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TRUMP: A DIVISIVE PRESIDENT; A RELATIVELY SUCCESSFUL PRESIDENCY SO FAR
Real-estate mogul Donald J. Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency surprised the world. Never had a successful presidential candidate had less political or military experience. People who voted for Trump hoped that he would be a man of action who could solve America’s many problems, both domestically and internationally.
Trump has been accused of being ill-prepared for the role of president. In spite of his controversial leadership style, alleged incompetence, and his divisive personality, epitomized by his controversial statements after the protest in Charlottesville, the Trump presidency has been relatively successful so far in terms of policy achievements.
The 2016 Election: Change or status quo?
After a political party has controlled the presidency for eight years, the American people are usually ready for change. 1988 is the only election year since World War II when one of the parties won a third consecutive term. Republican candidate George H. W. Bush defeated Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis. Thus, it would statistically be very difficult for Hillary Clinton to win the presidency after eight years of Barack Obama. In her memoir What Happened, Clinton discusses reasons why she lost the election. She acknowledges that she could have been a better listener who heard what people had to say before offering solutions to fix their problems. The election was unusually close in three key states: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. She points out that “the election was decided by 77,744 votes out of a total of 136 million cast. If just 40,000 people across Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania had changed their minds, I would have won.”
Trump’s inaugural address
Donald Trump is not only different from other Republicans in terms of style and background, he also departs from traditional Republican policies on key issues, specifically immigration and trade. Trump’s inaugural address was very different from inaugural addresses of previous Republican presidents, such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Whereas Bush, specifically in his second inaugural address in 2005, conveyed a message of the United States’ moral obligation to promote freedom globally, Trump mainly focused on America’s domestic challenges and the “carnage” at home. He noted that many factories had closed and American workers were left behind. He stated boldly: From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America First. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”
Trump’s main achievements
In spite of populist, nationalist rhetoric based on the views of Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, Trump’s presidency has been relatively ordinary in terms of policy achievements. Dr. Andrew Wroe of the University of Kent argued recently in a round-table debate in London that Trump is no ordinary president regarding his behavior, but his presidency so far has been more ordinary. Trump’s main victories include a new Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, a record number of conservatives appointed to federal appeals courts, a major tax reform, and deregulation of the economy. These are the types of achievements a president Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz would have hoped for. Let us look more closely at these achievements.
Executive orders on deregulation of the energy sector have been issued. The Trump Administration’s main legislative achievement is the largest tax reform in more than thirty years, which reduces the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent. Trump was able to earn this victory due to Republican majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins voted in favor of this reform a few weeks after they together with Senator John McCain had voted against a new health care bill that would have repealed and replaced President Obama’s health care act. However, the tax reform may contribute to weakening Obamacare. The tax penalty of $695 for an adult who does not buy health insurance will be abolished in 2019.
The American economy is generally doing well, with strong stock market results. Unemployment numbers are relatively low at about 4 percent. However, there are uneven numbers within the United States. Perhaps paradoxically, most growth happens in so-called blue states that Hillary Clinton won, whereas Republican red states struggle to keep up.
National security has been a priority for the Trump Administration. Even though the big wall has not been built, illegal crossings at the Mexican borders have been reduced. Moreover, after a poorly crafted initial executive order to temporarily ban people from seven largely Muslim nations from entering the United States, the Trump Administration revised the order twice, and late last year the Supreme Court in a 7-2 decision declared that revised travel ban could be implemented.
Abroad American forces contributed significantly to weakening ISIS in the Middle East, and the United States joined France and Britain to bomb targets in Syria after the use of chemical weapons. Finally, Trump has put pressure on North Korea. He convinced China and Russia to agree to hard sanctions against North Korea, and he plans to meet the nation’s dictator later this year. Recently Kim Jong-Un has indicated that he is willing to halt his nuclear program.
The idea of America First is reflected in some of President Trump’s foreign-policy decisions. The U.S. did not join the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trump is critical of NAFTA and wants to renegotiate this trade agreement with Canada and Mexico. He withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord because he felt the United States was punished disproportionately in terms of strict emission requirements, whereas China did not face comparable restrictions. Protectiontist tariffs on steel and aluminium have been introduced.
President Trump has remained an opponent of the Iran nuclear deal that President Obama negotiated with other European powers. French President Emmanuel Macron has tried to persuade Trump to accept the agreement, but Trump has repeatedly called it a terrible deal. One reason why Rex Tillerson was fired as secretary of state was his apparent acceptance of the Iran deal. Trump appointed Mike Pompeo, a critic of the deal, to succeed Tillerson. Trump has a deadline of May 12 before he has to make a final decision on the Iran deal.
Possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign in 2016 has been a cloud hanging over the president since early last year. Congressional investigations have found that Russia interfered in the election, but it has been difficult to prove that this affected the election results, or that there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian authorities. Shortly after FBI Director James Comey was fired in May 2017, President Trump told Lester Holt in an NBC interview that “the Russia thing” was a reason, but both before and after this interview he has referred to other reasons for Comey’s dismissal. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has indicted several Trump advisers for crimes and lies. One of his objectives is to clarify whether Trump obstructed justice by firing the FBI director. In connection with the publication of his book A Higher Loyalty, Comey has said that it is possible that the Russians possess compromising information on President Trump in connection with Trump’s visit to Moscow a few years ago. Recently the Democratic National Committee filed a civil law suit against the Trump campaign. It is unclear what the consequences of all of this will be. Mueller will need more time to finish the main report and it may not be issued before the November congressional election.
The 2018 congressional elections
The midterm elections will be very important. Special elections in 2017 and 2018 have shown signs of Trump’s unpopularity. If the Republicans lose the majority in the House of Representatives, Trump could become more vulnerable. It is possible that an impeachment trial could begin, especially if Mueller’s report is very critical of Trump and concludes that he has obstructed justice. Regardless of what happens to Trump, the American republic will survive.
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Alf Tomas Tønnessen er førsteamanuensis ved Høgskulen i Volda, Institutt for Språk og Litteratur. Han er en erfaren og etterspurt kurs- og foredragsholder om temaer innen politikk og samfunnsforhold i USA, med Det republikanske partiet og amerikansk konservatisme som særskilt interessefelt. I tillegg til å være lærebokforfatter, har han også publisert en bok om høyrebevegelsen i USA på 1970-tallet, samt en rekke andre faglige arbeider og avisartikler. Han var president i American Studies Association of Norway 2012-2016 og er nå leder av foreningens fond.