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Donald Trump, the disruptor

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Taking stock of the President’s performance eleven months before the U.S. goes to polls

With 11 months to go before the next U.S. presidential election, it is worth assessing the choices that President Donald Trump will need to make during the rest of his first term in office, and what past history indicates regarding the forthcoming poll.

Despite the current state of the economy, which is good according to most economists and could therefore benefit the incumbent, a challenger can nevertheless win. President Trump’s national approval rating hovers in the low 40% range, and the public has been receptive mainly to his handling of the economy. However, fears of recession continue and if the economy moves downwards, the favourable sentiments could erode. Some Republicans are starting to cavil at Mr. Trump’s trade wars, so any deterioration in confidence could hurt his prospects. Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford in 1976, Ronald Reagan upset Carter in 1980, and Bill Clinton beat George H. W. Bush in 1992 by promising change in the middle of a faltering economy. Each of these three defeated presidents had faced a primary challenger — Ronald Reagan, Edward Kennedy and Pat Buchanan, respectively — before going on to lose in November of that year.

After President Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president and Congressional impeachment procedure, it is now possible that he could face both primary challengers and a slowing economy. Healthcare spending, which constitutes more than a quarter of the American federal budget and is the biggest driver of the deficit, will be a major election issue. Mr. Trump ran on a promise to end the scheme approved under President Barack Obama, and Democratic Party candidates are now debating whether to propose an even more comprehensive Medicare system or the Affordable Care Act.

Breaking away

Mr. Trump’s immigration policies have disrupted the reforms engineered by Republican Presidents Reagan and Bush and Democrats Clinton and Obama. He has reshaped the Republican Party by alienating many business-minded and Spanish-speaking voters while attracting working-class white voters in the heartland. His rhetoric and actions on immigration, race and religion have galvanised his Democratic opponents since these are seen by them as attacks on traditional American political identities based on race, religion, gender and region which motivate common values and goals.

The world’s most important bilateral relationship is between the U.S. and China. Mr. Trump’s trade war with China also breaks with traditional Republican Party orthodoxy. His tariff policies and advice to American companies to consider leaving China have sparked business anxiety, and his handling of the Hong Kong protests is being studied closely. His potential primary opponents have not challenged the substance of his trade strategies because most politicians share his concerns about China’s actions, while the Democratic Party is silent on this issue for fear of estranging blue-collar workers in the country’s Northeast manufacturing region.

Foreign policy approach

Continuous disruption has extended to the American foreign policy agenda. The ‘America First’ doctrine can be traced back to previous presidents who also sparred with NATO and G-7 partners. But Mr. Trump has taken this attitude further by regularly challenging the U.S.-led international system constructed by both political parties in the aftermath of World War ll. He has also discarded the previous script concerning multilateral efforts to curb nuclear programmes in North Korea and Iran, preferring to depend on ‘deals’ fashioned through personal diplomacy. He has avoided military conflict and appears committed to ending American involvement in wars like Afghanistan. This is popular domestically, despite informed criticism that withdrawal will result in what befell the U.S. pull-out from South Vietnam, which led to hundreds of thousands of cases of death and deprivation.

While frequently under criticism by both political parties, most of Mr. Trump’s foreign approaches are more popular than his opponents perceive, and there is wide public support for isolationist and protectionist policies. But in the election to come, there will be little interest in foreign policy or the working of multilateral alliances.

The election in early November next year will test whether the American electoral system is effective and robust. Foreign attempts to disrupt U.S. elections are now to be regarded as commonplace, putting intelligence, law enforcement and local election bodies on alert. Mainstream media is on the defensive to show accuracy and impartiality as it scrambles to compete with an ever-growing number of news sources, including the social media. In the centennial year of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, female voters and elected officials will play an increasingly prominent role next year, as they did in the mid-term elections of 2018.

Remaining months

In the months that remain, President Trump will concentrate on energising his core support, with no attempt to seek cross-party backing. Politically antagonistic and blatantly partisan rhetoric will descend to unprecedented impropriety. Until a clear frontrunner emerges in the crowded field of Democratic candidates for the presidency, the incumbent President has the field to himself. The impeachment process in Congress cannot succeed without approval of two-thirds in the Senate which will not be forthcoming, and is accordingly to be regarded as a Democratic tactic to weaken Mr. Trump before the election.

If Mr. Trump wins a second term, impeachment will continue to be on the Democratic agenda with greater support from Republicans who will then be freed from relying on Mr. Trump’s support base to win a re-election. Whoever wins the presidency, foreign policy will continue as dysfunctional and internally conflicted as hitherto, due to the multiple centres of power in Washington, each of which professes to be in exclusive charge of external relations.

Krishnan Srinivasan is a former foreign secretary

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 6:24:54 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/donald-trump-the-disruptor/article30099735.ece

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