External Affairs

Trump’s First Hundred Days Have Been Tempered by the Curative Power of Democracy

While Trump has put in place a new culture of disruptive disagreement, institutional constraints and a vigorous media have subjected him to the rites of scrutiny and accountability.

U.S. President Donald Trump reacts after signing an executive order on education during an event with Governors at the White House in Washington, DC, U.S. April 26, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Tomorrow will be Donald Trump’s 100th day in the White House. When on November 8 last year he got himself elected to the office of President of the United States, the rest of the world wondered how could have the Americans opted for this man; how could America — the land of Harvard and Yale, Princeton and MIT, the New York Times, Washington Post, the New Yorker — elect a man who is gratuitously boorish, determinedly anti-intellectual, and just a greedy businessman, with no record whatsoever of any public service? Well, democracies do sometimes produce false and flawed results.

Trump assumed charge on January 20th this year. Has he dismantled and destroyed the United States as his detractors feared; or, has he created the kind of global chaos that the world capitals had apprehended? Perhaps the first hundred days may be too short a period to allow any definitive conclusions, but it is feasible to believe that the fears of an American meltdown were vastly exaggerated. The curative power of democracy has had its impact.

Though Donald Trump won the Presidency in November 2016 he did not win the popular vote. Those who did not vote for him thought they had a right to deny him the kind of honeymoon the Presidents are normally granted. The first hundred days have been full of confrontation and cock-ups. Washington’s in-crowd resents him, as it resents anyone who is seen as an outsider, just as it had scorned the Jimmy Carters and the Bill Clintons. On his part, the cantankerous and quarrelsome Trump is not the one to turn the other cheek. He has, in fact, not passed up any chance to throw a brick through his rivals’ glass window.

Trump is an aberration. The Americans’ sense of disappointment can be traced to the simple fact that these last eight years the United States and  the world had got used to a substantive, and at times searing, presidential rhetoric. Nobody has yet accused Trump of eloquence. A distinct sense of shoddiness emanates from the fact that unlike his predecessor, who was often suspected of being too professorial, Donald Trump has positioned himself as a street brawler. And, he has lived up the part, using Twitter as a knuckle-duster, throwing 140-letter punches at rivals at home and abroad.

Authority in Washington, as per the American constitutional arrangements, is a divided proposition. Presidential effectiveness invariably depends on the White House’s ability to work with different groups, build up consensus, lead a coalition almost on every issue; despite his self-belief as a wonderful deal-maker, Trump has yet to demonstrate the skills and the attitudes needed to work with other institutional players in Washington. Consequently, the others keep snipping at his heels; and, he is happy to bark back. The last hundred days have seen unhappy departures from good presidential manners. This constant brawling and an itch for confrontation have necessarily deprived the President of an aura of respectability.

Democracies look for a sense of moral authenticity and gravitas in their leaders; there is an implicit need to have confidence in their leaders and to believe that they are being led by an exemplary personality of virtuosity and moral lustre. Citizens need to respect their leaders. But Donald Trump refuses to climb on to the pedestal.

Because he came to office tapping the resentments and frustrations of the American voters with the so-called elites and at the foreigners who had taken away jobs out of the United States, Trump feels he needs to keep his legions’ anger simmering. Unsurprisingly, his very first executive decisions were directed against the immigrants, at least the undocumented ones, but he found himself having to deal with judicial challenges. As if the sense of confrontation with the judicial branch was not enough, the president has thoughtlessly engaged the media in a hit-and-run campaign. All this has not helped the American president garner any kind of respectability at home.

The Americans remain unsure whether the president has satisfactorily insulated his office from his complicated and not-so-honourable business interests; they are definitely not amused that the Trump Family seems to be acquiring so much say in the day-to-day functioning of the presidency. The President remains unconcerned; perhaps his obduracy stems from the fact that he never had a political office before and therefore remains uneducated in the leader’s obligation to appreciate and respect public sensibilities.

Because Trump has put in place a new culture of disruptive disagreement in the domestic discourse, it is bound to have implications in the United States’ relationship with the world. A president who is not respected at home finds it difficult to earn applause abroad. The domestic combativeness means that president Trump cannot be relied upon to provide and articulate any kind of ideological or political global leadership, an obligation that the American presidents since Franklin D Roosevelt have invariably discharged.

Trump came to the Oval Office after accusing the external forces — the Chinese, the Mexicans, the Europeans — of being unfair to the United States and being a cause, direct or indirect, of American economic decline. He promised protectionism and isolationism. He promised to stay at home, refusing to play the global sheriff; he declared himself unenamoured of the so-called global architecture; his preference, he declared, would be for bilateral deals and duels.  

Much to the relief of the globalists on the east coast, he, as President, seems inclined to hew the conventional line. He has not stayed home. He has gone and dropped the mother of all bombs in Afghanistan; fired missiles at Syria because the Assad regime was being bad boys; and, this week sent his Vice-President to do a bit of macho-posturing against North Korea.  

The Chinese seem to have sorted Trump out. Demonstrating diplomatic dexterity, they have refused to be provoked but have expressed themselves strongly when it was felt necessary to do so. They have baffled him, practising simultaneously confrontation, cooperation and co-ption.

The Europeans are no longer alarmed by Trump’s isolationism; he has found some merit in NATO. They realise that they have to put their own house in order and they are relieved that they do not have to deal with Trump’s disruption of the European project. The Russians, on the other hand, are happy to take him for a ride, too.  

The American presidency remains undoubtedly the most powerful office in the world. The man who sits in the Oval Office can mug anyone of his happiness. The relief, if any, of these first hundred days is Trump has not been allowed to be reckless. Institutional constraints, liberal pieties and a vigorous media have combined to subject him to the rites of scrutiny and accountability. And, this should be a matter of enormous satisfaction to democratic voices and forces even beyond the United States

Harish Khare is Editor-in-Chief of The Tribune, where this article first appeared.