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What a year, and there is more to come. When the calendar changes, there is normally a gush of facile optimism in the lower end of the media: ten reasons to look forward to the new year, et al, et rhubarb. I suspect that there will not be much of that this January. The old year casts a long and deep shadow all the way to the political horizon. In the pre-1800 Irish Parliament, a member once declared that “Ireland’s cup of troubles is running over – and it is not yet full.” Today, for Ireland, read “the world.”
All the world’s eyes are on the US and the new President. Eight years ago a lot of normally sensible commentators seemed convinced – talk about gush – that Mr Obama would not have an inauguration, but an apotheosis. Within a few hours of his transformatory magic, everyone would be wondering why it had taken God six days to create the Earth. Surprisingly little was known about Barack Obama; he had only been in the Senate for two years. But this did not deter his worshippers from projecting their hopes, dreams – and fantasies – on to his blank canvas. Back then, if anyone had predicted that eight years later, Guantanamo Bay would still be open for business, he would have been laughed to scorn.
Even as they now pour scorn on Mr Trump, American liberals ought to pause for a little reflection in the pursuit of self-knowledge, ask themselves how they could have got everything so wrong, and apologise for their determination to confuse self-deception and reality.
Over eight years, an inexperienced Senator evolved into an unconvincing President. Especially on foreign affairs, he never seemed comfortable with power. He never dispelled the suspicion that he did not understand his country, because he did not really like it. “My fellow Americans:” when they delivered that great rallying-cry, few Presidents have ever carried less conviction. If only Mitt Romney had not been the candidate from Klutzville, the curtain could have come down on the Obama illusion four years ago.
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From illusion to…nightmare? Few if any Presidents have ever appeared less qualified, intellectually or morally, than Donald Trump. No-one could claim that his was a blank canvas. It looks like a drawing of Medusa the Gorgon’s private parts by a Vienna Secessionist who had been seriously over-indulging in hallucinatory drugs. The comparison is made with Warren Harding, which is unfair – to President Harding. He was more experienced than Barack Obama and more decisive than Jimmy Carter. There was only one problem: financial practices that would have been considered over-ripe in the Little Rock of the 1980s. Other than that, he might have been remembered as not a bad minor President, who also had the good sense to choose Calvin Coolidge as his Veep.
It seems unlikely that the word minor will ever be applied to President Trump, unless it is on a rap sheet. Moreover, the Presidency is much more important than it was in Harding’s time; he was one of the last of the pre-imperial Presidents. Today, a weak President means a weakened west – see Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. A bombastic horse’s ass of a President means a threatened world. So without imitating the deluded liberals of 2008/9, we ought to consider giving Mr Trump the benefit of the doubt – for if he proves to be half as bad as his critics fear, we are all in trouble.
He does have one problem, which is nothing to do with liberals. It concerns expectations. Given the extent to which the Great Republic draws on the language and the ethos of the Roman Republic, one might have thought that more American politicians would have resembled Cincinnatus. Happiest in his own fields, he reluctantly obeyed a summons to rescue his country. But once duty had been done and victory won, he quit Rome with relief to return to Arcadia. In the USA, a city was named after him, but there have been few attempts at emulation. Before the Civil War, Presidents Polk and Buchanan said from the outset that they would serve for one term. Since then, any President with a realistic chance of re-election has made the attempt.
As it seems unlikely that Mr Trump’s vices include modesty, he is bound to be aiming for a second term. Assuming that the world is not blown up between now and 2020, the next campaign could well be a repeat of the last one: determined by the same voters in the same states. In the crucial industrial belt, they voted for Donald Trump because they believed him when he told them that he would be good for the country and for their living standards. If he tries to treat Hank Hard-hat, Joe Sixpack and their families the way de Gaulle treated the French Algerians, then he will not be re-elected even if Hillary is thrown in jail. So which promises will he keep and how will he keep them?
He has outlined a vast agenda. There is to be a trade war with China, a wall war with Mexico, a deficit war with the Federal Reserve, a burden-sharing war with Nato – not to mention trivia such as Obama care, the Iran peace deal and a realignment of relations with Russia. We can be certain on two points. First, he will not be able to do all of it. Second, he dare not do nothing. But does he realise that you do not have to be Obama or Carter to understand the constraints of the American system and the need to work with Congress? Obama was especially bad at that. Will President Trump be much better? That is a crucial question, which is impossible to answer in advance. But everything hangs on that. If he can learn to mooze, schmoose and flatter Congressmen, his administration could confound expectations. If not, he will be the President who put the “lock” into gridlock and everything will founder.
There is a reason for cautious hope: his early appointments. The American cabinet system is significantly different from the British one. Most of our ministers are drawn from the House of Commons, so their colleagues have had the opportunity to evaluate them. Not so long ago, at least in Tory governments, there would always be a number of men who had been at school and university together, and even Theresa May’s government contains a number of her friends from Oxford.
The American system is much more heterogeneous. Most members of Mr Trump’s Cabinet will be strangers to one another. But he has chosen from strength. The CVs of his new choices are formidable. These are not characters who will be easily pushed around; they have not come to Washington to be ciphers. It will almost certainly be the richest Cabinet in American history. It will certainly not be the least assertive. There are bound to be failures; not all businessmen can adapt to politics. But there will also be some successes. In general, it will prove unwise to be guided by left-wing media assessments of team Trump.
Or of the President himself. So could he become a Presidential Prince Hal? It is worth remembering that Presidents Lincoln and Truman were widely derided when they took office. This is not to say that Donald Trump resembles either of them, and he is a bit old still to be playing Prince Hal. But let us hope that he gives up tweeting and devotes himself to governing. If not, and his Presidency does turn out to be a new instalment of his behaviour on the stump, then the One Nation Under God will have to hope that the Almighty is on duty, to protect it from the last Trump.