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Larry Donnelly on Trump: 'There is the substance and the sideshow'

What will Trump do next? Your guess is as good as mine, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

ONE YEAR AGO this week, the world woke to a political earthquake. Defying all the odds, Donald Trump had vanquished Hillary Clinton and was President-Elect of the United States.

Judging by the number of friends who texted me subsequently and the response on Twitter, the shock in my speech was palpable as I sought to process the result on a special 6am Morning Ireland broadcast, after a very long night with no sleep.

I have since written thousands of words in an effort to explain the appeal of President Trump and the wide-ranging factors that engendered his ascendancy. Now, a year later, it is worth examining the successes and failings of an undeniably tumultuous presidency.

The substance and the sideshow

There is the substance and the sideshow. As for the latter, it is difficult to fathom the fashion in which the Trump White House has conducted its affairs. The president himself said in an admittedly different context – this Tuesday when addressing South Korea’s National Assembly about North Korea – that his “is a very different administration than the US has had in the past.” And so it is. Those of us who argued that the president would be distinguishable from the candidate were wrong.

Among many other things, we have been witness to a needless boast about the number of people present at his inauguration, an ever revolving cast of high-level staffers, an endless stream of wholly un-presidential tweets and the casual use of derogatory, mean-spirited labels to describe perceived enemies, both foreign and domestic.

Moreover, the Robert Mueller-led investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russian government officials has been a major and worrying distraction.

Amateurishness has adversely affected his policy agenda

In this milieu, it is tough to credibly claim that President Trump and his team have “done politics” well. Their amateurishness has adversely affected his policy agenda. The sideshow – driven by his unpredictable, overbearing disposition and massive ego – has, in many ways, overwhelmed the substance.

Some of the key votes he has lost on Capitol Hill are arguably down as much to a reluctance on the part of a handful of powerful fellow Republicans, such as Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, to facilitate him personally as to genuine differences of opinion on the issues. The President’s attempt to repeal Obamacare seems to be motivated as much by his manifest dislike for his predecessor as by reasoned opposition to it or belief in a cogent alternative.

On the Affordable Care Act and on his tax cutting initiative, congressional Democrats have stood united against the president. It is quite bewildering, politically speaking at least, that President Trump has opted almost exclusively to pursue the objectives of the anti-government hard right, rather than to advocate more strenuously for the Middle America that elected him.

If he were to push for a serious plan to rebuild the country’s decayed infrastructure – in the process employing a substantial number of men and women who are now either out of work or working for low pay – and to aggressively seek to ameliorate the country’s trade imbalance, the president would put Democrats who are broadly sympathetic on both fronts in an awkward position. They, together with a band of Republicans who are increasingly sceptical of their party’s free market economic orthodoxy and who represent struggling communities, could have the votes to pass related legislation.

Two versions of the “Muslim ban” have been struck down by the courts, despite the facts that the president is accorded considerable legal authority on immigration and that the bulk of relevant precedent is on his side. Again, though, President Trump probably raised the collective ire of the judicial branch with his ill-tempered assertion that the first decision against the ban was “ridiculous” and was authored by a “so-called judge.” Individual members of a robust judiciary might well be drawing a line in the sand against a president who they think challenges their independence.

US economy continues to exhibit positive signs

On foreign policy, Donald Trump has taken a line far removed from his statements last year. Then, he opposed “war and aggression,” pledged to stop “racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with,” and attacked experts in Washington, DC with “perfect résumés, but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.”

His persistent sabre rattling at North Korea, including a not so coded message to Kin Jong-un regarding the use of nuclear weapons, and threatening language directed at other countries suggest a change of heart. This has come as an unwelcome blow to a small faction on the left who deemed Hillary Clinton a more dangerous interventionist than Trump and to military families in the US who have suffered the ravages of recent futile wars and were drawn to his contrary rhetoric.

As for accomplishments, President Trump did manage to get his first nominee to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, who is already closely allied to the high court’s most right-wing justices, confirmed in April. In so doing, he kept a promise to millions of committed Christian conservatives who oddly rallied around the thrice-married billionaire and reality TV star.

Additionally, the markets have reacted pretty well to his election and the US economy continues to exhibit positive signs. In one sense, at least, this is because the president can’t really exert influence to any significant degree in this sphere. But politically, American presidents always get too much credit when things are going well and too much blame when they are not.

What is next?

Since January, Republicans have won four special elections for vacant seats in Congress (in relatively favourable districts). In New Jersey and Virginia on Tuesday, however, Democrats won governorships. Neither triumph was a surprise, yet the margin was greater than had been forecast in Virginia. Democrats also performed better in state legislative contests there than any pundits had predicted.

This is being heralded as the kicking off point for the “resistance” to President Trump at the ballot box. While it was a great day for his opponents, it is foolhardy to read victories on one day in two blueish states as a barometer of what will happen in the 2018 mid-terms.

One year after he stunned the world, the question most often asked of me about Donald Trump is what do you think is next? Given how extraordinary the year has been, I hope my answer isn’t too glib: your guess is as good as mine.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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