Although Donald Trump has not yet been sworn in as President, we already have a pretty good idea how he will act in office. This is because he has already begun acting as the leader of the United States, particularly in regard to defense and foreign policy.
What we have learned is that we have elected someone who enjoys being a bull in the delicate china shops of international diplomacy. So far we have seen Trump antagonize China by taking a phone call from the President of Taiwan; he has suggested that the U.S. needs to increase its nuclear weapons capacity; and he has urged the U.S. to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem (which would in practice endorse Israel’s claim that all of Jerusalem is its capital, rather than a matter still to be negotiated with Palestinian leaders). All three moves would overturn decades of U.S. policy. Trump has also castigated Boeing for cost over-runs on Air Force One using made-up figures for those costs, and then castigated Lockheed-Martin for cost over-runs on the F-35 fighter plane, threatening to drop the project and seek an alternative fighter plane from – Boeing! This despite the fact that eight other nations are deeply involved in the planning and contracting for the F-35 fighter.
Trump has picked a fight with the U.S. intelligence community by disputing their evidence that Russian government cyber-warriors acted to damage his political opponents. All this comes on top of his campaign suggestions that NATO members do not automatically deserve full US support.
In sum, it has been a breathtaking run of aggressive changes in U.S. policy in less than 60 days since the election. What might we see in Trump’s first 100 days when he actually starts operating from the Oval Office?
One measure that seems clear is that Trump will launch an all-out series of trade wars to seek advantages for the U.S., with the immediate goal of reducing the U.S. trade deficit. His appointments for trade and commerce have essentially declared war on China in their published writings. This too would reverse decades of U.S. trade policy that has treated open international trade as a win-win proposition, instead viewing international trade as a zero-sum game where it is important that the U.S. be the “winner” and never suffer being a “loser.”
If there is a single strategic vision that has been evident in Trump’s campaign and in his post-election actions, it is his oft-voiced view that the world is divided into “winners” and “losers.” Trump hates losing, and fancies himself a “winner” in business, and now in politics. Winners get the prerogatives of higher status, and the power to seek further goals while losers deserve to be left behind. However, being a “winner” means seeking out contests and winning them in order to demonstrate who is a winner and who is not. And since winning is all-important, the means to achieve a win and then flaunt the victory do not matter. Lying, misrepresenting one’s acts, taking advantage of help from enemies, abandoning allies, abrogating past agreements, are all perfectly OK if they help achieve a win or can be used to claim a victory.
Not by chance, these are the tactics of authoritarian leaders in general. They are the tactics used by Vladimir Putin, another “winner” who Trump clearly admires. We have now entered a new era in world politics, one reminiscent of the 1930s, in which countries have turned to “strong leaders” – Xi Jinping in China, Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, Viktor Orban in Hungary; Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines – to rescue their countries after periods of crisis. The 2016 election shows that enough Americans judge that the U.S. has also been through a crisis – involving the terrorism and military costs from 9/11 through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria; the bank frauds, corruption, and housing losses in the 2007-2009 Great Recession; the impact of immigration, automation, and globalization on the work and status of the middle class; and the health care crisis embodied in the surprising decline in U.S. life expectancy and the particularly marked increase in deaths among rural communities and middle-aged whites – to elect a strong leader to rescue the U.S.
What will it be like living in a world of strong leaders all seeking to show that they are winners? It will likely be a world of lies, fights and deals, with each leader seeking to press their advantages to justify their personal power. That, as we have seen in the 1930s, is a dangerous world. At best, it will be a world in which democracy, the rights of minorities, liberal freedoms and truth itself will be under constant assault; at worst it will be a world of constant international confrontations and wars.
What can be done to keep democracy safe from these dangerous tendencies?
First, human rights, democracy, and truth must be defended at home, within the Western democracies, and abroad. This means that the platforms from which people obtain information – whether it is Twitter, Facebook, and Google or cable news networks – must be held accountable. Laws should permit state and federal prosecutors and private citizens to sue these actors for disseminating falsehoods as a crime against the public, thus making them responsible for monitoring and correcting the false information spread through their platforms and broadcasts.
Second, when Trump follows his inclination to treat murderous authoritarian leaders as counterparts with whom he will negotiate, he needs to be reminded that he must be careful about giving cover or approval to actions such as the genocidal slaughter of civilians in Aleppo or the seizure of territory by aggression in Ukraine. He needs to be careful that his deals do not strengthen leaders whose methods and goals challenge the core values of the United States.
Third, Trump needs to be urged to consider the important role of the “loyal opposition” in democracies. Those who disagree with him – Democrats or technical experts – should not be dismissed as “losers,” because politics is not just like business. The government is responsible for the welfare of all Americans, and that means lasting success requires taking into account the views and interests of different groups and seeking the broadest possible compromises, not just aiming for narrow victories. As even the Democrats now know all too well, policy victories (in the environment or trade) in which tens of millions of Americans still regard themselves as “losers” are no victories at all.
Trump’s basic tendencies are clear, but they are also risky. It will be a Presidency of lies, fights, and deals. It is up to the rest of us to make sure that America’s key values – democracy, honesty, decency, and respect for all citizens and their needs – what we used to call “the American way” –remain intact.