Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science and senior fellow of Massey College at the University of Toronto.
Of course you’d rather do anything than read another column about Donald J. Trump. I’d rather do anything than write one.
Mr. Trump, the master of exposure, is guilty of overexposure. It’s a boring story: President inflicts wounds on himself while also incurring those of his enemies, then blames his staff for failing to save the situation, thus making unreasonable demands on their loyalty. The administration unravels from within. (A recent Washington Post exposé claimed to cite 17 administration sources. Seventeen!)
Mr. Trump has done some good things, including making some good appointments. Has any recent president had a better security team than Mr. Trump’s three Generals, Mattis, Kelly and McMaster? Answer: Certainly not. (But typically, it took the messy Michael Flynn affair for Mr. Trump to get there.) There are some other good cabinet appointments, the only objection to which is that – not surprisingly – they agree with Mr. Trump. (Except when they don’t, which has been often. Here, Mr. Trump has been surprisingly forbearing, and has received little credit for it.)
There’s evidence – including his effective speech to Congress – that Mr. Trump aspires to be a “normal” president. That’s one who co-operates with (and thereby divides) the opposition. (Barack Obama hardly even tried to be a normal president, although the fault was not his only.) According to a recent Rasmussen poll, 63 per cent of Americans want the Democrats to co-operate with Mr. Trump in addressing the country’s problems. In fact, he has displayed a much greater willingness to work with them than vice versa. Similarly, he and his appointees have laboured to calm the fears of key allies (including Canada) about the general trends of his policies. He sometimes sounds sensible about Russia. Even the latest version of his immigration ban, although still wrong-headed, represents a compromise of sorts. And, as expected, Trumpcare/Ryancare will retain many features of Obamacare.
Yet, whatever Mr. Trump’s aspirations to normality are, he has made little progress toward achieving it. While he blames his setbacks on his enemies, of whom he has many, he continues as his own worst one. His biggest problem has been his egregious lack of self-control. While I wouldn’t mistake this for integrity, it’s what passes for it with his supporters. He just can’t resist “telling it like it is” (or at least how it appears to him alone at dawn immured in Trump Tower or Mar-a-Lago).
Compare him with Mr. Obama. Mantled in his celebrated coolness, Mr. Obama played his cards close to his vest, as you’d expect a politician to do. (Consider his egregiously false assertion that Americans would be free to keep their existing medical insurance policies.) Mr. Trump, by contrast, appears to tell only lies that he believes. Unfortunately, he believes some whoppers.
Why conclude that Mr. Trump’s mendacity isn’t cynical? Because it has proved so gratuitous and so far exceeded the limits of the useful. Consider his claim that his defeat in the meaningless popular vote (which he had made no real attempt to win) was due to massive voter fraud. Or his ludicrous insistence that his inauguration had drawn the largest crowds in history. These untruths were so easily refutable that no politician of sense would have told them. They severely undermined that better-considered position of reasonableness and moderation on which Mr. Trump’s success as a president depends. Yes, some voters will believe them – some voters will believe anything. Unfortunately, Mr. Trump often appears to be among them. His latest claim, that Mr. Obama ordered his phone tapped, delivered via Twitter and with no supporting evidence, is a textbook case of how not to make a grave and destabilizing accusation. Six weeks into his term, Mr. Trump is already the boy who cried wolf.
Is Mr. Trump dangerous? The clearest threat he poses is to his own reputation. Admittedly, that exposes the rest of us to significant collateral damage. America needs a president, and the world needs her to have one. It remains unlikely that Mr. Trump will grow into the role. The clearest pattern to emerge from his administration so far is his inability to submit to any pattern, and thus to sustain any political momentum. Unlike Nero, Mr. Trump is not a tyrant, but like him, he tweets while the world burns.Report Typo/Error
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