M D Nalapat | Geopolitical Notes From India
THE 45th President of the US, Donald John Trump, has the lowest approval rating six months into his tenure of any of his predecessors for the past 70 years. Trump has acted in character by tweeting a brave face on it by claiming the low number was an achievement. Every Head of Government of a major country confronts a situation where a comfortable wall closes around him or her and those outside the charmed circle of those in power. This barrier prevents genuine facts from reaching the leader, while those around him present a distorted picture of reality so that he will not understand that the main problem is not outside but inside. That it is her or his core team that needs examination, and in significant measure, change.
The problem becomes worse when important members of the core team have either a low level of integrity or have agendas different from that of the Head of Government who has given them the jobs they hold, or both. Even good policies get distorted and changed in the process of preparing the details, with the consequence that the effect is different from that which was intended. After being sworn in on January 20, President Trump made the same mistake that countless other leaders from across the world have. He chose as the members of his core team not those he needed to implement his policies, but those he liked to have around him. However, many leaders don’t usually take well to be told of the mistakes they are making. They prefer to hear how wonderful they are, and how the critics are just jealous or hostile.
The legal red lines for a high-ranking member of the US President’s staff such as Jared Kushner are several times more than for an ordinary citizen, even if he be his son, Donald D Trump Junior. It was extremely courageous of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump to consent to being inducted into the Trump administration despite the legal risks, issues that keep many individuals from agreeing to exchange their private status for that of official members of an administration, and hopefully both will escape unscathed from the experience. It must be admitted that democracy in the US is far more obvious in its vigour than it is in most parts of South Asia.
US media is feisty, as it is protected by the constitutional protection given to freedom of speech, something that was diluted beyond recognition by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in India a few years after he took office on August 15, 1947. So eager was the new government to take over from the British that the swearing in was held not in the morning but at midnight. Ironically, immediately afterwards, Nehru and his entire Council of Ministers made the former Viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten, the highest ranking individual in the newly independent country by appointing him Governor-General. Although Mountbatten requested Jinnah too to give him the same post in Pakistan, this was refused and Jinnah himself became the Governor-General of Pakistan. Of course, it must be added that by ensuring that Mountbatten continued as Head of State (with Nehru being Head of Government), the Prime Minister of India was able to get advice almost within a stone’s throw from not just Lord but Lady Edwina Mountbatten.
The charming Lady Edwina had strong views on several subjects, and never hesitated to make these known to the Governor-General as well as to the Prime Minister, who took her views even more seriously than her own husband. The White House staff is coordinated by Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, whose agenda seems to be to ensure a political career for himself in a post-Trump world. Hiring those with political – or financial – ambitions carries a large measure of risk. Priebus has sought to please as many Republican Party grandees as he can, usually by making the President adopt several of the measures that each of them have been pushing, sometimes for decades.
As a consequence, the decisions flowing out of the Trump White House are like a necklace of stones of different colour, type and shape. Many of the policies conflict with each other or with the overall interests of Trump himself. For example, had the President focussed on what got him elected, the promise of a strong economy that would include those left out of prosperity during previous decades, he would have launched a Trillion Dollar Infrastructure Plan immediately on taking office. This is a subject Trump knows well, and he could have put together a group of capable administrators to implement plan, once it got cleared by US House of Representatives and the Senate.
Urban renewal would have created a foundation for jobs, as would initiatives designed to ensure leadership in the Knowledge Economy. Instead, by lumping engineers from Chennai with farm labourers from Chiapas, the new administration has hindered the flow of talent needed by US industry. As for healthcare, this is a subject neither Trump nor his staff was expert in. By bowing to the wishes of House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and making it the first major legislative project of his, Trump has hurt himself badly.
A Chief of Staff totally fixed on protecting his boss would have warned Trump off such a risky, ill-thought out move rather than egged him on. And staff that behaved more as professionals rather than as courtiers would have warned the US President of the pitfalls of making much of the media his enemy, rather than befriending it the way Businessperson Trump was so expert in. Reince Priebus may get his wish and have a political career, perhaps as a US Senator or Governor. But that will come at cost of President Trump, whose staff need to be those whose only agenda is to ensure his success rather than build future careers by obliging many in Republican Party who would be delighted were Trump to resign before his term ends.