Guardian, Wednesday 15 February 2017
Trump is a natural, bloody-minded revolutionary, no less so for the thrust of his revolution not being to everyone’s taste. He arrives at the White House on the centenary of Lenin’s arrival in St Petersburg. Both sought to “drain the swamp”, to face down an old regime of officials, judges, foreign financiers and the press. Both savaged their enemies and drew succour from dispossessed provinces. Trump might well subscribe to the quote, attributed to Lenin: “A lie told often enough becomes the truth”.
Almost nothing Trump said in his progress to office seems reliable, if only because his “policy” was mostly shot from the hip. As he said in his memoirs: “The day I realised it can be smart to be shallow was, for me, a deep experience.” Much of his platform, and of what he has so far attempted in office, was repellent or stupid. But some was sensible, at least in intent.
Trump’s desire for term limits in Congress and his assault on Washington lobbyists was overdue. His remarks about Wall Street seemed at times to echo the Occupy movement. His concern for rust-belt jobs, for “urban carnage” and for spending on infrastructure was welcome.
Trump was also bold in demanding Nato rethink its core purpose and budget. He was belatedly outspoken against America’s wars of intervention and its craven links to the Gulf states. The wish to re-set relations between the west and Russia was more sensitive to Europe’s evolving balance of power than Nato’s belligerent provocations. The antagonism towards the eurozone is refreshing after the frozen, illiberal mindset of his Washington predecessors.
We may puzzle at how a man so hostile towards Mexicans, Muslims and gun control can be equally hostile to the CIA, the FBI, the Federal Reserve and the Iraq war. That is the new politics, the tearing up of tribal beliefs and identities.
Trump feels he is reaching out to America’s “flyover country”, a land that felt ignored and betrayed by liberalism. As the leftwing economist Paul Krugman bravely admitted after the election: “We truly did not understand the country we live in.”
The new politics is also one of meaningless promises and hypocritical authenticities. The only sensible advice is what might have been said to Trump’s female victims: believe what a man does, not what he says. Trump is only now starting to do, so we watch and wait.
No president is an autocrat. He is a resolution of the forces round him, forces that he sets up but cannot entirely control. Unlike Britain, America is a balanced democracy, its executive power checked by Congress, by the courts and by state autonomy. The last of these is not to be underrated, as California prepares to defy Trump’s edicts, notably on migrants. There is a new civil war simmering, with the Confederates this time on the side of the angels.
Trump so far gives the impression of a revolutionary out of his depth, floundering and at war with his own executive arm. This is not surprising. Trump never expected the job and had no experience or qualification for it. He is a disaster at personnel, getting through three managers in his presidential campaign alone. Bannon and Priebus cannot both last.
Trump is attempting, whether by intention or instinct, a new form of government. He blurts out orders, defends them through social media and then has to moderate them. In a sense it is exhilarating that a total outsider with an inclination for revolution can get to the White House without any solid constituency of support. When Vladimir Putin broke open the champagne on Trump’s election victory, I wonder if indeed he had Lenin in mind.
The world is now waiting on America. Some bad things are already happening under Trump, though opposition within the system is clearly diluting them. We can assume that some good things will happen also, which we must hope the system does not also dilute. Trump is weird and alarming. But perhaps even he will adhere to the maxim that every revolution becomes conservative the day after.