In this presentation I intend to analyze three important aspects of the administration of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America:
- Foreign policy, particularly trade policy
- The limits that the U.S. political and institutional framework may impose on some of President Trump’s most radical proposals and decisions, and
- Their connection with President Trump’s particular personality.
Needless to say, this is a preliminary and almost schematic analysis given time constraints and that President Trump has only been in office for a short time.
Trump's Foreign Policy
Three main characteristics mark President Trump’s foreign policy. The first is a combination of extreme nationalism coupled with strong anti-globalization and populistic protectionism. The second is improvisation and abrupt changes of tack on important issues. And the third is an underestimation of the negative effects of policies that he has already adopted as President or announced, and their effects –current and future– on the influence and international prestige of the United States.
The first characteristic is based on:
- An actual historical economic process
- The political consequences of the above
- A partial and mistaken diagnosis of its causes
The real economic fact is the persistent decline of certain traditional U.S. industries –such as coal, steel, and the automobile industry– and the consequent worsening of living standards and job prospects for a large number of –mostly white– workers. Their qualifications and skills are not suited for high-paying jobs in the new industries and, above all, in service-related activities that emerge as a result of the technological and organizational innovations and, in particular, the technological revolution in information and communications technology.
The main political fact is President Trump’s timely perception –when he was still a candidate– of the social problems created by the decline of traditional industries, his sympathy for the limited possibilities that former workers had to progress, and their understandable resentment and rejection of the liberal and competitive economic system that emerged after World War II.
In President Trump's view, the causes of this situation are:
- Increased investment by many U.S. companies in less developed countries with much lower labor costs, some of which have preferential access to the U.S. market under NAFTA and other free trade agreements, and
- The flood of imports reaching the United States market from those countries and others that, in his opinion, generate unfair competition with U.S. producers through a deliberate manipulation of exchange rates.
Indeed, this clearly mercantilist diagnosis ignores both the benefits of free trade and the crucial role played by rapid technological progress on a decrease in output and employment for traditional U.S. industries. It also ignores the rise of new, highly dynamic activities that create high-paying jobs.
The above diagnosis –which believes that any trade deficit at all is inherently bad–leads naturally to proposals such as having the U.S. withdraw from the TPP, unilaterally abandoning NAFTA, increasing tariffs by as much as 45%, using para-tariff protection mechanisms intensively, and applying pressure and threats to U.S. companies to dissuade them from investing abroad rather than at home.
The second feature of President Trump's foreign policy is noted for abrupt and contradictory changes in key areas. His categorical opinions on NATO are clear examples of the foregoing. NATO was initially described as an obsolete institution but shortly thereafter was said to have ceased being obsolete. A similar situation applies to NAFTA. Initially, the United States was supposedly going to unilaterally withdraw from the treaty. Nevertheless, this was later replaced by a proposal to amend the treaty via negotiations with Canada and Mexico.
Understandably, this zig-zag policy has given rise to considerable uncertainty among the allies and trading partners of the United States. Nevertheless, a bigger problem is the underestimation of the negative consequences of the policy and its potential effect on the influence and international prestige of the United States. Indeed, its anti-globalization and neo-protectionist bias evidently undermines the fundamental bases of the liberal economic and pro-free trade order that emerged after World War II, which was mainly promoted precisely by the United States. Moreover, it has been the most powerful cause of the unprecedented world-wide economic boom in the past 70 years. The most noticeable result of the shift in U.S. trade policy has been China's increased prestige and relative influence on the international scene which, somewhat paradoxically, has assumed the role of leading advocate of free trade and globalization.
President Trump and the United States Political and Institutional System
There is understandable concern, both in the United States and abroad, over the economic, social and political costs ensuing from the numerous and radical reforms that President Trump promised during his presidential campaign.
Fortunately, the United States institutional system operates under the principle of checks and balances, one of its distinctive features. This well-known principle –probably the biggest and most original contribution that the Founding Fathers made to the country’s political stability– exists essentially to avoid the uncontrolled supremacy of the Executive Branch. Checks and balances are guaranteed by the broad powers that the Constitution grants to Congress and the Judiciary, and particularly to the Supreme Court. Indirectly, but in practice highly effective, the power of the Executive is also limited by the influence that mainstream media has on public opinion.
Two early events in President Trump's administration illustrate the crucial importance of checks and balances. The first was a Court ruling blocking the Executive’s decision to ban entry into the United States for people from six predominantly Muslim countries. This measure prevented the Executive decision from becoming effective. The second was the failed attempt to repeal fundamental aspects of President Obama’s health reform (Obamacare). The initiative was rejected by Congress, not only with votes from Democrats but also with votes from the more conservative wing of the Republican Party. Furthermore, the radical tax reform bill, at least in the manner proposed by the government, will probably not be passed by Congress and will need major amendments.
An Unsual Factor: President Trump's Personality
In a brilliant and enlightening column published in the Spanish newspaper El País, under the title "Is Trump crazy?", Moisés Naím holds that, despite their diversity, powerful people and leaders have two features in common: they are charismatic and vain. Naím adds that it is easy for extreme vanity to turn into narcissism, even to pathological extremes. He also recalls the criteria developed by the American Psychiatric Association for diagnosing pathological narcissism, known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
According to the APA, people with NPD have all or most of the following symptoms:
- Megalomaniacal feelings coupled with expectations that their superiority will be recognized.
- Fixation with fantasies of power, success, intelligence and physical attractiveness.
- Self-perception as a unique individual, superior to others, who belongs to high status groups and institutions.
- Constant need for admiration from others.
- Sense of entitlement, and the belief in an inherent right to receive special treatment and be obeyed by others.
- Interpersonally exploitative; takes advantage of others for personal benefit.
- Inability to empathize with the feelings, wishes and needs of others.
- Intense envy of others and a belief that everyone else is equally envious.
- Inclination for pompous and arrogant behavior.
Paraphrasing the well-known film disclaimer that states that any resemblance between the film and reality is purely coincidental, it is no exaggeration to say that the similarity between President Trump's psychological features and the criteria defining Narcissistic Personality Disorder are not purely coincidental.
In light of the above, the following questions appear to be in order:
- Can checks and balances modify President Trump's leadership and make his policies less unpredictable, willful and emotionally driven?
- Will President Trump eventually be able to respect the restraints imposed by reality and cease to be guided primarily by his whims, fantasies and obsessions?
- Will President Trump learn the lessons conveyed by exercising power in the real world and will he gradually be able to increase his seemingly scarce knowledge of history, economics, politics, and international relations?
Evidently, it would be unwise to answer these questions unequivocally at this point. However, the mere fact that so many find it reasonable to ask them is cause for concern.
* Slightly edited version of the Presentation made on May 4 during the Annual Conference of the Chilean Foundation of the Pacific, under the title "The policies of the new U.S. government and its repercussions for Latin America and the world in general”.