After not quite two weeks, this is what we know about President-elect Donald Trump. He is treating the American presidency as an opportunity both for nepotism and for personal enrichment. His first appointments signal that the far-right tenor of his campaign will continue into his presidency, as well as the fact that he is way out of his depth.
Against this background, some Democrats are hoping that at least there are a few points of convergence. This is a huge mistake.
President Obama seems to be in what some have called “horse-whisperer” mode, hoping that he may yet tutor Trump on the realities of the presidency. This will be the final episode of the most disappointing aspect of Obama’s administration and of this otherwise admirable man—putting hopes for common ground over ugly realities that above all require toughness.
Obama is still at it, and Trump will play along only to the extent that he finds Obama a useful prop for “normalizing” this transition. He will not be much of a pupil.
Some congressional Democrats, likewise, seem to think there may be areas of common ground, especially in the areas of trade policy and infrastructure. This is also mostly delusional.
The New York Times’ Jennifer Steinauer wrote a misleading piece last week, apparently prompted by a conversation with Chuck Schumer, now the Democrats’ Senate leader. To hear Steinauer tell it, Democrats are fairly lined up looking for opportunities to work with Trump and somehow split him from the Republicans.
Dream on. It’s one thing to ritually declare that if Trump truly supports policies that help working Americans, Democrats will work with him. It’s another thing to believe that he will.
Take the case of trade. There are three areas where the Trump program bears some superficial resemblance to what progressive Democrats have long been criticizing about the bipartisan, pro-corporate trade agenda.
Camp Trump has signaled that the new administration will make three early key initiatives. First, they will suspend negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the latest case of a trade deal that serves mainly corporate interests and has minor window dressing on labor and the environment.
Second, they will brand China a currency manipulator.
Third, they will advise Mexico and Canada of their intent to revise NAFTA.
So what’s not to like? Plenty, it turns out.
For starters, there will be huge pushback from corporate elites and from the congressional Republican leadership. A revised TPP could be a Frankenstein, with just enough economic nationalism to annoy allies but plenty of corporate giveaways hidden in the fine print, and nothing for U.S. workers. Likewise a revised NAFTA.
On China, the time is long overdue for a harder U.S. policy on China’s mercantilist policies that subsidize domestic production and bribes or coerces U.S. manufacturers to relocate to China. But pressing China to actually change its policies is very tricky business. It’s work for knowledgeable grown-ups, not for ignorant manipulators of symbols.
Trump has also been cavalier about threatening retaliatory tariffs, and not just against China. If Trump messes this up, we could end up with Mutually Assured Destruction of economic growth and no gain for U.S. manufacturing and workers.
We do need a very different world trade regime—one that allows nations to protect labor and environmental standards, police corporate misbehavior, and have industrial policies without being branded a free-trade violator. But that progressive vision of trade is diametrically the opposite of what Trump is actually likely to carry out.
We don’t really know yet, because Trump’s people are still learning the ropes.
The risk is that Trump’s first steps—announcing the renegotiation of NAFTA, suspending TPP, and branding China a currency manipulator—will produce grudging applause from Democrats, because at first blush they alter business as usual.
Trump style economic nationalism is likely to be other than free trade—but a form of nationalism that serves corporations, not workers. Expect Trump to call in a few IOUs with corporate CEOs and bring back a few high-profile, photo-op manufacturing jobs—the equivalent of George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” stunt on Iraq.
In the short run, he could look good but the actual policies will turn out the bait and switch that is Donald Trump’s trademark. Democrats would be wise to stay away until we see what the policies actually turn out to be.
Then there is the case of infrastructure, long a cause of progressive Democrats. Here again, Trump’s version of an infrastructure program will not be genuine public investments. It will be mostly tax credits for businesses to invest in infrastructure projects, combined with accelerated privatization that gives away public assets.
Short run, this could produce some political gains for Trump. It could even produce some jobs, but nothing like those produced by true public investments. Here again, despite some superficial resemblance to the real thing, Democrats would be wise to stay away.
President Obama spent eight painful years seeking common ground with Republicans who spurned every effort in favor of working to destroy Obama. And these were actually normal if right-wing politicians, not neo-fascists. If there was no common ground to be had with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, there is surely none with Donald Trump.