Open Essay

The Isolation of Donald Trump

James Astill is the Washington bureau chief and Lexington columnist for The Economist. He is a contributor to Open
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The braggadocio apart, the American president looks increasingly vulnerable

DONALD TRUMP HAD a lot of luck during the first half of his first presidential term. While he inflicted administrative chaos, crazy tweets and torrents of divisive rhetoric upon America, the economy was humming along. The markets, Trump’s favoured indicator of economic success or failure, rose inexorably. His administration had no geopolitical shock—no 9/11 or Arab Spring—to contend with. And the fact that the Republican Party controlled every lever of elected power—the presidency and both congressional chambers—ensured he also had little serious political opposition. Yet as he enters the second half of his presidency, Trump’s luck is running out.

That is most obvious on Capitol Hill, where the Democrats assumed control of the House of Representatives this month. Even amid a serious political crisis—occasioned by Trump’s decision to shut down large parts of the federal government in a fight with Congress over his promised border-wall—the Democrats’ return to power inspired euphoric scenes. There were cheers as Nancy Pelosi, House Democrats’ 78-year-old leader, brandished the gavel and so became the first person to become House Speaker twice in six decades. Among the 67 new Democratic House members, who rode a wave of revulsion against Trump at last year’s mid-terms elections, even higher spirits were evident.

Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, newly enrolled as one of the first Muslim congresswomen, was recorded assuring a crowd of supporters: “We’re gonna impeach the motherfucker.” She meant Trump.

An even more colourful new congresswoman, 29-year-old Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez from New York, was meanwhile literally dancing in Congress. After scornful conservatives leaked on social media a video of her dancing on a roof-top, dating from her college days, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted a rival clip of her performing a few twirls outside her congressional office. She meant to ridicule the very notion that she, elected on a promise to give Washington a radical left-wing makeover, could be embarrassed by a light- hearted (and rather good) student performance. Her riposte registered over half-a-million ‘likes’ on Twitter in a day.

This rebelliousness may signal trouble down the line for Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic leadership. Representatives Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez represent a left-wing equivalent of the Tea Party wave that swelled Republican congressional ranks in 2010. Elected on a promise to slash the federal government, Tea Partiers have ever since been a viper in the Republican nest: they engineered the resignation of the Republican Speaker John Boehner and laid the ground for Trump’s insurgent campaign in 2016. There are, to be sure, reasons to doubt the new left-wingers in Congress will be nearly so destructive. Most of the new Democratic intake is moderate, which will make it much harder for the firebrands to get their way. And the Democrats are generally more united than the Republicans were: around the twin aims of improving—not slashing—the government and opposing Trump. Managing the zesty new Democratic caucus will nonetheless be a challenge for Pelosi. By comparison, however, the Democratic takeover of the House already represents a serious problem for Trump.

To pass legislation, the president now needs Democratic support. That is not something he is good at securing—as he has demonstrated in his effort to bludgeon Congress into providing $5 billion for a southern border-wall as his price for ending the government shutdown that he himself engineered. Indeed, contrary to his self-spun image, the president’s trail of bankruptcies suggests he has never been good at negotiating deals. Yet the shutdown is especially compelling evidence of this.

Previous government shutdowns have involved a game of political chicken: each party blamed the other until it became clear which of them voters held most accountable, whereupon that party would swiftly make the necessary concessions to fund and reopen the government. This time is different. Trump gave advance warning that he would be ‘proud’ to shut down the government if his promised border-wall was not funded by Congress. Most of the president’s supporters seem to approve of this—but they are a minority. Most voters, including a large majority of Democrats, think the wall is a dreadful idea, which has made it relatively easy for the Democrats to refuse to blink and accede to the president’s demand. As this magazine goes to press, both parties to the stand-off have dug in so hard, it is difficult to see how the stand-off might be ended.

Meanwhile, shuttered parts of the government were in disarray, with mounting piles of litter and overflowing toilets reported in national parks, and unnecessary pain inflicted on 800,000 affected government workers. Most have in effect been suspended without pay. An advisory from the Trump administration suggesting they should do chores to cover their rent payments may not have provided the reassurance intended. At least those affected public servants will be paid belatedly once the government reopens—unlike thousands of contractors, including poor cleaners and janitors who are simply losing hours of paid work. Callous and wasteful, the shutdown is a disgrace. It recalls another aspect of Trump’s business record—his well- known habit of stiffing the small-time contractors who worked on his projects over their fee. It also illustrates the bad policy and ill-tempered politics that minority rule is liable to produce. This phenomenon reflects the fact that the Republican Party enjoys structural advantages from America’s electoral system, because its voters are less concentrated than Democratic ones, that allow it to win power with a minority of voters. It also reflects how disdainful of majority opinion the Trump party has become.

