Friday 23 August 2019

Dan O'Brien: Trump's impact - one year on

The US may no longer be the indispensable nation, but Trump's bark has been worse than his bite so far, writes Dan O'Brien

Trump in Hawaii. Photo: AP
Trump in Hawaii. Photo: AP
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

This Wednesday marks the first anniversary of the greatest electoral shock in recent times. Donald Trump, a non-politician, celebrity candidate, was elected president of the most powerful country on earth. Hardly a day has passed that he has not been in the news. Last week was no exception.

But for all the coverage, how much has really changed under the current US administration?

While the individual and his utterances amount to a sea-change - for both America and the world - the hard outcomes so far are less significant than might have been expected, at least when compared to Mr Trump's rhetoric on the campaign trail.

Divisive: Protesters line the streets during Donald Trump’s visit to the capitol Honolulu on Friday. Photo: AP
Divisive: Protesters line the streets during Donald Trump’s visit to the capitol Honolulu on Friday. Photo: AP

That started to become evident from the very beginning. Trump had promised to declare China a "currency manipulator" on his first day in office. That would have been highly provocative and Beijing would have reacted strongly. He didn't do it then and hasn't done it since. He is visiting Beijing in the coming days on his 11-day trip to east Asia. There has been no marked deterioration in relations between the two superpowers.

Of more specific interest from an Irish perspective is the administration's position on Europe. Again, many of the threats posed have not materialised.

Once elected, Trump's anti- EU and pro-Brexit rhetoric stopped and he has done a 180-degree U-turn on his earlier claim that Nato was obsolete, attending a summit of the alliance's leaders and declaring it not obsolete.

On Russia, matters are much more opaque. Whether or not the ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign's alleged links to the Kremlin finds anything of substance is unknowable at this point. It is also odd that neither Vladimir Putin nor Russia more generally is ever criticised by the American president, unlike other leaders and countries Trump has directed his ire at. But for all that, the US under Trump has not done things that would appear at odds with the previous administration's stance on Russia, and the European countries that feel most vulnerable to Russian interference have not been subject to greater pressure from Moscow.

Of even more specific interest to Irish readers is the presence of US multinationals in Ireland. At the time of the election, a Republican Party tax plan included a proposal to tax imports into the US. If such a tax had been imposed, Europe would have taken retaliatory measures. It was easy to see tit-for-tat measures ending in a transatlantic trade war. That looks less likely now, not least because the tax plan the administration finally published last week does not contain an import tax.

The bill does, however, contain measures that seek to curb tax avoidance by multinationals. This could affect US companies in Ireland, but a greater regulatory response to avoidance is coming down the line from many angles. From an Irish perspective, it would be better that it happens sooner rather than later so that the economy, and tax revenues, do not become even more dependent on unsustainable practices.

What about the more targeted threats? Thus far there is no evidence that Trump has leaned on US companies in Ireland to move jobs back to America. And even if he did, it now seems less likely that bosses would allow themselves to be bullied into complying. His relations with corporate America have deteriorated over the course of the year and the distancing of bosses from the White House has been made easier as the president's authority, according to opinion polls, has been eroded with a majority of Americans.

None of this is to say that things have not changed under Trump. He has demanded - and got - a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. He has pulled out of both the Paris Climate Accord and the Transpacific Partnership, a wide-ranging trade deal with mostly Asian countries. And he has refused to "recertify" a multi-state deal aimed at containing Iran's nuclear programme in exchange for the easing of sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

These are all significant changes. They certainly show a US that is less engaged with the world.

The crisis on the Korean peninsula is arguably the biggest threat to world peace and security. Trump is due in Seoul on Tuesday. His unstatesman-like haranguing of North Korea's nuke-wielding dictator, Kim Jong-un, has not worked to ease tensions. But the crisis is not of his making. North Korea's nuclear programme was top of the US agenda even before Trump took office - when handing over power, Barack Obama stated it was the issue that he had spent most time dealing with in the final period of his presidency. Regardless, if large scale war breaks out on Trump's watch, it will define his presidency as a world leader.

Turning to the US itself, one area that Trump has demonstrably had next to no impact on - for good or ill - is the economy. Looking across a swathe of hard economic data, it is hard to find any inflection points around the time of his election or inauguration. In short, the US economy has continued to grow solidly.

The non-impact of Trump on the economy is not so surprising. US presidents have limited powers to influence the pace of growth because those powers are exercised elsewhere. The governors and legislatures of the 50 states control many areas of policy. Congress has much more say over the federal budget than do presidents. And the central bank, which sets interest rates, is independent.

If Trump has had no discernible effect on the US economy, the same cannot be said of its politics. A country that has been polarising between liberals and conservatives for decades has become more polarised under the new president.

But despite the increasingly shrill tone of partisanship - on both sides - the built-in checks and balances in the US political system have, up to now, functioned well.

The Trump campaign is being investigated in relation to alleged links to Russia, with the past week alone bringing charges against former aides by the former FBI head Robert Mueller.

Congress has not rolled over, conducting, among other things, three of its own investigations into allegations of Russian interference in the election. And the courts continue to block executive power where they believe the president has overstepped the mark - the repeated striking down of immigration-curbing measures is the most obvious case.

'Love him or loathe him' hardly seems to describe how Americans view him. While the loathing might be familiar to the rest of the world, the loyalty of his support has got much less coverage - Trump's approval ratings in opinion polls did fall after he was elected, but they have been very stable for almost six months, with four out of 10 Americans consistently telling pollsters that he is doing a good job.

Such a divided society is surely not a good foundation for a healthy democracy. A country consumed by its domestic culture wars and capable of electing to the highest office an individual as unstable and unself-controlled as the current president is not one bound to provide leadership for the world.

Donald Trump may not have been as disastrous as his campaign rhetoric suggested, but there are more than three years of his term to run. Much could go wrong yet.

Sunday Independent

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