It has been a difficult week for Donald Trump. A series of reverses at home was followed in short order by one of the US president’s least favourite things – obligatory participation in an international summit, namely this weekend’s G20 gathering in Buenos Aires, where he is not the sole focus of attention. Personal interaction with fellow national leaders who consider themselves his equals is an evidently problematic proposition.
Trump’s instinct is to dominate the room, push to the front and hold court as others dutifully listen. In policymaking terms, collaboration, co-operation and the very concept of multilateralism appear alien to him. When attending such meetings, Trump typically looks and behaves as though he would much rather be somewhere else, preferably on his golf course in New Jersey.
Trump’s domineering, chief executive style, inimical to open discussion and hostile to challenge, sits uneasily within a democratic system where any president must be answerable to voters, their elected representatives and the media. It also means he must always be right. Many Americans, not least his fabled “base” of predominantly white, working-class and rural voters, seem ready to accept Trump is not always truthful. But they will not accept failure – and Trump’s list of failures is lengthening.
A key Trump promise in the 2016 election was to make America’s factories great again. “My plan includes a pledge to restore manufacturing in the United States,” he declared. That optimistic prospectus tipped the balance in critical midwest states such as Ohio and Michigan. Last week’s announcement by General Motors, a major US company, that it was cutting 14,000 jobs, thus injected a stringent dose of economic reality into Trump’s make-believe world.
GM’s decision was attributed to several factors: vehicle production is cheaper in Mexico and the far east, the advent of electric and, prospectively, driverless cars is revolutionising the global market, and ride-sharing apps are depressing sales. The harsh truth was clear, at it has been for many years. The days of relatively highly paid, secure, unionised jobs-for-life in the US car industry, and manufacturing in general, are gone forever – and Trump should never have pretended otherwise.
Predictably, Trump refused to accept he was in the wrong, instead blaming GM’s management. But the figures speak for themselves. Factory employment in the US fell to 11.5m jobs after the 2008 crash. Since then, only 1.3m have been added, less than a third during Trump’s presidency. What goes for cars goes for coal and steel, too. Trump’s vow to lead a national industrial revival was a gross deceit. Increasingly, his electoral base is paying the price of his vain pledges.
The week also brought bad news about Trump’s signature policy for reversing manufacturing decline: punitive trade tariffs and sanctions on foreign importers. GM pointed out that US tariffs on steel would add $1bn to its costs. Across the country, thousands of small and medium-size businesses, farmers and retailers are also reportedly suffering financial losses as a result of higher prices for imported materials and goods and the ensuing foreign retaliatory measures. When Trump imposed $200bn worth of tariffs on China this year, little or no consideration was given by the White House to the domestic impact, his critics say. Now Trump is threatening to up the ante next month if his talks with China’s president, Xi Jinping, in Buenos Aires do not produce a truce.
The gathering grassroots backlash against Trump’s economic and fiscal blundering (which includes his notorious 2017 tax cut favouring big business and the better-off) is matched by a rising political storm. Last week brought further damaging revelations during the arraignment of his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, on a charge of lying to Congress.
If Cohen and a host of other witnesses who have given evidence to the FBI investigation led by special counsel, Robert Mueller, are to be believed, Trump and/or his sons, family and business associates, despite their denials, maintained undisclosed connections with Vladimir Putin’s Russia when Trump was a candidate in 2016 and even, perhaps, after he won the election.
Since it is now an established fact that Russia tried to tip the election in Trump’s favour, the question is both inescapable and pressing: did these connections extend to political collusion? And is Putin now exacting a price for his covert support? Trump’s bad week at home culminated in another humiliation abroad when Russian military forces fired on Ukrainian naval vessels in the Kerch strait, off Crimea.
The incident provoked international condemnation, yet Trump himself was slow to criticise Putin, reluctantly cancelling their Buenos Aires meeting. Once again, voters were left wondering why Trump seems so timid in his attitude towards an avowed foe. Whether it’s his shabby efforts to defend Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince accused of ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, his professed “love” for North Korea’s ruthless dictator, Kim Jong-un, or his unashamed kowtowing to Putin, Trump undermines his office.
What a sorry contrast he presents with the dignified former president, George HW Bush, who died this weekend. Bush Sr wasn’t perfect, but he understood what making America great really means.
Trump’s vow to lead a national industrial revival was a gross deceit … his electoral base is paying the price of his vain pledges