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The Trump Presidency: Everything Up for Grabs

The Trump Presidency: Everything Up for Grabs

This essay first appeared as a comment piece for the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics. To read more KLICE comment, click here.

As Donald Trump begins his presidency, very little is clear about the course it will take. Dominant characterisations are ‘unpredictable’, ‘confusing’, ‘divisive’. That is true not only for Americans and foreign observers but also for the president’s own cabinet secretaries and members of Congress.[1] As House Speaker Paul Ryan keeps saying, Trump was an unconventional candidate, and he is an unconventional president.

During the long election campaign, anti–establishment populists heard in Mr. Trump’s demagoguery and outlandish promises the voice of a leader they were ready to follow – a strongman from outside Washington who would smash barriers that have held them back from fulfilling their dreams. That strongman confidence was on full display in his inaugural address and it continues to mark his tweets and executive orders. The people he admires, including himself, are great, smart people, the ones who get things done by not bending to the status quo. The creative dealmaker is one who leaps over losers and pushes doubters aside as he charges forward, singlehandedly if necessary, to make America great again.

Yet Mr. Trump is ignorantly self–confident and without apology. Not long ago he explained that others ‘are surprised by how quickly I make big decisions, but I’ve learned to trust my instincts and not to overthink things . . . . The day I realized it can be smart to be shallow was, for me, a deep experience’.[2]  One investigative journalist offered the following summary after interviewing a range of Trump Organization executives: Mr. Trump ‘is not “magisterial and decisive”, as advertised, but erratic and often ill–informed. His slapdash decision–making and short attention span are not a management style so much as a pathology . . . .’ [3] It is difficult to convey in standard prose the new president’s character, egophanic energy, and limited store of knowledge. His actions and speeches make one think of Nietzsche’s ‘transvaluation of values’ and Joseph Schumpeter’s description of capitalism as ‘creative destruction’.

This president requires no history lessons, can do without regular intelligence reports, and believes he knows what the majority of Americans want. All of this was particularly evident in his order on January 27 to ban immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa. In drawing up and announcing the order, he bypassed almost every official and congressional leader that should have been consulted about it beforehand. The order lacked clarity, was illegal on several counts, and caused chaos at many airports. Though arguing that he was acting to protect Americans, he offered no argument or evidence for how the order would do that. Many officials and commentators argued, to the contrary, that the president’s impulsive action is almost entirely counterproductive.[4]

Unprepared and Unqualified for the Office
What we are witnessing in these first weeks is the presidency of an officeholder who has little or no regard for the office. He recognises few if any boundaries between any of the offices he holds – as father, businessman, citizen, and now president. They are all simply means – his tools – for making better deals all around. This is a man who refuses to acknowledge any conflicts of interest between his responsibility as president and his continuing business involvements. Why should the Constitution’s ‘emolument clause’ inhibit him – a man who can get America ‘winning again, winning like never before’? And why should he consult with agency experts on immigration and national security who would likely provide more accurate and nuanced accounts of security threats? He promised in his inaugural speech to ‘eradicate [Islamic terrorism] completely from the face of the Earth’, and he acts as if bureaucratic processes will only slow or undermine progress toward that absolute victory. Perhaps this is why, as of February 1, forty–one law suits had already been filed against him, primarily in response to his executive order on immigration and his conflicts of interest.

Mr. Trump’s complete lack of government experience and blindness to the distinct types of responsibility that belong to government, business, family, and more, help to explain why he has chosen so many people to head cabinet posts and other top positions who are as politically inexperienced as he is. Many of them were chosen to undermine the very purpose of the departments they will lead if approved by the Senate. Many of them have come from Wall Street, large corporations, or the military. A disproportionately large number of them are billionaires. As a consequence, business, finance, and military experience will most likely supply the norms by which they make judgements about affairs of state, when what is desperately needed is commitment to norms of public justice for the sake of the common good.

Nowhere is this problem more evident than in Mr. Trump’s dependence on Steve Bannon, a senior White House adviser to the president who has now been appointed to a seat on the National Security Council. His relevant expertise? He served in the Navy many years ago. Most recently he led the Breitbart news organisation that promoted white nationalist, xenophobic, and anti–Muslim causes. At least two other former Breitbart employees have also been pulled into the White House. Bannon appears to be the driving force behind the president’s rapid–fire delivery of executive orders and multiple untruthful statements that are causing so much chaos and confusion.

