Like hope, wishful thinking springs eternal. As I write this, in New York on the day after a native son of this city has been elected president of the US, a parade of pundits has gone through the turnstiles of news TV, many of them suitably shamefaced about predicting the other outcome, all of them offering the parting palliative that President Donald Trump will be a better man than Candidate Donald Trump.
Their assumption is that the onerous responsibility of the highest office will have a maturing, moderating influence on Trump, obliging him to abandon some of his more extremist views and promises—or, failing that, that his radical instincts will be restrained by the complex realities that come with ruling a diverse, deeply divided nation, and leading a messy world.
That’s the kind of positivist delusion that persuaded the teachers of Visakha Valley School in Visakhapatnam that making the Class XI troublemaker the school vice-captain would turn him into a model student. It didn’t work: the power went to my head, and I was even greater nuisance.
It won’t work with Trump either. For one thing, he wasn’t simply assigned authority, he won a mandate the hard way—in fact, the hardest way. For another, there’s no reason to think that those who gave him that mandate want him to alter his behaviour, or soften his edges, once he’s occupied the White House. The opposite is true: they want him to be a troublemaker, because they believe that is what it will take to “Make America Great Again”.
Trump has always known this is what the electorate wanted. That is why he disregarded the advice of the punditrocracy and the Republican Party establishment to “pivot to the center” after winning the primaries. The conventional wisdom in American presidential politics is that smart candidates win primaries by appealing to their party’s extremists, and then adopt more middle-of-the-road positions in the general election. Trump refused to do any such thing: he stayed extreme throughout the campaign, and profited handsomely.
If he has no voter-imposed impetus to restrain himself, there’s little hope that the Republican Party will be able to impose moderation on Trump, either. His victory came despite the best efforts of the party grandees, and he is in no way beholden to them. It is more likely that Republicans in Congress will take their cues from their President and his supporters, and tack towards more extremist positions. Consider the osmosis effect Trump has had on former Republican moderates like New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former New York mayor Rudy Guliani, both of whom slipped farther and farther towards the lunatic fringe after joining his campaign.
Nor is Trump likely to find much motivation for moderation as he looks across the wider world. Instead, he will find that leaders who say and do outrageous things—Trump would likely describe them as “tough”—are not only getting away with it, they’re being rewarded for it, with public approbation. From Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, leaders who resist compromise are being lauded by their electorate.
Shortly after his swearing-in, Trump could very well be joined in the club of leaders who openly espouse bigotry by the odious Marine Le Pen of France. That would mean four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council would be ruled by radical or rejectionist right-wingers: the US, Russia, France and the UK. That would leave China’s autocratic Xi Jinping as the representative of liberal progressivism!
Some pundits have suggested economic necessity could force Trump down a conciliatory path. He is a businessman, after all, and who better to recognize the logic of markets and trade? The trouble is, Trump’s track record in business is replete with examples of reckless risk-taking, followed by bankruptcy. You can do that with a real estate company and hurt a few thousand people. But managing a country is another matter. Trump’s positions on international trade treaties suggest he is of a mind to play fast and loose with the American economy, and by extension, the world’s. This doesn’t allow for much confidence.
That only leaves the possibility that Trump might become more moderate because that is just the right thing to do. Go ahead and chortle. It is laughable to expect high-minded altruism from any modern politician, never mind from a racist, misogynist and tax fraud. If Trump has a moral compass, he has kept it well hidden for decades, and were he to produce it now, it might be an even bigger surprise than his election victory.
Earlier this year, I was in London for the Brexit referendum. Then, too, shell-shocked pundits struggled to offer some reason for optimism. But for me, the most memorable comment came from an Afro-Caribbean woman interviewed on BBC radio. She was asked if she thought Boris Johnson, who led a nasty campaign for Britain to leave Europe, might now feel conciliatory in victory. “This is the real world, not Disney World,” she snorted. “The monster doesn’t become a loveable rogue in the end. He stays a monster.”
So let’s not kid ourselves: There will be no moderating influence on Trump, not from the American political system he has so expertly dismantled, nor from the wider world. There will be no pivot to the centre. With President Donald Trump, what we have seen—and what he has said—is exactly what we will get.
Bobby Ghosh is the editor-in-chief of HT Digital Streams.
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