DONALD TRUMP won the White House on the promise that government is easy. Unlike his Democratic opponent, whose career had been devoted to politics, Trump stood as a businessman who could Get Things Done. Enough voters decided that boasting, mocking, lying and grabbing women were secondary. Some Trump fans even saw them as the credentials of an authentic, swamp-draining savior.
After 70 days in office, however, Trump is stuck in the sand. A health-care bill promised as one of his “first acts” suffered a humiliating collapse in the Republican-controlled Congress. His repeated attempts to draft curbs on travel to America from some Muslim countries are being blocked by the courts. Suspicions that his campaign collaborated with Russia have cost him his national-security adviser and look likely to dog his administration. No other president has suffered such low approval ratings so early in his first term.
After years of gridlock Washington has work to do. The forthcoming summit with President Xi Jinping of China shows that America is still the indispensable nation. A weak president can be dangerous—picture a trade war, a crisis in the Baltics or conflict on the Korean peninsula.
Trump is hardly the first tycoon to discover that business and politics work by different rules. If you fall out over a real-estate deal, you always can find another sucker. In politics you cannot walk away so easily. Even if Trump now despises the Republican factions that dared defy him on health care, Congress is the only place he can go to pass legislation.
The nature of political power also is different. As owner and CEO of his business, Trump had absolute control. The constitution sets out to block would-be autocrats. Where Trump has acted appropriately—as with his nomination of a principled, conservative jurist to fill a Supreme Court vacancy—he deserves to prevail. When the courts question the legality of his travel order, however, they are only doing their job. Likewise the Republican failure to muster a majority on health care reflects not only divisions between the party’s moderates and hard-liners, but also the defects of a bill that, by the end, would have led to worse protection, or none, for tens of millions of Americans without saving taxpayers much money.
Far from taking Washington by storm, America’s CEO is out of his depth. The art of political compromise is new to him. He blurs his own interests and those of the nation. The scrutiny of office grates. He chafes under the limitations of being the most powerful man in the world. You have only to follow his incontinent stream of tweets to grasp Trump’s paranoia and vanity: The press lies about him, the election results fraudulently omitted millions of votes for him, the intelligence services are disloyal and his predecessor tapped his telephones. It’s neither pretty nor presidential.
That so far the main victim of these slurs has been the tweeter-in-chief himself is testament to the strength of American democracy. Institutions can erode, however, and the country is wretchedly divided. Unless Trump changes course, the harm may spread. The next test will be the budget. If the Republican Party cannot pass a stop-gap measure, the government will start to shut down on April 29. Recent jitters in the markets are a sign that investors are counting on Trump and his party to pass legislation.
More than anything, they are looking for tax reform and an infrastructure plan. There is vast scope to make fiscal policy more efficient and fairer. American companies face high tax rates and have a disincentive to repatriate profits. Personal taxes are a labyrinth of privileges and loopholes, most of which benefit the well-off. Likewise the country’s cramped airports and potholed highways are a drain on productivity.
The politics of tax reform are as treacherous as the politics of health care, however, and not only because they will generate ferocious lobbying. Most Republican plans are shockingly regressive, despite Trump’s blue-collar base. To win even a modest reform, Trump and his team will have to show a mastery of detail and coalition-building that so far has eluded them. If Trump’s popularity falls further, the job of winning over fractious Republicans will only become harder.
So far, his executive orders have been crudely theatrical—as with his repeal of President Barack Obama’s environmental rules, which will not lead to the renaissance of mining jobs that he has disingenuously promised coal country. It is the same with trade. Trump could work through the World Trade Organization to open markets. If so, America will take a bilateral approach, trade protection will grow and foreign policy will become more confrontational.
The Americans who voted for Trump either overlooked his bombast or saw in him a tycoon with the self-belief to transform Washington. Although this presidency is still young, that already seems an error of judgment. His policies, from health-care reform to immigration, have been poor—they do not even pass the narrow test that they benefit Trump voters.
© 2017 Economist Newspaper Ltd., London (April 1). All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.