There is an argument, heard as often from his friends as from his enemies, that Donald Trump is a completely new type of American president, of a different class, of a different mindset and with different priorities from his predecessors.
For his friends, his uniqueness imbues him with a special sort of disruptive, anti-Washington, appeal. For his enemies, it offers the hope that, because he is the first and last of his kind, the US will return to a reassuringly predictable normality once he is gone. This view is held particularly by mainstream Democrats in the United States and by appalled Europeans abroad.
But is this true, or is something else going on? And if something else is going on, what is it? My exhibit A for “something else” is the destructive mayhem currently playing out in Venezuela.
This Latin American basket-case has returned to the world news with a vengeance. The latest flare-up was prompted by the inauguration of Nicolas Maduro for a second presidential term, following elections last year, which were branded fraudulent and boycotted by the opposition. Now, after two weeks of unrest and more than a dozen deaths, the United States has recognised Juan Guaido, the chairman of the elected National Assembly, as the lawful president, and a whole slew of mainly Western countries have followed suit.
The oil-dependent economy has been in meltdown for years; a tenth of the 30 million-plus population has left the country, and a great many more, stripped by poverty of all vestige of human dignity, would have no hesitation in leaving if they could. Now, following the US move, there is not only a tussle for power in Venezuela, with the military – as yet – standing by Maduro, but a sharp divide between foreign governments in how they view developments.
While Donald Trump described Maduro’s rule as “illegitimate” and praised Venezuelans for having “courageously spoken out ... and demanded freedom and the rule of law”, Russia – through the Kremlin spokesman – was as forthright on the other side. It was, the spokesman said, a US attempt to “usurp sovereign authority in Venezuela”, which risked a “direct path to bloodshed” and constituted a violation of international law. And while Canada, Brazil and six other South American states lined up behind the US, another group – Cuba, Mexico, Bolivia and Turkey – all backed Maduro.
Does any of this – from the US de-legitimising of Maduro to the geopolitical divisions – remind you of anything? Why, of course, it is an almost exact replay of what was a staple of the Cold War years. US attempts by fair means or foul, to determine what happened in what it regarded as its own back yard, and third countries in difficulty laying themselves open to proxy superpower wars. Wind back the news bulletins four decades or so, and you had Nicaragua and El Salvador and the death of Salvador Allende in Chile dominating the headlines.
This time around, the proxy war remains – so far – in the sphere of words. There is scant evidence, though suspicion aplenty, of direct CIA involvement. And the illegality might be a little more blurred than in the past, with Guaido resting his claim to power on a provision that obliges the National Assembly chairman to take over “in the absence” of the president, much hinging, of course, on the definition of “absence”.
But it is not hard to see here, and to sense in the response of Donald Trump, a rather old-fashioned US approach to what it regards as somewhere close to home. Recent presidents may have fought wars in other continents, whether to curb communism, secure oil supplies or spread democracy, but Trump – who came to office on a pledge to keep out of foreign wars and has honoured that, as far as his top brass have allowed – might be seen as a Monroe Doctrine type of guy, holding to an older way of looking at things, where “America First” fits right in.
Engineering regime change in Venezuela would suit such a president, for both doctrinal and practical reasons. It would suit him in part because Maduro has continued the socialist model of development pursued by his predecessor, Hugo Chavez – a model inimical to everything Trump holds dear. And it would suit him, too, because the exodus of Venezuelans from this failed economy has swollen the numbers of migrants trying to reach the United States, thus supporting his border wall agenda.
Let’s move to exhibits B and C, and consider whether there is more evidence of Donald Trump, not as a unique phenomenon, but as a continuation of what came before. Exhibit B would be the current government shutdown.
There are those who regard this shutdown of the federal government as unprecedented. In fact, it is without precedent only in its length, and not – yet – by much. For all the hardship that it causes to employees and recipients of state benefits, it is the standard way in which US legislatures and executives test their strength. This stand-off is inevitably more bitter than many because of the resistance to Trump in Washington and the sense of mission with which the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives. The likely postponement of the president’s State of the Union address is emblematic, but it sets Trump apart in his staying power rather than anything else. He is a transactional politician, a bargainer, who will try harder than most to face his opponent down.
And exhibit C would be the overall shape of Trump’s foreign policy as it is emerging. Along with a return to some old preoccupations, as exemplified by his response to Venezuela, there is his use of presidential clout to address particular US interests – China, North Korea – and his relative neglect of Europe as well as his scepticism about active involvement in the Middle East (as opposed to the pre-emptive stationing of troops in Gulf bases). To these should also be added his initial desire to engage with Russia – just as Cold War presidents tried to do, with varying degrees of success, with the Soviet Union. That today’s congress will not grant to him what it granted to them – in terms of freedom to talk to Moscow – is likely to be a source of frustration until he leaves office, whenever that is.
In sum, Donald Trump does not seem to me to be a new type of American president, or unique. He is something else, but it is not something entirely unfamiliar. In his self-centred approach to the legislature, he seems in many ways to distil old-style presidential power. And in his priorities and his worldview, far from representing anything new, he seems rather a throwback to an earlier American age. Before Europeans become too hopeful for eventual change, however, that does not mean that such attitudes will depart with him. That they have resurfaced after so long suggests that they run deeper than his many critics might think.
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