The hundredth day of an American president’s term traditionally marks the end of the honeymoon period – a time to take stock of early achievements, launch new legislation, and set a new direction. But the score card for Donald Trump’s first 100 days doesn’t read well, and the direction for the next four years is looking so new as to radically contradict the premise of his campaign.
Trump hasn’t commenced the wall along the US-Mexican border, his signature campaign pledge. He has failed (and spectacularly) to repeal and replace the healthcare reforms collectively known as Obamacare, and the courts have thwarted his orders to ban foreign nationals from several mainly Muslim countries from the US. And on a moral front, his compassion for Syrian children killed in a horrific chemical attack was offset by his decision to turn away 10,000 Syrian refugees.
The administration is under intense pressure from investigations into the Trump team’s Russian connections and purported Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The resignation of General Mike Flynn and the hapless antics of the investigating committees in Congress have only made the saga more damaging.
All the while, American opinion remains divided as ever: Trump currently enjoys the approval of roughly 40% of his people.
Trump’s image problem extends well beyond the US’s borders. In the past month, I spent a week in China while President Xi Jinping was visiting Trump’s Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago. I then visited the US, travelling from North Carolina through Virginia and on to Washington, DC. The Chinese are mostly bemused by the new president, who comes in for plenty of criticism in the Chinese media.
In the US, meanwhile, the president is at the centre of a perpetual media frenzy, lurching from one decision to the next while providing byplay via his own tweets. And undoubtedly his most dramatic lurch has been away from isolationism and towards outright military adventurism.
Throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump criticised “crooked Hillary” and Barack Obama for allowing the situation in Syria to deteriorate, but he also declared that he would not get involved. The “America First” philosophy he articulated in his inaugural address combined economic nationalism with international isolationism, and more recently, he reminded an audience of union members that he is “not the president of the world”.
But as the makeup of his National Security Council changed, Trump broke out of his isolationist box. He now appears to favour regime change in Syria, and possibly even a direct confrontation with North Korea.
Between my visits to China and the US, Trump retaliated to the deadly April 4 chemical attack on the Syrian rebel-held city of Khan Sheikhoun by authorising a direct missile strike on Syrian government airfields – this apparently while enjoying a “beautiful chocolate cake” with President Xi.
The attack sharpened the main lines of contention in global politics between Russia and China, who continue to back Bashar al-Assad, and the G7 nations, who oppose him, but who have yet to come up with a coherent suggestion for removing him from power.
Trump also said he’d ordered a US Navy carrier strike group on routine exercises to head from Australia to the waters off North Korea, while Pyongyang held a national day of celebration at which it showed off significant military hardware, some of it not seen before.
In the days between the announced rerouting of the aircraft carrier group (the truth of which is now unclear) and North Korea’s celebrations, the US dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used on a network of tunnels in Afghanistan used by the so-called Islamic State (IS). The blast itself is estimated to have killed more than 90 IS militants, while at the same time sending a clear signal to IS, North Korea and others that Trump is ready to use devastating force.
China’s Xi has since tried to calm tensions between the US and North Korea, but to little effect; the sabre-rattling continues, and a sixth North Korean nuclear test may not be far away.
Empty at the core
Throughout these last 100 days, I have been searching for some sort of signal in all the noise – some core commitment to a programme of change, with a clear set of organising principles and an underlying philosophy. I have struggled to argue that there must be something at the heart of all of this that makes coherent sense and that will genuinely benefit even Trump’s core supporters.
Some of those supporters presumably see their president as a decisive leader using the full power of the presidency to tackle enormous domestic and foreign issues. To them, he’s doing precisely what he promised, and given time and space to act, he will deliver real change to America. Business leaders are waiting for his tax cuts to invigorate markets, while the core voters wait for their promised new jobs and cheaper healthcare.
But if Trump is right that running America really is like running a business, he should be able to produce an income-expenditure model that indicates more is being achieved with less, with a surplus to show as a result. No such model is forthcoming. Yes, the proposed investments in infrastructure and the border wall are meant to be balanced by cuts to public programmes in science, health, welfare, and even the coast guard. But combined with promised tax cuts and increased defence spending, the books simply will not be balanced – especially with expensive new overseas military adventures now on the cards.
In search of a metaphor with which to capture these first 100 days of the Trump presidency, I’ve landed on the Tasmanian devil. The real animal is described as having a “cantankerous disposition”; it will “fly into a maniacal rage when threatened by a predator, fighting for a mate, or defending a meal”. As rendered in cartoon form for Looney Tunes, it’s a swirling vortex of frenzied activity with an empty core.
The thrust and parry of politics is inevitable, as interests and power intersect in complex and contested ways – but actual change is achieved through consensus and compromise. Obamacare was only passed in 2010 after a year of face-to-face encounters, discussions, and compromises forged in committee rooms and caucus meetings. The bill that emerged wasn’t what everyone wanted, but it contained enough of what most of them wanted.
If Trump’s first 100 days prove anything, it’s that politics is not business. CEOs and presidents need very different skills, and commanders-in-chief need to think about more than the bottom line. The self-proclaimed master of the Art of the Deal has much to learn if he is to thrive in his first term.