When May visited Trump, the UK media were full of comparisons with Thatcher and Reagan. The US free press paid little attention to the visit, because they were fully preoccupied by the enormity of what was happening to their country. They were not seeing the first few tentative steps of another Republican president, they were seeing the confident strides of the equivalent in the UK not of Nigel Farage, but the leader of the BNP or the EDL. If you think this is going over the top, read on.
There were three kinds of story about Trump that encouraged people to think things wouldn’t be so bad. The first, which we now know is untrue, is that he would surround himself with more experienced and wiser counsel. Instead probably the most powerful man in Trump’s White House is Steve Bannon. He is executive chairman of Breitbart News, essentially a far right, or what is called in the US alt-right, news and opinion outlet that promotes white supremacist, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic ideas. One of Trump’s latest actions is to oust the director of intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from always attending the Principals Committee of the National Security Council and replacing them with Bannon. John McCain said the appointment of Mr. Bannon is a radical departure from any National Security Council in history.
The second story was that everything said on the campaign trail was to win the presidency, and that once that was achieved more ‘serious’ (aka traditional Republican) measures would be introduced. (US financial markets might have bought into that idea, and are now beginning to realise their error.) Once again the first few days, and particularly this travel ban, have proved that wrong. Trump is enacting the headline measures that were both highly controversial and also effective on the campaign trail, and doing that fast. This is smart politics. His strength was never in the Republican party or in the business community, but in those who watch propaganda networks like Fox News and who helped him into the White House.
The final story, which continues on both the left and right, is that Trump and his team are inexperienced buffoons who will quickly make fools of themselves, and will be brought to heel by the checks and balances of the US constitutional system. Its too early to tell, but the signs so far do not look good. Take the holocaust statement. According to this story, leaving out any mention of Jews or anti-Semitism from the Holocaust Day statement was perhaps an oversight that would get corrected later. But it was not, but instead intentional and purposeful.
A far more plausible explanation of what is going on is that it is part of a strategy, not only to firm up Trump’s base but also to test those checks and balances. Telling border agency staff to ignore court orders is not confusion but deliberate, to see how far they can go. Initial reports that the top state department officials had resigned were perhaps deliberate misinformation: they were all fired by the White House, with no replacements in sight. What this looks like is a concentration of power at the very centre. The lack of consultation about the immigration order was not inexperienced oversight but the shape of things to come.
The trouble with checks and balances are that they are designed to work on the margin, stopping small acts of overreach by different parts of a normal government. Whether they can cope with a determined and fast moving small team in the White House we have yet to see. These checks and balances are often slow. For example Trump has become president with his business affairs hardly altered. The travel ban excluded the four countries in the area in which Trump has business interests. “This isn’t the way the presidency has worked since Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act in 1978,” said the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, but what is anyone going to do about it?
Given all this, for Prime Minister May to celebrate a “new era of American renewal” after meeting Trump represents either craven grovelling or a complete misreading of what is going on, or both. As Simon Schama tweets:
“Nothing is being renewed in USA except hatred. Nothing is being renewed in USA except ignorance and the dissolving of distinction between lies and truth. Nothing is being renewed in USA but much is being destroyed: equity under law, the climate, civil decency, public education, public health.”
If you think that quote, and this post more generally, are overreactions of the type often found in the worst kind of left-wing hyperbole, here is Charles Koch, scourge of the American Left: “We have a tremendous danger because we can go the authoritarian route ….”.
All this is going to have huge consequences for the people of the US and the world. But I make no apology for ending on a more parochial point, because it is critical and happening right now. Brexit is like a train with no way of stopping before its destination, full of people who think they are going to paradise, but their paradise has just been taken over by someone who is turning it into hell. Does our leader say we must get off the train before it starts, fit it with more brakes or even that we must pause before we leave? No, she says she sees and hears nothing, and even the normally rebellious guard says we must follow the will of the people. As Trump goes about putting his campaign pledges into action within days of taking office, Boris Johnson in the Commons yesterday actually said that it was clear that “Trump’s bark is considerably worse than his bite”. Keynes may not have said “When the facts change I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”, but it is the right question to ask right now..