President Donald Trump’s many opponents and detractors have failed to find a lever which they could use to dislocate him. The reason for that failure is that Trump’s opponents both on the right and the left have been dealing with a caricature of him, ignoring the more complex reality of his idiosyncratic presidency. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm / AFP via Getty Images)
If US President Donald Trump has his way, his impeachment trial should begin soon after the new year gets under way. Trump wants this hurdle removed as soon as possible so that he could devote his energies to his re-election campaign. And this may be precisely why his Democratic opponents are now dragging their feet trying to delay the so-called trial until sometime closer to the beginning of the formal campaign in summer.
Whichever way this byzantine contest between the president and his opponents turns out, one thing is already certain. Trump’s many opponents and detractors have failed to find a lever which they could use to dislocate him. The reason for that failure is that Trump’s opponents both on the right and the left have been dealing with a caricature of him, ignoring the more complex reality of his idiosyncratic presidency.
There are, in fact, four caricatures of Trump.
The first is portrayed by traditional Republican grandees who started by dismissing him as an annoying intruder and ended up perceiving him a naive novice to politics who could be manipulated in every way.
In 2016, before Trump had won the Republican presidential nomination, I was reassured by some American Republican acquaintances that the property developer from Manhattan would be as easy to woo and seduce as a milkmaid in the Victorian era.
A Trump presidency would enable us to use the American “800-pound gorilla” to fight the wars we dream of or to push through policies that would make a “normal” politician blush even mentioning. More than three years later it is clear that, whatever his failings, Trump would not sing from that hymn-sheet. In fact, he is the first US president since Gerald Ford not to get the US involved in any new war. Nor has he tried to launch measures that might put the US on an irreversible economic; social and/or foreign policy trajectory.
A second caricature came from what one may call country club Republicans formerly known as Rockefeller crowd. That paternalistic brand of Republicanism regards politics as too serious to be based on references to the “hardly educated” masses that should certainly be looked after but never allowed to set the tune on any issue. In that caricature Trump appears as a dancing bear entertaining the great unwashed in the agora.
Those who shaped that caricature ignore the immense importance and the aesthetic aspect of persuading millions of routinely excluded American voters to discover or rediscover the challenge of participation in the nation’s democratic life. Mock it as populism, but the fact that almost a quarter of Trump voters say they had never gone to the polling stations before is hard to dismiss as irrelevant.
Some of Trump’s Democrat detractors draw another caricature. They see Trump as a wrecker of hard-won consensus on key issues of national and international life, a bull in the china shop character that, if not restrained, could do lasting harm to the nation. However, a closer look might offer a less unflattering picture. Trump has managed to negotiate compromises with Democrat opponents on three national budgets. He has also succeeded in chaperoning his nominees to the US Supreme Court in the teeth of the most violent partisan campaigns against his choices.
That caricature of Trump is highlighted by a number of declarations he has made, often on Twitter, as is his habit. Trump has labeled NATO “obsolete” but has done more than many of his predecessors to focus attention on the need for reforming it and persuading all member states to pay their fair share of the cost of collective defense. Under Trump, the US defense budget has reached an all-time record high. A new phase of building bases in Europe, notably in the Balkans and the Baltic is under way. The US has also re-calibrated relations with fellow NATO member Turkey to diminish its role in the alliance without cutting it off completely.
Far from retreating in the face of alleged Russian expansionism, the US has increased the number of its troops in Europe and released military aid to Ukraine, frozen under President Barack Obama.
Trump is blamed for Brexit and accused of trying to wreck the European Union ostensibly to please Vladimir Putin. However, the Brexit referendum came before Trump had won the presidency and despite Obama’s public intervention to help stop it.
The same caricature is used to censure Trump for his refusal to enact he so-called Paris Climate Accord.
However, the fact is that none of those who signed the accord, including is main promoters, have fulfilled their promises. The recent follow-up conference in Madrid showed that the Paris Accord was more hype than substance if not a political ploy to put an urgent issue in the long grass.
It was Obama who launched the so-called “pivot to Pacific” pipe-dream as a means of steering US policy way from Europe. Instead, Trump has forced China to engage in trade talks designed to persuade Beijing’s leadership to comply with rules and norms of fair trade that could ultimately benefit Europe as well.
Relations may have cooled somewhat with Germany, France and Canada, where US protection was taken for granted and America-bashing had become a popular sport. Instead, Trump has warmed up relations with countries that regard the US as an ally and not as a mere partner in a loose coalition, among them Brazil, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Israel and Great Britain.
Finally, there is a caricature of Trump as an egomaniac who sees himself as the pivot of universe, a measure of right and wrong and the best thing since sliced bread. Trump is portrayed as the champion of “America alone” and thus an enemy of multilateralism. But that claim, too, is hard to sustain. Trump has attended all the G-7 summits held since his arrival at the White House and is now scheduled to host one in Florida this year.
Trump is also criticized for denouncing the so-called “Iran nuclear deal”, concocted by Obama to sideline the United Nations Security Council, the US Congress and even the Islamic Majlis in Tehran. Instead, Trump is calling for new talks within a transparent legal framework as defined by seven UNSC resolutions and subject to final ratification by the US Congress, the Islamic Majlis and parliaments of other interested countries.
What all caricaturists of Trump ignore is that he is president of a well-organized and solidly based nation whose policies and behavior generally cannot be radically altered by any one leader. Both Bill Clinton and Obama tried to inject a strong dose of socialism into American life by bringing part of the health and insurance industries, accounting for 16 percent of the gross domestic product, into the public domain. Both failed, leaving behind problems that the US may have to grapple with for another generation.
Those who wish to beat Trump in November cannot do so with caricatures. They need to acknowledge his support-base as a reality and admit that he represents a zeitgeist that rejects the traditional political elites and admires “strongmen” who; rightly or wrongly, can get things done.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.
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