To pass legislation, Trump now needs democratic support. That is not something he is good at securing—as he has demonstrated in his effort to bludgeon Congress into providing $5 billion for a Southern border-wall as his price for ending the US government shutdown

Another pressing new problem for the president is the investigative powers the Democrats have assumed with their new House majority. They reside especially in the subpoena powers attached to the main House committees, which the Democrats intend to wield against Trump’s administration with gusto. To some degree this reflects a pre-existing development. As law-making has become harder, due to rising partisanship, control of Congress has become largely a means to block and investigate the rival party’s administrations. The Republicans’ relentless effort to investigate Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over a trumped-up scandal concerning the deaths of diplomatic personnel in Benghazi, Libya, was an example of this. Yet the corrupt and scandal-prone Trump administration presents an altogether more legitimate target.

House Democrats are drafting a blizzard of subpoenas for the Trump administration, concerning its many scandals, from the shamefully slow federal response to a deadly hurricane in Puerto Rico in 2017, to possible ways in which its Middle-East policy could be supportive of Trump’s business interests. In tandem with Robert Mueller’s special investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s associates and the shadowy Russian effort to get him elected in 2016, this is a growing threat to his presidency, which appears to be costing him sleep. Apropos of nothing in particular, he tweeted: ‘How do you impeach a president who has won perhaps the greatest election of all time, done nothing wrong (no Collusion with Russia, it was the Dems that Colluded), had the most successful first two years of any president…?’

THE DEMOCRATIC LEADERSHIP does not want to impeach Trump. To launch impeachment proceedings would be easy; it requires merely a majority in the House. To secure an impeachment conviction, and so his removal from office, is a different matter. That would require the Republican-controlled Senate to try Trump on the impeachment charges filed by the House and rule against him by a two-thirds majority. That is currently unimaginable and Democratic leaders are rightly wary of the advantage a failed impeachment could give Trump. It could allow him to run for re-election, in 2020, on a false claim that he had been exonerated of all charges. A potential spanner in the works for the Democrats is that, whatever their political calculations may tell them, the evidence of wrongdoing by Trump becomes so weighty that they have little alternative but to press for his impeachment nonetheless. A scoop by The New York Times last week, which revealed that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had opened an investigation into Trump, several months into his presidency—to ascertain whether he was in effect a Russian agent—makes that possible dilemma seem all the more real.

In the return to front-line politics of Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate in 2012, many Republican lawmakers see a potential mouthpiece for their concerns. The ‘conscience of the party’ some call him

As the paranoid pitch of Trump’s impeachment tweet might suggest, the Democratic takeover in Congress also represents a broader, more indeterminate, threat to his presidency. Trump’s unpredicted electoral victory, relentless look-at-me style, and helpful economic and political circumstances had bathed his presidency in an aura of invincibility. Anxious Democrats wondered what Trump’s political magic was. Republican dissidents swallowed their doubts about him. But that aura is fading. The fierce support of most Republican voters looks increasingly insufficient to get him re-elected. Overall, he looks reduced, vulnerable and unpopular.

Economic worries are contributing to that pressure. The economy remains strong, with less than 4 per cent unemployment. Yet there is a growing expectation that the stimulus effect of Trump’s spending increases and tax cuts will shortly start wearing off. Prognosticators at Goldman Sachs expect America’s GDP growth to slow considerably, to around 1.75 per cent this year. Worries about a slowdown in China that is already underway, exacerbated by the tariffs the Trump administration has slapped on $250 billion of Chinese goods, are adding to these fears.

They are also causing particular unease among the many free-trade Republicans who were persuaded by the strength of the economy to muffle their criticism of Trump’s protectionism. In the two months since the party’s mid-term losses, Republican senators have seemed a little more willing to criticise Trump than they were. In the return to front-line politics of Mitt Romney— the party’s presidential candidate in 2012, who has been elected to the Senate from Utah—many Republican lawmakers see a potential mouthpiece for their concerns. The ‘conscience of the party ’ some call him. Romney has a history of castigating Trump and the fact that the president is less popular in Utah than other solidly Republican states makes that relatively easy for him to get away with. Sure enough, he marked his entry to the Senate by publishing a column in The Washington Post in which he criticised Trump’s character—and what he described as the administration’s ‘deep descent in December’.

