foreign policy experience while in office, would undermine some of Trump’s other Cabinet selections that have reached beyond his loyalists.”

There are still the selections of some rather heavy-duty, serious positions to be accomplished, including the top jobs at State, Labour, Health and Human Services, Interior, Agriculture and the US Trade Representative’s office, as well as numerous deputy positions across the board. He has, however, filled one deputy position, as KT MacFarlane will be deputy National Security Advisor. Earlier, back in the first Bush administration and the end of the Reagan era, she was a speechwriter and deputy spokesperson for the Pentagon, and she once ran for the Senate for the seat then held by, you guessed it, Hillary Clinton. “We still always have ways of making you crazy, Hillary”, would seem to be the slogan of the Trump administration, even before it begins.

The State Department is obviously one of the very biggest prizes still up for grabs. So far, at least, it appears to be a four-sided competition between former businessman, 2012 GOP presidential candidate, and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former New York City Mayor Rudi Giuliani, and, just possibly, retired General David Petraeus or Tennessee Senator Bob Corker.

Romney has been invited to a couple of intimate meetings and dinners with Trump, but he has also been publicly flogged, then drawn and quartered by Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, for his refusal to support Trump in the recent election. She has argued publicly that his selection would be a betrayal of all that the Trumpenproletariat hold dear. This is definitely not usual behaviour for a senior aide about her boss’s possible secretary of state.

Meanwhile, Giuliani has been a vociferous campaigner for Trump (and to some observers he had increasingly seemed a tad unhinged in his apocalyptic denunciations of Trump’s opponent and an advocate of her criminal prosecution). On the other hand, the general is yet another of those flag officers who were eased out of their high-ranking positions by Obama. Somewhat bizarrely for a president-elect who had hammered away at “those damned Clinton emails”, Petraeus was actually caught handing over some classified material to his secret squeeze while they were both married to other people, and as she was doing up a fawning biography of the good general. You just cannot make this stuff up. Senator Bob Corker, like the general, or even Romney, would represent a reaching out by Trump to strands in the GOP world that are not instantly his brand of things.

Meanwhile, all on his own, Trump has been on the march, creating some entirely new diplomatic traditions for the US, and also making a statement through highly dramatic, spot interventions in the market decisions of individual corporations. Both of these approaches may have been attractive to parts of his electoral constituency, but they may also represent troubles for him in the future. Or, especially, in the case of those diplomatic adventures, they may just represent Trump being Trump for the sheer hell of it, especially if any of these things discombobulate the chattering class. Of course, there is a third alternative possibility, but we’ll get to that in just a moment.

Even as the president-elect was beginning to settle into his celebrity auditions for senior positions, he was also connecting with foreign leaders and visitors. Relying on his own ideas of the protocol of things, he ignored the usual pecking order, eschewed the traditional State Department guidance on such contacts, and allowed the schedule to come together in a helter-skelter fashion. This included a laudatory phone call with the Pakistani prime minister; the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, getting to the head of the queue to be the first official visitor to get to Trump Tower (where Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, sat in for the discussion, undoubtedly unnerving the Japanese who don’t do business that way); and comments from Trump that he thought Nigel Farage, the one-time leader of UKIP, would be a delightful British ambassador to the US. (Presumably neither the queen nor the British prime minister were amused.) Mingled in and among all these efforts, various business connections pitched up as well, including Trump’s development partners in India who used news of that meeting to help flog their new real estate investment. It is this kind of mixed up process, of course, that will send government ethics lawyers into quick heart attacks, if it keeps up much longer.

Of course, the real stunner was the phone call with the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen. Since the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the US had ended government-to-government relations with the island’s rulers and entered into full diplomatic relations with Beijing instead. As such, doing an end run around this pattern was a distinct finger in the eye of the Chinese authorities, and one that would almost certainly cause them to think through what their own responses should be, once Donald Trump actually becomes president.

One could call this a grave diplomatic faux pas – or, just perhaps, there was a little more calculation in this than first meets the eye. Trump has made a point of picking a fight with China over its exports to the US and he has clearly demonstrated his desire to pivot towards a better relationship with Russia than has been the case for the past number of years. It is, therefore, just possible to see this telephone call with President Tsai as a not-so-subtle reminder, and an opening gambit, that the US also has a few cards to play in the evolving pulling and tugging with China over trade, currency exchange rates, and the militarisation of the islet groups in the South China Sea. Or, perhaps Donald Trump and his emerging administration have just blustered and blundered their way deeper into this mess.

