The unexpected effectiveness of Donald Trump
It was said of John Updike that he could review a book at great length without mentioning whether he liked it or not. In his diplomatic correspondence — that other literary genre — Kim Darroch does the same with Donald Trump. At no point do his leaked memos say if the president is a good or bad thing in moral or philosophic terms. Leaving such judgments to columnists and other windbags, Britain’s outgoing ambassador to Washington majors on what is useful to his masters: Mr Trump’s methods, his foibles, his prospects. The analysis is technical, not normative.
Those hamming up their rage at Sir Kim are only entitled to challenge him, then, on one point. Is he right? Judged on its own terms, is this administration “inept” and “uniquely dysfunctional”?
To answer in the affirmative seems natural enough. Mr Trump had a Republican Congress for two years and could not build his wall against Mexico. He falls foul of the judiciary so often that no one blinks when the Supreme Court rebukes his tinkering with the census. Abroad, his flattery of the leader of North Korea seems to intensify the less it is rewarded.
As the examples mount, Sir Kim’s view seems the plainest common sense — faultable only for stating the obvious. Just one thing gives me pause. If Mr Trump were wholly inept, he would incur only liberal derision, not liberal fear. In fact, he attracts plenty of both. It suggests he has been, if not effective in absolute terms, then more effective than some of us had hoped.
In December 2017, Mr Trump passed a tax cut that did not seem probable just a week or two earlier. It was budgetary folly and awful politics: Republicans made no great mention of it in last year’s midterm elections. But if we are judging him on the enactment of his own aims, it must rate as a win.
He also secured his first-choice nominee to the Supreme Court on two occasions. Even Ronald Reagan tasted defeat on that score, and in an era of near-unanimous confirmations. George W Bush had to sheepishly withdraw a name.
Then there is the attritional war against what Steve Bannon, who once advised Mr Trump, calls the “administrative state”. Through deregulation, the wilful understaffing or mis-staffing of the executive and the appointment of judges who construe the government’s powers narrowly, the president has worked to enfeeble Leviathan. It is dry stuff, this, but it matters. Mr Trump has been a trooper for the anti-government right. It is a particular effort to keep up with the environmental rules he has either scrapped or loosened.
Even if he had pulled off none of these domestic ruptures, his foreign policy would be enough to mark him out as a consequential leader. To harden the US line on China is no feat by itself. A president has more latitude on foreign affairs than in any other field. More remarkable is the extent to which Mr Trump has popularised this animus throughout the governing classes. Political, diplomatic and corporate elites now countenance a lasting struggle with China. This was not just unforeseeable in 2016. It was unforeseeable at the start of 2018. And its implications include nothing less than the gumming up of the globalisation that Mr Trump defines himself against.
To say this is not to credit the president with a bureaucratic guile that is somehow lost on other observers. What he does have is an obsession with a few priorities — which is strategic behaviour of a kind — and a personal force that is difficult to thwart. It is customary to bemoan the Republicans’ servility towards him as though they were under no duress. But it is precisely his aggression, his ability to turn his multitudinous flock of voters on enemies, that causes lawmakers to fold. It is a grim kind of political effectiveness. But it is a kind of political effectiveness.
Better President Trump than President Mike Pence, Democrats used to say, reasoning that the vice-president would chase rightwing aims more successfully. You hear less of that now. It is not clear that a more seasoned politician would have achieved a great deal more.
Remember how much of the cultural weather is against the GOP. Americans are ever more liberal on social issues. They are ever more “European” on healthcare and inequality. The party has won the presidential popular vote once since the end of the cold war. In inhospitable times, conservatives are grateful for small mercies. Mr Trump gives them quite a few.
“Dysfunctional”? Judged by normal standards, Sir Kim was right. Judged by the expectations of 2016, the administration is all too functional.