I have written about President Donald J. Trump before (here and here, for example). This essay was prompted by the Singapore meeting between him and the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. I may be wrong, but the media treatment of the whole meeting process seemed to begin with Trump’s refusal to meet’s being seen as provocative, risking a historic possibility. Then when the meeting occurred, he was being damned with the faintest of praise — previous North Korean leaders had given similar promises, where were the inspection guarantees, the statement was long on rhetoric and short on detail, and so on. Who was the victor, Trump or Kim? Both of them, surely. Meeting face-to-face to point to a better future was plainly an improvement on ICBM-rattling from a distance.
I thought once again of the rank failure of our media, borrowing from the American, to provide anything other than quick jibes when they are referring to the American President. His tweets are displayed; third parties refer to him as an oaf and/or a buffoon; attacks on him from anywhere are reported; his sexual life and its legal and financial ramifications are stock items. Policies? Successes? What are they?
If we only had the mass media to assist us it would be permissible to think that the whole of the USA was in a state of revolt, and that some deus ex machina would soon arise to remove the President from the scene to everyone’s satisfaction. But that is not the reality. The most important area for him is the economic domain. He has only been in office for seventeen months, but the economic indicators are favourable for him. How much of the following will any Australian reader/viewer know, I wonder? Well, the Dow is way up. GDP is up, inflation is down, unemployment is down (the lowest level for claims in forty years), export income is up, consumer confidence is high, and wages are showing growth. Most particularly, unemployment levels for both black and Hispanic workers are down. In fact, the level of black unemployment is the lowest it has been for forty years. The American working class, and notably the black and Hispanic elements of it, were key supports in Trump’s election victory in 2016. They are seeing some signs of what he promised then. Of course, how much of it is due to him is a moot question. But then you can say that of the economy under any elected government at any time, both for good and for ill.
There is a dismaying tendency in our media, and in the media of the rest of Western world, to see Trump only in cartoon terms, and not to ask quite simple questions. The only thing I have seen of any consequence is his approval rating — not who would vote for him, because that is not a question asked in America until there are actually known presidential candidates. His approval rating runs at about 40 per cent. It was a little higher when he was elected, but dropped to its current level almost at once, and has stayed there. On the face of it, most Americans either disapprove of their President or are unsure. A lot is made of this. I’m not sure why, really. But the media are little interested in what is happening in the US economy, which seems strange to me. Where it is mentioned, in the US media, it seems mostly in the context of (i) good things have happened for other reasons and are not Trump’s doing, while (ii) bad things, or anything that could have been better, are definitely his responsibility. It does seem a bit like the often-seen proposition in climate science that cooling is natural variation while warming is due to CO2.
My suggestion is that Trump is so different to leaders everywhere (Kim and Putin perhaps excepted) that the media don’t understand him or the way he goes about things. And since his style is often rude and brusque, while he simply ignores the media, on the ground (quite a fair one, in my view) that they show extreme bias against him, they are not in much of a position to understand his policies or strategies. (‘Policies, strategies! Are you kidding?’). That they detest him is clear. But that detestation robs them of an opportunity to understand and make sense of the 45th President, who is there until 2020, and may well run again. He might win, too, if the things going for him continue to do so.
So how might someone understand Donald J. Trump? From a variety of sources, mostly in the USA, I offer the following. First come some quite obvious things, but people forget them and their implications. He is not a politician, and has never served in any elected role. So he didn’t come to office with a well-developed sense of what you do and how you do it, the useful context that most people have when they move to some kind of high-level administrative or leadership role. Indeed, he is a businessman, famous for knowing about ‘deals’. Businesspeople go for outcomes; politicians want to be there next time. That’s a real difference. Politics in democracies has a rich and well-known culture. I’ve mentioned before the change in perspective from being first elected and critical, to being a veteran and understanding why things are the way they are. That doesn’t work in most businesses, unless they have a monopoly.
One thing that seems to typify the Trump way is for him to act first, not to react. He likes to take the initiative, and let others react to his initiative. Because everyone else is used to the old ways (and how Trump is criticised for not following them!) he has an almost instant advantage. And he is not afraid to try something and then abandon it. For him that’s not failure. It’s learning. Western governments are most reluctant to admit to error. ‘Pink batts’ in Australia was an error, because it was done without enough forethought, and then administered without sufficient skill; but no one involved in that event will accept responsibility, certainly not Kevin Rudd. Trump is happy to make errors if the final outcome is a good one. As one writer I saw put it: ‘chaos is power’. The tendency of all Western governments, perhaps all governments, is to reduce chaos and create order. Trump likes enhancing chaos — for example, with North Korea, trade wars and immigration — so that he is a position to make a deal to end it.
The same writer had another wise observation: ‘Conventional politicians have a narrow window of agenda items. They’re very clear on what they want, what they don’t want, what they’re willing to do and what they’re willing to give up to get it. But Mr Trump is never clear-cut or predictable. He thrives on being the opposite. No one know what the President will agree to, or what he would walk away from. That gives him a lot of room in negotiation. Finally, and he really does stand out in this respect from our Mr T, and almost any political leader I can think of, he doesn’t mind being disliked. It is a fatal problem for democratic leaders that they feel the need to be likeable and liked. He doesn’t care at all. To need to be liked he sees, I think, as a great weakness. He is about outcomes.
I don’t warm to his style. I don’t like his swagger. I don’t like the parade of his wealth. But all that is irrelevant. If you want to understand what is in store for us all, you need to come to terms with the real Donald Trump, not the cartoon. And to return to the beginning, I would not be at all surprised if both the Chinese and the American leaders have told Kim that he needs to emulate China since Deng Xiaoping, forty years ago, who led China into a market economy while keeping the reins of political power firmly in the hands of the ruling Communist Party.
Kim has ICBMs and I doubt he will give those up. They are there to stop invasion threats. But he can probably stop testing them, and demolish a few more laboratories and proving grounds. It would be a decent start. And if that were to occur, and his people start to live with less hardship and more confidence, then the Donald would be much more entitled to a Nobel Peace Prize than Barack Obama, who earned one just for having been elected President.