Friday 23 June 2017

America Must Let Trump be Trump (The Conservative)

THE CONSERVATIVE| June 2017| Issue 4| Pages: 31-35

by Madhav Das Nalapat

“Treat me as an outsider and I’ll behave as one,” was Rupert Murdoch’s warning to editors who behaved as if their publication belonged to them and not to the proprietor. It also sums up President Trump’s attitude to the media. His administration has sought to box journalists into harmlessness through denial of access and serial invective. Even the sacred Beltway ritual of the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner was boycotted by the 45th President of the United States, who owes much of his fame to artful management of the media. 

As a businessman, Donald Trump was generous in the time he gave journalists, including those who were far from being admirers. There were, of course, threats, legal notices and even lawsuits, but such shadows quickly passed. The Donald bestowed so much of his undoubted charm on reporters that even supposedly negative reports contained anecdotes designed to make readers like him. It helped that Trump was a compulsive reader of newspapers and viewer of television channels, his favourite topic being a certain New York billionaire with a glamorous wife and an unusual hairstyle. He didn’t need to be told that the media were outside the gravitational force of the Trump corporate empire, and therefore needed to be handled more delicately than his employees. 

However, a career incorporate life – or, for that matter, the military – may not be the best way of adapting to the scrum of a political career. Businessmen and generals understand hierarchy and its attendant order, but they are less familiar with the pathways and limitations of politics. Now that he is in the White House, we can see that Trump spent too little time thinking about what needed to get done the morning after the election, including picking his staff. Brave words notwithstanding, it seems that Team Trump was less than certain of defeating Hillary Clinton, whose machine was supremely confident of victory.
"Trump becomes
Trump and places
his stamp over policy
the way that FDR or
Lincoln did."

On November 9, journalists who had wasted so much effort cultivating the Clintons began to work out their anger on Trump. This was predictable – almost none of them had voted for him – but Trump made things worse. This was the day on which he needed to forget past dust-ups. Instead, he seemed to think that his business had expanded to cover the entire country, including the media. He behaved as though he had no further need of them, tweeting his contempt to the world.

Interestingly, doling out tough love to the media has worked for the leader of an even larger democracy. The Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has barred most journalists   from   travelling  with  him  on  visits  abroad,  while  traditional  press  conferences  no  longer  happen. Yet  the  press  in  India  is  largely  adulatory    perhaps  influenced  by  the  fact  that  it  is  owned  by  individuals  who depend on government goodwill  for  their  profits.  If   Modi’s   winning   streak comes to an end, the fawning pack is likely to turn on him.

Had President Trump followed the same playbook with the Washington media as Businessman  Trump  in  New  York,  he  could  have  avoided much of the vitriol now  being  directed  at  him.  Approaching journalists in  small  batches,  or  singly, he  could  have  demonstrated  the  warmth  that  is  natural to the man, rather than the faux-disdain affected by him  and  the  entire  top tier of his team.

Newspaper columns have been viciously critical of the new president, going out of their way to represent him as a dangerous break with the past.  The result – despite his disdain for the press    is  that  he  seems  to have  decided  not  to  break with the past. In  that  sense,  the  media are winning: their incessant criticism  is  turning  Trump into a president who – certainly  in  the  area  of  foreign  affairs    pursues  far more    conventional    policies than expected. Policies, in other words, with which  many media  commentators are comfortable, even if their tribal dislike of Trump means  they  are  reluctant  to admit it.

For example, both Trump’s national security advisor H R McMaster and defence   secretary James Mattis are more conventional in their approach to Nato, Afghanistan- Pakistan and the Middle East than Donald Rumsfeld was 16 years ago. Mattis, for example, wants to persuade the Taliban to surrender their weapons    and    behave as good citizens.  This gravely misunderstands  the  jihadist psyche,  but  the  Washington  establishment  is  comfortable  with  delusions  of “de-radicalisation”.

As for McMaster, after more than a decade of steadily de-hyphenating India from   Pakistan, he has pushed US policy back to the Bill Clinton era by flying into Delhi   directly from Islamabad with a roomful of suggestions for better relations between the two neighbours, one of which was born as a consequence of hatred of the other.   This   has   kindled Indian anxiety about future Arabia, Turkey and other backers of Wahabbism. It is extraordinary   that   Whitehall  does  not  ask  itself  why Christians, Druze, Shia and even  moderate  Sunnis  flee from  zones  taken  over  by Western allies; perhaps it is the  threat  of  being  beheaded by these “moderates”.
"Newspaper columns
have been viciously
critical of the new
president, going
out of their way to
represent him as a
dangerous break
with the past. The
result – despite his
disdain for the press
– is that he seems to
have decided not to
break with the past."
In  short,  if  the  media war   on   Trump   was   designed  to  ensure  that  he would  revert  to  the  Clinton-Bush policy course and abandon  the  unorthodoxy promised  on  the  campaign trail,  it  is  succeeding.  Bear in mind, too, that members of  Trump’s  inner  circle  are above all determine to save him  from  future  impeachment     and     prosecution: they  apparently  think  that embracing   familiar   policies  will  help  achieve  that  result. They are wrong. The more President     Trump moves away from Candidate Trump – who pushed aside more than a dozen Republican worthies in his fight for the nomination – the faster his approval rating  will  fall to  the  low  20s,  a  level  at which  it  will  be  safe  to  call for   his   impeachment   or worse. All that is preventing such a descent are the flashes of the real Trump occasionally visible from the White House, the most important of which is the greater freedom he has given to the military to meet its objectives.

Unlike  the  closet  pacifist Barack Obama, Donald Trump  has  deferred  to  the generals,  so  much  so  that there is finally a chance that the kinetic   force   needed to ensure  the  safety  of  the US, Japan and South Korea from  Pyongyang  will  actually be unleashed. However, to ensure victory in Korea, Trump will need the neutrality of Russia and the participation of Taiwan. Recent policy reversals make both those things unlikely. Unless,  that  is,  Trump becomes  Trump  and  places his stamp  over  policy  the way  that  FDR  or  Lincoln did.   In   their   desperation to “save” the president, his intimates are creating the conditions for his downfall, by diluting him with liberal doses of Clinton and Bush. After his first 100 days of waffling, it is time for the real Donald Trump to stand up. A good first step would be make sure that his administration understands that we are now living in the Indo-Pacific    century, and that the foundations of American policy no longer lie  on  the  other  side  of  the Atlantic. 

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