Life, like they say, comes at you fast. Just a week ago the reality-based world worried that the American people might send a con-man to the White House. Now serious people intoning serious thoughts implore us to think it’s a good thing that Donald Trump is a con-man. This is the peg from which hope hangs, at any rate: Trump is a liar and a fraud and a man who doesn’t have any core convictions, so, you know, perhaps everything will be fine. Or not as bad as you thought. We can put away all that stuff we heard on the campaign trail because, like, he doesn’t – or can’t – really mean it. As upsides go, this seems one with a hefty downside.
Early stages, of course, but far from offering meagre consolation everything Trump has done since winning the election confirms the diagnosis offered by his sterner critics. He’s not up to the job of being president and winning the election does not change that.
It’s not about policy either. Even a blind monkey can hit a dartboard from time to time. It would be hard to be president for four years without pushing for at least some non-disastrous policies. But this was not an election won or lost on the basis of the rival candidates’ views of the American future; rather it was a contest in which just enough Americans in electorally-significant parts of the country decided that Trump was a risk they could cope with. Even though many of Trump’s voters don’t think he’s up to the job of being president. That, more than anything else, is the key fact emanating from this squalid contest. A sufficient number of Americans have so little faith in the institutions of government that they’re prepared to elect a man they know cannot run the federal government. Washington is broken, so let’s elect Donald Trump to prove it. This will not end well.
Nor, despite the press’s best efforts to provide some measure of reassurance, is there any reason to suppose Trump must ‘pivot’ towards respectability. He cannot do so without repudiating his campaign and, more importantly, without betraying himself. He is who he is and who he is was entirely apparent during the campaign. Why – and how – would he change now?
As I say, it’s not about policy. Many of the problems the United States faces are intractable. Trump can’t, or won’t fix them, but then neither would Hillary Clinton have done so either. The bigger, more concerning, problem is the question of what Trump will do when new problems and fresh crises arise. How will he approach these? What will he do then?
Not even a president can control outcomes, but a president can control the procedures that lead to decisions. That doesn’t guarantee success, but an ordered and clear framework for decision-making can, at least in theory, make it easier to make clear and ordered and rational decisions. The architecture of government does actually matter. There is no sense, at least not yet, that Trump appreciates this.
Nor, despite what some people are arguing, is there yet any reason to suppose he will bring outside voices into his inner circle. On the contrary, he gives every impression of wanting to surround himself with people who comfort and reinforce his own sense of himself. I bet you a dollar Trump’s administration is filled with cronies and yes-men whose ignorance of government is matched only by their certainty. That process has already begun. Steve Bannon, who is now Trump’s senior advisor, is said to be an avowed admirer of Lenin and a believer in the concept of destroying everything first then wondering what to replace it with. That includes the Republican party, by the way, and should be a warning to those Republicans tempted to grant Trump the benefit of the doubt.
And it should be a warning to Theresa May too. Trump’s willingness to meet Nigel Farage in New York yesterday should be recognised for what it is: another reminder Trump isn’t ready for the office he will shortly fill. The idea Farage could be a ‘bridge’ between Trump Tower and Downing Street is ludicrous and, viewed from a certain perspective, humiliating. Next thing you know, Piers Morgan will be pimping himself out as the next British ambassador to Washington.
If Trump were actually ready for the Presidency, or even showed any awareness of what being President entails, he would not have met Farage. That he did so should be seen as a warning and an indication of what most probably lies ahead. Trump is as careless as he is sloppy, as over-matched as he is appalling. He doesn’t know how to treat allies because, fundamentally, he doesn’t believe in alliances. His entire career seems to have been based on the notion that business and life is always a zero-sum game. The concept of mutual advantage appears to have never occurred to him. That should be a warning to Mrs May too.
No British Prime Minister can afford not to have a relationship with any American president. The security ties between the two nations are too deep for that not to be the case. But, at least for now, the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom is best maintained on the quiet. For once, May will be right to avoid giving a running commentary, at least until such point as we have a better understanding of what the new president intends to do and, just as importantly, how he intends to do it.
But when your best hope is that the new American president is an even bigger con-man than you hoped it’s reasonable to downgrade your hopes to something close to junk bond status.