Trumping the Donald
Think what you may of Donald Trump – buffoon, demagogue, or political neophyte – he has touched some important nerves in the American body politic.
As a billionaire, he is independent of big interests’ big money that seeks to capture the agenda of the Republican candidates on their way to the nomination and in the process hijack the political debate as it moves beyond the primaries to the presidential contest. He can therefore attack without a second thought one of the most important albatrosses around America’s political neck.
As someone who has never held political office, Trump has no track record to defend. He can point to his commercial conquests as proof that he could produce similar efforts on behalf of the US economy from the Oval Office. I won’t bring up his four bankruptcies here as that might spoil a good story. Nor will I evoke his convenient volte-faces on a myriad of issues as he has sought the Republican nomination. The larger point is that making money and crafting sound government policies raise challenges that require very different skill sets. I am reminded of the successful millionaire turned hapless politician that is Italy’s Berlusconi.
Crucially, Trump taps into the concerns of America’s unemployed, in particular the lightly educated white males who over the last decade or so have seen many of their manufacturing jobs go up in smoke. A Republican candidate needs to have these guys on his side. The truth, however, is that most of the lost jobs will never return: many of America’s competitors are simply cheaper in a slew of sectors and will remain so no matter what. That said, the tax rates that have traditionally been exacted on US enterprises have sparked an exodus of leading American firms to countries with more advantageous fiscal regimes. Even with recent reductions in the corporate tax rate, the US remains close to the top of the international scorecard.
On a range of policy issues, Trump offers up super-simplistic solutions to systemic challenges. So, his take on immigration is to erect an impenetrable fence on the border with Mexico and to expulse the eleven million or so illegal immigrants estimated to be in America. He does not explain that the more the US tries to make its borders impassable, the more likely many Mexicans and Latin Americans will want to stay stateside rather than run the risks inherent in trying to move back and forth across the border to take advantage of the seasonal job market.
Nor does he explain that the expulsion policy would require turning the country into a police state, at a huge cost with more than uncertain results. Does he know, for example, what happened in 1972 to Uganda’s economy when Idi Amin expelled its sixty to eighty thousand strong Asian community out of an estimated total population of around ten million? It tanked. America’s Latinos and Uganda’s Asians are very different communities but what they have in common is an indispensable role in the two country’s economies.
Trump’s recipes in the area of foreign and security policy are also facile and puerile. The would-be Republican candidate has famously criticized the party’s nominee of 2008, John McCain, for allowing himself to be captured by the North Vietnamese and ending up a POW for six years. Trump himself has escaped any risk of capture through the ingenious ploy of simply not ever donning a US uniform.
The Donald is on the record as wanting to be tougher with China and Russia but he does not seem to be interested in, or even aware of, the key regional issues involving the two countries, namely China’s efforts to turn the East China Sea into a Chinese lake and Russia’s campaign to re-exert control over as much of former Soviet space as possible. In the hottest year on record, Donald “I’m really a smart guy” Trump has dismissed global warming as a hoax manufactured by the People’s Republic of China to steal US jobs. As for Russia, he has boasted that he would get on famously with President Putin.
Trump’s approach for dealing with the Middle East and North Africa also raises more questions than answers: strengthen the relationship with Israel (“the US’ unsinkable battleship”), enhance the sanctions régime against Iran and, as regards to the Arab world, send in lots of soldiers, bomb “them” to bits, and take over their oil. Anybody who believes this to be a viable policy has either just emerged from a time machine having missed the largely unnecessary and mostly unsuccessful wars the US waged in Afghanistan and Iraq, or has been inhaling some pretty powerful intoxicants, or is strategically stupid, or all of the above.
I could go on but … Bottom line: a vote for Trump would be like allowing yourself to undergo surgery at the hands of someone who has never been to medical school. He is the unprofessional politician par excellence. In the current US political context, this counts for a lot among a significant slice of the electorate.
So, what to do to trump The Donald and those who may wish to simulate him? Here is a short-list.
First and foremost, America needs to fix its electoral system in a way that ensures that popular opinion weighs more in the political-decision making process than oligarch money.
Second, America has to reform its corporate tax system so that more US enterprises will be encouraged to base themselves stateside.
Third, it is critically important for America to rethink its education system with a view to re-equipping its population for 21st century jobs, not those of a bygone era.
On the immigration issue, it is well over time for the US, Mexico and Canada to work to cement the promise of greater symmetries in continental decision-making about the movement of goods, services – and above all people – that are inherent in NAFTA’s founding.
America also needs to be able to counter the expansionist policies of Russia and China. But this will only work if it can count on viable alliances of like-minded states in both theatres. And the latter will only be prepared to lend credible support to a US lead if Washington is not only strategically strong but also clever.
As for the Middle East, America must become an honest broker again, working for solutions that will safely embed Israel in its region and at the same time overcome the debilitating conflict between Sunni and Shiite. The US cannot do this alone but I doubt that it can be done without it.
All these proposals need campaign-financing reform if they are to have a hope in hell of flying. These are the kind of policy provisions that take years to implement. Yet one has to start somewhere and the 2016 campaign should be about these issues, if it is to make any meaningful difference at all.
As a Canadian, I hasten to add that these are challenges that not only face the US but all Western democracies to a greater or lesser extent, and clearly with important nuances. But it is in the US that many of the necessary changes may need to come forward first.
PS. I am afraid to say that I believe that Trump has a serious chance of becoming the next US President, especially if there ends up a being a three-way race and The Donald runs as an independent.
David Law, a former Head of the NATO Policy Planning Unit, is currently a Senior Associate with the Kitchener-based Security Governance Group, and a Senior Fellow with it sister organization, the Centre for Security Governance. (Image courtesy of Reuters/Brendan McDermid.)