The politics beneath the noise

Whenever people ask me for my opinion of US politics at present, what always strikes me is how little is actually happening. While the press covers Trump’s regular tweets, public gaffes and the inevitable criticisms of his actions, the most interesting aspect of Trump’s presidency is how little in reality is happening.

Let’s start with the economy. While the US market certainly has been caught up in the “animal spirits” surrounding Trump’s proposed fiscal stimulus boost, few analysts have actually looked at how this would work in practise. For starters, Trump’s long expressed desire to boost US energy infrastructure is trapped in a permanent limbo until the number of FERC appointees rises from its present 2/5 to 3/5 or more. At present, the lack of a “quorum” for the US energy regulatory agency means that no energy projects can be approved at a federal level until a new appointee is selected and approved by the senate. That is still a long time away. Next consider how Federal fiscal stimulus actually works: The US federal government does not contract for infrastructure projects within states, rather the states themselves manage the process. Thus as most states are heavily indebted at present, it is highly questionable whether a large financial giveaway from the federal government would lead to increased infrastructure spending (it is far more likely the funds would be used to pay down debt). But beyond even the potential for a stimulus lies the more significant question of whether congress would even approve such a bill. With the Republican party still heavily influenced by the Tea Party, it certainly shouldn’t be assumed that tax cuts and increased spending is a given.

On healthcare, the picture is similar. While people expected a bonfire of medicare “repeal and replace” style, there have been no plans put to the public, the President or Congress that provide a clue about how Republicans will do this. Moreover, the few suggestions that have been raised are politically toxic with Republicans. These include aspects around Medicaid/medicare cuts and non-discrimination provisions (very popular with voters and hated by the US health insurance lobby). With the senate at 52-48 Republican, no democrat support for reform and division in the Republican House of Representatives. Reform here also seems unlikely.

Regarding defence, the Trump administration is remarkably consistent with previous administrations, including Obama. Additional military support in Iraq, statements of support to Japan and South Korea, Covert ops in the Arabian Peninsula and commitments to spend more on defence. So far, so Republican. Even on NATO, an area often attacked by Trump in his speeches and tweets, the actual messaging to Europe has been more focused on “we value NATO, but you need to pay more”. This again is hardly new. In fact, the last five Secretaries of defence (under Bush and Obama) have said the same thing publicly.

On law and social justice, the reality of what is happening is also far less controversial than the noise. The reforms to H1B visa are one example. While portrayed as a Trump attack on skilled labour, the area has been under review for years, with Obama considering raising the minimum required salary to $110,000 and Trump considering similar numbers. Even the delay in processing within 90 days, appears to be more a product of overworked government agencies than a specific anti-migrant move. Trump’s choice of Supreme Court nominee is also a good example. Despite the criticism in left wing circles, Neil Gorsuch was approved to his current position by a unanimous senate vote (including all Democrats) and was in fact a Bush Jnr era appointee. Moreover, Gorsuch is a replacement for a previously Republican supreme court position (he is even seen as a perfect model of the last figure), thus ensuring the balance in the court has barely shifted since Obama.

None of this is to say that the noise and tone of the Trump administration is not having a significant impact on America’s standing in the world and how people in America view themselves and their fellow citizens. However, it is striking how much focus and attention the tone and voice of a world leader receives, rather than the reality of what is happening on the ground.

A final observation I would share is how little resistance there is within the States to the actions of the President. While a number of states are certainly fighting specific actions, such as the travel ban executive order, there is a remarkable lack of strategy behind those who oppose Trump. For one thing, there is no meaningful discussion of candidates who could revive the Democrat party and provide a real leadership challenge to Trump. Nor is there any clear sign of a moderate Republican leader coming through the ranks. One challenge may be the desperate lack of new faces in both parties, but it is interesting that no US political figure seems like a ready replacement for the President. Interestingly as well, the momentum of protests appears to have petered out entirely. In Washington DC, the protest momentum after the inauguration seemed to be growing, but now there has been little to no real action. In part because, I suspect, there are few well organised and funded organisations that are able to sustain the momentum. Instead those in the nation who oppose Trump appear numb and subdued. A tragedy for democracy, and perhaps an answer to the question of whether Trump would seek a second term (and win).

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