While Trump has an extraordinary sense of self-worth, and he frequently points to his vast knowledge about everything, and has demonstrated “yuge” skill in negotiations, the Chinese have been at that diplomacy game for around 4,000 years or so, and they may have picked up a bit of skill at it, too, along the way. This one will definitely be interesting – and this kung fu fighting will be more than “a little bit frightening” to watch as it evolves.

Finally we come to the Trumpian version of gestural politics – the actions by a person or organisation done for political reasons and intended to attract public attention but having little real effect. So far, at least, the most visible version of his gestural political skill has come with his manoeuvring to get Carrier (a heating and air conditioning manufacturer) to reverse its decision to close an assembly line in Indiana and send a thousand or so jobs to Mexico instead.

While he has claimed a huge victory in fulfilling a campaign pledge to stop American companies from sending jobs out of the country, a closer look at this effort could yield a somewhat different picture. Sure, the people whose jobs were salvaged are happy (assuming their fates had already been sealed), but there are various possible costs as well.

First of all, the Indiana authorities had to give up some $7-million or $8-million worth of tax breaks to Carrier to clinch the deal. Then there is the question of just how many times can (or should) any president go to this well. Would he intervene every single time a job is transferred abroad or made redundant due to automation? Isn’t this a rather deep intervention into the market, deliberately picking winners and losers via bureaucratic choices, carrots and sticks, making plant closings and locations subject to a host of non-economic pressures and turning decisions into bidding wars for relocations based on tax breaks and political influence?

And while these Carrier jobs gained much media attention, what about that other factory down the road whose jobs did not receive salvation by the hand of the president-elect? Finally, it should be noted that Carrier is just one part of the giant United Technologies (UT) group. That company happens to be one of the nation’s leading defence contractors – and a major share of its business comes from the Pentagon. Who is to say that up there in the UT board room, they didn’t simply decide that in order to keep the orders for military hardware rolling in, business as usual, they could afford to save a thousand jobs for Carrier and allow the incoming president a public bow for having been the saviour of blue-collar labour?

Beyond all these points, and virtually lost in the discussion in most places, has been the fact that the Obama administration has been able to push the growth of the economy along such that unemployment has now fallen to 4.6%, the lowest in more than a decade – and an almost textbook definition of full employment. (Okay, okay, not everybody is able to scramble on board the new economy; but, does anyone really expect major corporations to suddenly decide to open major high-tech plants in those isolated hollows in West Virginia in order to hire laid-off coal miners?)

Moreover, the current administration’s record of month-on-month growth in job creation has now extended to 74 consecutive months – a record since such numbers have been maintained. But while the “no drama Obama” administration has been largely unable to seize the credit for these accomplishments, Donald Trump, a man who seemingly is “all drama, all the time”, has gained control of the national discourse on jobs after some arm-twisting with the good folks over at Carrier (or United Technologies) on the question of a thousand jobs. That is, at least, until media attention shifts from that Carrier plant in Indiana to yet another employment crisis elsewhere, or perhaps even a collapse of trade dispute discussions with Beijing caused by more truculent talk from the Trump White House.

Returning to the new administration coming into shape, next up, presumably, will be Donald Trump’s final decision on the State Department, other cabinet jobs, and various other cabinet-level positions such as the US Trade Representative. Once these names are all in place, Congress may well begin to hold confirmation hearings on those that require Senate approval, and the games will begin in earnest over how the new president will try to shape and prioritise his initiatives and goals.

Of course, these things will not be his sole right to choose how they must be dealt with. As Field Marshal Montgomery remarked about warfare, the very best battle plans go right out the window once the guns start and the forces are joined. Such an observation works in peacetime as well. For the Trump team, the important questions will be how his officials can work through a problem – or multiple problems – and how they will (or will not) work together among themselves and with US allies in order to achieve solutions with their would-be antagonists, even in peacetime.

Unlike Manhattan real estate deals, much of diplomacy and international affairs requires agreement on win-win victories, rather than an outcome where there is just one clear winner and the other side is left broken, bleeding – and plotting for revanchist revenge. For such a universe, the Trump team assembled, so far at least, seems less than well seasoned by experience gained at these heights, and ready to go, right from “Day 1”. DM

Photo: President-elect Donald Trump (L) points to his running mate, Vice president-elect Mike Pence (R), as he is introduced during the first stop of his ‘USA Thank You Tour 2016’ rally at US Bank Arena in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA, 01 December 2016. EPA/MARK LYONS

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