‘Dealmaker’ Donald Trump’s theatrics make him the real loser in global politics

The president can trumpet his ‘wins’ as much as he likes – but at the moment he is the lone bugler

Chris Stevenson
Thursday 13 June 2019 14:50
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Donald Trump reveals 'secret' Mexico deal by waving around piece of paper

As he repeatedly reminds us, Donald Trump likes winning – on the economy, on his immigration policies and particularly on trade. Having painted himself as the dealmaker extraordinaire, his reputation depends on it.

The problem is that he keeps picking trade wars that are easy to lose, such as with China and the EU. So, bruised, and requiring wins to bolster his re-election credentials and fend off the Democratic challengers, Trump has turned his attention to Mexico. In the manner of many who are powerful but thin-skinned, Trump has sought a comfort blanket and a punching bag.

First he started big, trying to rein in Beijing. China is Washington’s biggest economic challenger with whom it has been fighting pitched battles at the World Trade Organisation for years. Trump’s ego is such that he believes he can bring another superpower to heel with the magic bullet of tariffs. Make enough threats of economic damage and anyone will bow down to the might of “America First”. But against the cavernous might of China, a country that has looked to set its place at the top of the world chain for decades, Trump faces a nation that is as stubborn as he.

Brinkmanship only works when you are 100 per cent sure the cliff you are teetering on the edge of isn’t going to crumble beneath your feet – and careful planning has never been this president’s strong suit.

The fumbled threats and the pain caused to the US agriculture industry by retaliatory tariffs from both sides has left Trump resorting to ill-defined and faintly desperate lines, such as when he said Beijing will do a deal “because they’re going to have to”.

Trump has since said he “has no deadline” for solving that crisis, leaving Mexico as his option for a victory that he hopes would boost his electoral capital.

It is a nation that needs a good working relationship with their larger northern neighbours more than most other countries. The economic ties are now too deep to risk cutting. Trump also knows that they are intrinsically linked to the immigration issue too. Two birds with one stone – something a master dealmaker would never overlook.

But in the same way he would for his reality TV series, he needs to manufacture both the conflict and the hollow progress that follows. So much for valued neighbours when Trump senses an electoral honeypot.

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That’s why he is waving around “secret” migration plans in front of journalists, only for canny photographers to catch them in the right light and reveal they were laid out by Mexico days before.

The president’s political theatre only works with willing participants such as Kim Jong-un and the stage-managed summits in Singapore and Vietnam. With Mexico playing to the norms of world diplomacy in talking about methodical progress, it falls flat.

Officials south of the border have pulled back the curtain, making clear that diplomatic talks have been happening for months away from the spotlight of Trump’s Twitter feed. There is nothing new, no secrets – just the type of political grind Trump hates.

It’ll be too messy for Trump’s liking; there’ll be progress but not by his hand alone. With China too there will be no rabbits out of the hat, but there will have to be concessions.

Politics has always been about finding positive taking points, even when things are grim. But Trump has been unable to follow through. Progress with Pyongyang has stalled, if not gone backwards, and while Mexico will look to swallow the bitter pill Washington is forcing down its throat on immigration, it will not be steamrollered.

The president can trumpet his “wins” as much as he likes – but at the moment he is the lone bugler. The orchestra-like crescendo he wants will only come when he learns to play nicely with others around the world.

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