Trump and the Presidency: Remember her Last
So often in American history, presidential elections yield revealing clues about the presidents they produce. Victorious campaigns tell us a lot about how the winning candidate will govern: the type of person they will select for high office; the way in which they will manage their administration; which policies they will prioritise; how they will respond to extreme adversity. With its love of the horserace, modern political journalism is drawn towards these campaigns as playbooks for governance, seeing their personalities, operations and pivotal decisions as overriding insight into what comes next.
Yet there is another, sometimes less acknowledged way in which presidential elections teach us what lies ahead. In almost each contest, the winning candidate’s opponent pinpoints a critical weakness. Sometimes this amounts to little more than a flicker across the political radar at the time, only to garner salience later. Herbert Hoover’s attack on FDR for political criticism of the Supreme Court in 1932 would take on a new relevance when the Democrat sought to pack the institution five years later. Mitt Romney’s repudiation of the Obama administration’s handling of Russia in 2012 came back into public consciousness two years after his defeat with the annexation of Crimea.
At other times, a vanquished candidate succeeds in identifying a flaw in their opponent that is less quickly forgotten. Ronald Reagan famously beat back Walter Mondale’s questioning of his age and health in 1984, but the Republican’s physical competence would go on to dog him through the Iran-Contra scandal, a debacle that blew apart his second administration and shredded his reputation. The accusations of dubious moral character first levelled by George HW Bush in the 1992 campaign swirled around Bill Clinton almost from the moment of his election until he left office in 2000.
This year, there is little ambiguity about which line of attack will return to haunt the victorious presidential candidate. Throughout the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton raised the question of Donald Trump’s suitability for office — his lack of qualifications, his ignorance of policy matters, his penchant for vengeance – over and over. In the end this contributed to her undoing. Polls showed people agreed with the charge, yet were prepared to overlook it for other reasons. But their judgement at the polls will not wipe away the President-elect’s flaws, nor spare him the burdens of running one of the most complex government bureaucracies in the world.
Burdens they already appear to be proving. Within hours of Trump meeting President Obama two days after the election, stories leaked out concerning the Republican’s lack of knowledge about his new role. This week, Obama himself seemed to escalate warnings to Americans about what he had seen of Trump in person, openly stating his successor would not last long if he failed to meet the basic demands of the presidency and alluding to the New Yorker’s David Remnick that their private meeting had been much less encouraging than he had publicly stated.
From around Trump too have emerged stories that raise serious questions about how the new man will cope once he enters the White House. There was the clumsy way in which he spoke to foreign leaders after his victory, the attention showered on low-level celebrities who came to call, the slipping of the press pool on a trip to dinner in Manhattan. But of equal concern was what went almost unnoticed: Trump’s decision to allow his son-in-law Jared Kushner to sweep aside qualified prospects for top roles, the ceding of substantial control to nominees over appointments in their departments and the refusal to utilise government briefings in his first encounters on the international stage.
One initial response to fears about the way Trump is handling himself during the transition has been to shrug it off or find a logical explanation for it. The President-elect is not that far behind his predecessors in announcing Cabinet appointments, while his latest broadsides on Twitter are in fact strategic attempts to distract from scandals surrounding his businesses or brand his critics part of an out of touch elite. But as in the election campaign, some commentators are shoehorning erratic, uninformed behaviour into method that simply does not exist. Indeed, the desire to find a narrative where there is none appears to have increased since Trump’s election, as if his victory in and of itself is proof of his competence to be president.
And soon Trump will finally reach the Oval Office, where events come at the occupant fast and there is no hiding from the pressures of the presidency. As this moment approaches, observers would do well to look back at previous incoming administrations and wonder out loud how the new President will perform in similar situations. How will he view looming challenges? How will he marshal his government to respond to them?
One case that has been on my mind in recent days is how George W Bush’s administration reacted to the growing threat from Al-Qaeda in the early part of 2001. Unlike Trump, Bush was personally intelligent and had run one of America’s largest states. He was also surrounded by people long in the tooth of government, many of whom could see the terrorist network posed a threat. But unused to the repeated dire warnings from intelligence officials, some of them simply wrote off critical assessments about its capacity. The administration also proved slow to convene top-level meetings on the subject and took little interest in issues relating to Afghanistan.
I do not raise this example to suggest Trump will face a terror threat to the homeland on taking office. Rather, I want to concentrate minds anew on the fact that major administrative decisions Trump takes now and his ability to process information will have huge consequences once he is in the Oval Office. There has been some excellent reporting of the President-elect’s actions over the past week, but except in the case of Trump slipping of the press pool, insufficient explanation about how the violation of norms or the failure to take sensible decisions about the new administration could have dangerous results.
When Trump assumes the presidency in January, he will walk through a White House adorned with the portraits of his predecessors and their spouses. Among those staring down at him will be Hillary Clinton, the woman he defeated to claim the prize he coveted for decades. If the poor judgements the President-elect makes and the failings he refuses to work on are not scrutinised, the words she spoke on the campaign trail will echo down the hallway — and around the world — for many years to come.
Photograph: Bill B