There are two views of Donald Trump that are the polar opposite of each other, and they are both wrong. One is that he is far outside the norms of politics, a threat to the rule of law, women, minorities, and possibly to human life on the planet. The other is that he is far outside the norms of politics, sent by the honest folk of a forgotten country to drain the sinful swamp of Washington and to make America great again.
The holders of both views have been satisfied by the President’s first foreign trip so far. For his detractors, it has been a chance to ask, semi-seriously, if it is safe for him to be out of the country for as long as five days. A mere four months after his inauguration, the airwaves are thick with talk of impeachment and questions about whether he will be allowed back into the US on Friday. He has been compared to the dictator of a banana republic who dare not go abroad in case he is deposed in his absence.
For his supporters, it is a chance for America to walk tall on the world stage again after the diffidence of the Obama era. They will be delighted by the brashness of the Saudi welcome, with the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh projecting a five-storey image of President Trump’s face, and the stars and stripes, onto the side of the hotel, and billboards of the President and the King all over the city. The trip is a chance to defy the liberal naysayers at home and to show that their President is a leader, not a difference-splitting creature of the bureaucratic elite.
The reality, of course, is that President Trump is a politician like any other, and in practice he is pursuing a conventional and heavily constrained domestic and foreign policy. He is possibly less good at conventional politics than most, less disciplined and less consistent, but beneath the bluster the continuity is more striking than the change.
Those of his opponents who regard him as a hideous aberration overlook the parallels with what has gone before. Even the comparison with Richard Nixon, particularly fashionable at the moment, only emphasises that all this has happened before. In fact, despite the breathless invocations of the legend of Watergate, the better model is Bill Clinton, who was actually impeached in 1998, then acquitted eight weeks later. These matters are more about politics than law, and the chance of a majority in the House of Representatives to impeach (that is, to charge) President Trump is remote, so early in his presidency, and the chance of securing the two-thirds majority in the Senate needed to convict him is more remote still.
Like most presidents, Mr Trump has achieved little domestically so far. In his first term, President Clinton lost his healthcare reform: President Trump’s is still stalled in Congress. His travel restrictions are still in the courts, and his wall has been downgraded by leading Republicans to a symbol.
President Trump’s foreign policy, meanwhile, has turned out to be fairly conventional. This trip reaffirms the traditional US alliances with Saudi Arabia and Israel. His strike against Assad in Syria last month was a conventional assertion of US power against a Russian proxy, despite all the fuss about the President’s alleged closeness to Vladimir Putin. This is not to say that American foreign policy is coherent, but there has been no great break with what has gone before.
None of this means that we should feel comfortable about Mr Trump’s presidency. His avowed policies of protectionism and of closing the US from the world are not in the best interests either of the US or the rest of the world. But he has been – in practice, so far – neither the great villain nor the great hero that he has been painted.Reuse content