Reality Can Bite
Despite all that President Trump imagines and declares, and regardless of how often he and his staff insist on ‘alternative facts’, we believe there are limits that already constrain, and will increasingly constrain, him in office. The question is whether he will come to recognise those limits, which include the Constitution, members of Congress, federal and state judiciaries, state governments, the decisions of other countries, and public opinion. That is, will he take his office seriously and become a wiser, more transparent, and constitutionally bounded leader? Or will he continue to strain and push from within his own well–entrenched habits and instincts to act in ways that could very likely cause great harm to this country and many others. Consider the following limits and constraints.

Quick Action – President Trump’s flurry of executive orders and tweets in the early days of his presidency purport to fulfill his campaign promises, many of them ‘on day one’. Yet most of his executive orders (excepting the immigration ban) are directives that require the action of Congress and/or executive agencies and will be slow to produce results. He and the Congress may have much less time than they imagine to produce results before disappointment and anger begin to grip ‘the people’ whom Trump declared to be America’s rulers. The sprawling federal bureaucracies, with over two million employees, are not like one of Mr. Trump’s businesses. They resist sudden, wholesale shifts in operation and culture. When almost 1,000 Foreign Service and other officers of the state department signed a letter criticising the president’s immigration ban, Sean Spicer said simply, ‘They should either get with the program or they can go’.[5]  But that is not the president’s call, and we hope he will learn that he does not control the executive branch as a business venture.

Repealing and Replacing Obamacare – President Trump and congressional Republicans have long promised an immediate repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act (‘Obamacare’), which has provided health insurance to more than 20 million previously uninsured Americans. Yet as of this writing, the president has not shared with the relevant congressional leaders and cabinet members his own replacement plan, and congressional Republicans can’t agree on a replacement plan or on how many steps to take and how quickly to take them to repeal and replace Obamacare. In fact, some congressional Republicans are now using the word ‘repair’, which sounds very much like they are already backsliding.

The Wall, Jobs, and Globalisation – President Trump’s hateful demagoguery during the campaign against illegal Mexican immigrants and the ‘disaster’ of NAFTA for American workers was regularly accompanied by the promise to build a solid Wall that would help restore American sovereignty and prosperity. But The Wall will add little to the protection of Americans from criminals and terrorists. Moreover, trade with Mexico supports more American jobs than it has displaced. The loss of American manufacturing jobs is due more to the rapidly expanding use of robotics and other technologies in workplaces than to the outsourcing of jobs. And Mexico’s president has stated firmly and repeatedly that his country will not pay for The Wall or cooperate on Mr. Trump’s terms in trade talks and on other issues.

Relative to international commerce, China has also made clear that it has no intention of negotiating with the USA on Trump’s terms. Not everything is ‘negotiable’ for China as it apparently is for the new president. European leaders are also quickly reacting to the US president with warnings and criticisms. And at home, important Republicans in Congress are already indicating that they will not support a bill to authorise funding of The Wall. Furthermore, outside the bubble in which the president seems to live, most people recognise that the expanding global networks created by technological advances, climate change, trade, terrorist organisations, and failed states will not be reversed by Trumpian bluster, although there is reason to worry that his decisions could spark trade wars and even real wars with unknown consequences.

Environment and Climate Change – Based on President Trump’s rhetoric, one would think that the only obstacle, beside bad trade agreements, to 4 percent economic growth in the USA is government regulation in general and environmental regulation in particular. In his early barrage of executive orders, Mr. Trump instructed federal agencies to cut two existing regulations for every new one introduced, and he has begun to roll back environmental regulations, such as those protecting streams from mining activities. Reducing regulations, the president promises, will jumpstart vital American energy production, especially coal and oil shale development. When Chris Wallace asked him in a television interview who would protect the environment after drastic cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, Mr. Trump answered, ‘We’ll be fine with the environment. We can leave a little bit, but you can’t destroy businesses’.[6]  Viewers were left wondering whether the president meant that he would leave a little bit of regulation or a little bit of the environment.

Clearly, Mr. Trump’s rhetoric ignores the nature of the complex, global economy. The decline of coal production was driven in large part by rising competition from natural gas, and reduced regulation isn’t going to reduce that source of competition. The push to reduce carbon emissions was certainly reflected in things like President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, but it was not something caused by that set of regulations. Pressure for carbon emissions reductions is coming from the grass roots in many states and continues unabated in international negotiations. In short, the Trump administration and congressional Republicans are going to find that regulation is not the only variable in economical productivity, and reducing regulation will not have the direct, inverse relationship with economic growth that they promise. What is more, in their haste to trample all things regulatory, they are likely to discover that Americans do value some level of federal regulation to protect their health, safety, and recreation.

