Reactions to Trump Are Mostly Over-Blown And Unhelpful
The reaction to President Donald Trump’s first weeks in power says more about us than it might about him.
Doubtless there is much to find objectionable in the person and previous behaviour of the President. Some of his past remarks about women were by his own admission crass, careless and highly inappropriate.
His bombast on the campaign trail in addressing immigration issues was attractive to his core supporters but less so to parts of the international community, who still look to the US president for a voice of calm reassurance in difficult times.
One suspects that the President’s self-initiated war on the “mainstream” media will end in tears - probably for all concerned. He will not be able to maintain the antipathy towards the press and media without having this distract him from more important goals.
His popularity will slide among his core supporters to this point - many of them disaffected Democrats - if he is seen to spend more energy worrying about perceived injustices done to him than he invests in solving their problems.
For its part, the media will win no prizes by fighting fire with fire. Mr Trump is by nature combative. Getting down-and-dirty to attack the elected president, throwing to the wind any remaining vestige of journalistic impartiality, will only further bolster the American public’s apparent distrust of the media.
A number of polls suggest that a relatively significant percentage of Americans view the press and media corps as unaccountable and avidly left-leaning elites.
One thing is certain: Mr Trump inspires passionate emotions, on both sides of the political divide. Having said that, the at times almost manic reaction to his first weeks in office, in places far removed from America, suggests that many people are reacting not just to issues or to specific executive actions, but to the very idea of a President Trump.
Some of the leaders of recent demonstrations have ostensibly set out to defend specific rights in society. This is all well and good. But when offered the opportunity to explain their reasons for protest some, such as Baroness Warsi, have immediately launch into passionate diatribes about everything that is in any way Trump-related.
Meanwhile, while celebrities at awards ceremonies line up to launch diatribes against their legally elected president, many Americans may wonder why, if they’re so serious about a political role, they don’t cancel their ceremonies in order to give themselves wholly to the cause.
Protest is a vital mechanism for keeping executive power in check. It is a tool for change, but one that should be exercised with a clear and consistent focus and with some level of emotional restraint and proportionality.
Being angry about something does not on its own make a protest effective. The present climate suggests that reason has given way to raw emotion and measured consideration has been shut out by knee-jerk sloganeering.
Those accusing Trump - and the middle-Americans who carried him to office - of rank populism are themselves practising a form of the same thing. They offer slogans and demagogic statements without any real substance, or any real hope of making a difference.
In responding to the new American order, there are several things we should keep in mind if we’re genuinely wanting to help shape a better future.
The first is the fact that if people elect a non-politician to occupy a nation’s highest political seat, they (and we) should expect a few missteps and perhaps more than a little ignorance of the normal way of doing things.
Though President Obama was, in terms of earlier presidents, a relative political novice, he had a large percentage of his cabinet officers approved within a days of his election . Given some political cover, then, he was able to move ahead with the best available advice.
President Trump, however, has been made to wait. It might be argued that the obviously bungled immigration “ban” - I’ve written more about this elsewhere - might have been handled far more effectively had his intended political counsel been in place.
Second, we must not forget that the US system does not readily lend itself to being overtaken by tyrants. This and the goodwill of the American people has been the major reason that their system of government has remained relatively stable for as long as it has.
As the respected BBC journalist Alistair Cooke once revealed, the closest America came to a coup was when President Franklin D. Roosevelt claimed for himself extraordinary powers over the economy in response to the Great Depression. Roosevelt, it must be remembered, was an urbane Democrat who was re-elected to office three times, before the current restriction to two-term presidencies was enacted.
As measured as he seemed, writes Cooke, “Roosevelt set up an administration which for a year or two actually appropriated the law-making powers of Congress. Having promised to weaken the powers and the patronage of the central government, he seized power at the centre.”
A taste for autocracy need not be limited to one side of the political aisle. As yet, I would argue, Mr Trump has not, in his actions, approached anything like the audacity of Mr Roosevelt.
It is also worth noting that thus far President Trump is doing pretty much exactly what candidate Trump promised to do. He and his supporters can argue, with some justification, that he has been given a democratic mandate.
We voters can’t very well complain, as we often do, that political promises too often turn out to be chimeric and then complain about someone who actually does what he committed to do.
A fourth consideration, for those of us who live in such places as the UK, Europe and Australia is that Mr Trump is not accountable to us. We are definitely affected by presidential decisions on hugely important foreign policy issues such as US engagement with Russia, China and North Korea.
Foreign policy is the one area where a US President has fairly wide latitude. We must hope that the generals and diplomats on Mr Trump’s staff will, when they are finally in place, provide a restraining hand.
So far, however, domestic policies have been at the fore and their greatest impact has arguably been in shaking up the sense of entitlement which seems to have gripped many liberal voters in the US and abroad.
The liberal wing of international politics is now making the same mistake that conservatives made in the 1980s. They have talked themselves into believing that their approach is the only sane one and that the wisdom of the collective will accept this as a done deal.
Let’s also bear in mind that the last US election saw the American people presented with what looked like a fairly poor choice.
When asked for my thoughts by journalists before and during the US election, I mused about how little I envied American voters.
On the one hand, they were presented with a political novice who often seems to say the first thing that pops into his head. On the other, in Hillary Clinton they were offered a candidate who seemed ready and willing to shift her core positions on important policies according to the winds of political expediency. Mrs. Clinton clearly did this on her economics agenda, as she attempted to negotiate storm Saunders.
Though I do not as yet advocate for or against Mr. Trump, I admire America and sincerely hope that its president confounds early expectations. Other presidents have done so before him. (Still others have, on at least some fronts, fallen short of ridiculously high expectations, former President Obama perhaps being a case in point.)
Finally, much has been written in recent years about the so-called “Wisdom of Crowds”. This is the idea that digital communications technology makes it easier to reach large groups of people and involve them in decision-making. Choices made this way, so the theory goes, will be wiser because more people have been engaged.
However, even a cursory glance at history reveals that crowds don’t always get things right. In fact, crowds often get things disastrously wrong. Group-think often becomes gloop-think; setting up regimes of thought and emotion that once entrenched are had to dislodge, yet which ultimately prove to be unhealthy and even disastrous.
For some, the first impulse will be to take to the barricades in response to whatever the new president does. This will make for a headline or two, but it won’t lend itself to the discovery of wisdom and may delude us into thinking that drawing a crowd in and of itself justifies our position.
There’s no point demonstrating against the very idea of a President Trump. It’s time for people on all sides to engage as proactively as possible, not naively but in recognition that Americans have demanded change, as is their right.
It’s time for leftists to accept that their agenda is not being a free pass and for conservatives to understand that with power comes huge responsibility - not just for executing an agenda but for keeping debate alive and pursuing the common good.
For samples of Mal Fletcher's media interviews on related subjects, click here, here and here.