He referred to a flurry of terrible recent decisions by Trump. Within a few days, he pre-emptively claimed responsibility for the government shutdown; he announced a sudden troop withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan that triggered the resignation of his respected Defense Secretary James Mattis; and he attacked the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Jay Powell, which sent the markets into a spin. The cumulative impression was of a US president recklessly upping the attack on his challengers; or perhaps losing his grip on political reality.

It was not an encouraging start to the final two years of Trump’s first term. How they will play out, given the turbulence inside the administration and gathering storm clouds outside it, is highly uncertain. To illustrate this, here are four possibly scenarios, by no means mutually exclusive, that could conceivably arise. It is hard to predict which is the more likely.

  • Bloodied by his early skirmishes with House Democrats— and alarmed by plummeting stock markets—Trump calms down. He is too committed to his belligerent base-rallying tactics to move to the political centre. Yet he is not averse to making a few deals with Democrats. Legislative efforts to address the scourge of opioid drug addiction, high prescription drug prices and to patch up the mess Trump has made of the healthcare system illustrate this. Instead of pursuing a full- scale trade war with China, he meanwhile agrees to reduce his tariffs in return for modest concessions by President Xi Jinping, including promises to reduce subsidies to Chinese state-owned companies and buy more American agricultural goods. Trump calls this a historic victory. It looks more like a capitulation; but as almost everyone, in America and elsewhere, is relieved by this outcome, the president is generally congratulated on it.
  • As above, but much noisier: Trump ramps up his attacks on domestic allies and foreign bugbears. He accuses Pelosi of conspiring with the United Nations to sabotage American diplomacy in the Middle East. He starts referring to Democrats as ‘anti-American’ and ‘the traitor party’. Yet Trump quietly avoids taking any measure that could worsen the global economic slowdown. He does not levy the additional $250 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods he had threatened, even as negotiations to improve America’s trade terms with China drag on listlessly. As his re-election campaign ramps up, Trump spends less and less time in the Oval Office, preferring to attend rallies across America. Appearing before enthusiastic crowds in small towns across the south and mid-west, he claims to have undone the damage wrought by generations of bad trade deals. He also claims, confusingly, to be ‘the first ever president to have won all the wars’. With Trump increasingly absent, the administration runs the remainder of his term on auto-pilot.
  • Special Counsel Mueller reveals that Trump’s aides had much deeper ties to the Russian conspiracy to fix the 2016 election in his favour than was previously suspected. Email exchanges between Julian Assange and senior members of the Trump campaign suggest they well knew that the Wikileaks supremo had received sensitive and incriminating material on Hillary Clinton’s campaign from Russian state hackers. Russians and the Trump team also discussed the optimal time for Assange to release it. It’s suggested that Trump probably knew of these exchanges. In the absence of ‘smoking gun’ evidence of this conspiracy, Democratic leaders nonetheless decide not to impeach him. Yet the president is damaged goods. Knowing he faces probable electoral defeat, as his approval ratings slump to new lows, he appears to lose interest in governing, and even much interest in campaigning. He claims to have been framed by Hillary Clinton supporters at the FBI. Few voters pay much attention to this, having wearied of Trump’s relentless and ultimately exhausting antics.
  • Besieged at home, Trump launches a frenetic burst of ‘America First’ foreign policies. He announces a ‘suspension’ of America’s membership of NATO until such a time as all its member states have made their defence budgets equivalent to 3 per cent of their national GDP. He also announces the ‘immediate and total withdrawal’ of the last American forces from Syria and Afghanistan. When Taliban militiamen occupy Bagram air base, a former symbol of the American presence in Afghanistan, soon after, Trump urges India to send troops to defend it (India declines).

As this should suggest, there are plenty of ways Trump’s presidency could go even further awry than it has already. And the possibilities sketched above do not include a serious security crisis—for example, a deadly terrorist attack on an American sporting event or foreign embassy, which could prompt Trump to take military action unwisely. It is also possible that Trump goes quiet and the world is spared the worst of his destructive impulses. But no one who has bet on that has made money yet. Strap in for another two years of the Trump administration. As the president’s luck heads south, the ride could be about to get very bumpy.