The Russian Oddity – Seemingly disconnected from all that the president has thus far said and done is his opaque relationship with Vladimir Putin. The brash and confrontational American president who hurls caustic epithets at the press, who speaks and acts like a bully toward anyone who offends him, and who has repeatedly attacked the American intelligence community as untrustworthy (until he declared his 1,000 percent support for them the day after his inauguration), has persistently and obsequiously spoken generously of the Russian president. Indeed, on February 5, Trump repeated his admiration for Putin in an interview with Bill O’Reilly. When O’Reilly protested that Putin is ‘a killer,’ Trump quickly relativised this immoral behavior by saying, ‘There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?’ How odd is that? So odd, in fact, that it is highly suspect. What don’t we know here? What has Mr. Putin promised or threatened Mr. Trump with? Did Mr. Putin help fund Trump’s reelection campaign as well as interfere in it on his behalf? Will FBI and CIA investigations soon unveil the truth? How will the president react to any revelations that expose him as duplicitous or perhaps even traitorous? These questions will not go away until the air is cleared, and congressional Republicans are losing their will to defend the president in this area.

The Need for Wisdom and Sound Judgement
Those of us who are conscience–bound to live as Christians in the exercise of all our vocations and responsibilities should desire to gain the kind of wisdom expressed by Job when he spoke of his work as a public official – a judge and counselor in the public square (29:1–25). He put on righteousness and justice as his clothing and received thankful praise from those he served. Political life is not simply a means to the end of economic prosperity, or military might, or national pride. It is not, as the president seems to believe, a matter of ‘winning’ in contests for wealth and power. The greatness of any nation will be found in the just ordering of life for all who are part of it. Just governance requires the fair and equitable distribution of public rights, benefits, and penalties for all citizens. To the extent that President Trump tries to negotiate ‘deals’ without reference to these overarching norms of justice and equity, he will all but ensure unjust outcomes between winners and losers time after time.

It is of course a sad fact that Americans, including American Christians, are not in agreement on what just governance for our republic means. Southern Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress in Dallas, Texas, for example, has repeatedly indicated that the model Jesus provided has no place in government and that parables like the Good Samaritan have nothing to say about government responsibility. Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, insisted that the Bible is not relevant to Mr. Trump’s ban on immigrants. These views, which carve out a vast chasm between the life of Christian faith, on one side, and the ‘profane’ work of government, on the other, are unfounded biblically and potentially dangerous for America and the world. To be sure, the Bible does not provide a policy guide to immigration policies for contemporary states, but it provides manifold witness to principles and practices of justice, to which Christians should be attuned when making judgments about the work of their governments.[7] At this moment in American public life these concerns should be at the forefront of our attention and in our prayers for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

James W. Skillen is founder and former President of the Center for Public Justice (Washington, DC)

James R. Skillen is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, Calvin College (MI).

[1] See Kurt Eichenwald, ‘America’s Grand Experiment in Government by Twitter Begins January 20’, Newsweek, January 13, 2017, and David J. Lynch, ‘Trump’s Unpredictability on Foreign Policy Keeps the World Guessing’, Financial Times, January 19, 2017.
[2] Quoted by Evan Osnos in ‘President Trump’s First Term’, The New Yorker, September 26, 2016.
[3] Jeff Shesol, quoting from Michael Kruse of Politico in, ‘Will Trump be Reaganesque in All the Wrong Ways?’ The New Yorker, December 22, 2016.
[4] See David Gardner’s fine commentary, ‘Donald Trump’s Travel Ban is a Gift to Jihadis’, Financial Times, January 31, 2017.
[5] The Washington Post, January 30, 2017.
[6] CNN, December 8, 2016.
[7] See M. Daniel Carroll R., Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible (Brazos 2013); and on justice more broadly, James W. Skillen, The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction (Baker Academic 2014); David McIlroy, A Biblical View of Law and Justice (Paternoster 2004).

Image by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, via Flickr,  under Creative Commons 2.0



James Skillen

James Skillen

James W. Skillen is founder and former President of the Center for Public Justice(Washington, DC)

James R. Skillen is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, Calvin College (MI).

Posted 10 February 2017


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