During Barack Obama’s presidency, Republicans complained, with good reason, about the Potomac River-wide gap between the president’s words and his actions — in particular about his failure to enforce the “red line” over chemical weapons use in Syria. But under Donald Trump the gap has expanded to the size of the Grand Canyon — large enough to swallow his presidency and the country’s international reputation with it.
No, Trump hasn’t moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which as recently as December Kellyanne Conway had called a “very big priority” for the president.
No, he hasn’t designated China a “currency manipulator” as he vowed to do on his very first day in office. He hasn’t slapped a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods either, and, humiliatingly, he has had to affirm the “One China” policy without getting any concessions in return as he had once pledged to do. (“I don’t know why we have to be bound by a ‘One China’ policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade,” he said in December.)
He has not retooled or abandoned NATO, which he has repeatedly called “obsolete.” He hasn’t renegotiated basing agreements for U.S. troops in South Korea, Japan, or Germany that he once slammed as a rip-off. (“They do not pay us what they should be paying us because we are providing a tremendous service, and we’re losing a fortune,” he said during the first presidential debate.) Instead, Trump just held a love-in summit with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in which he reaffirmed the U.S.-Japan alliance without getting any pledges from Abe to pay more for the basing of U.S. forces.
He hasn’t taken any concrete steps to force Mexico to pay for the $21 billion border wall that he is building, notwithstanding his temper tantrum at Mexico’s pro-American president, Enrique Peña Nieto. He hasn’t torn up NAFTA either, even though he calls it “the single worst trade deal ever approved in this country.”
He hasn’t established better relations with Russia, won Russian cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State, or lifted sanctions in spite of his nonstop praise for Vladimir Putin.
He hasn’t lifted the ban on the use of torture despite his paeans to the joys of waterboarding. (“We have to fight fire with fire,” he says, even though the normal way of fighting fire is with water.)
He has repeatedly said, “Real change begins with immediately repealing and replacing the disaster known as Obamacare,” but he hasn’t yet moved to scrap the Affordable Care Act. The problem, of course, is that contrary to what Trump claimed on Jan. 14, he doesn’t actually have a plan to replace Obamacare while maintaining “insurance for everybody.”
Oh, and he hasn’t imposed a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on,” as he infamously promised to do on Dec. 7, 2015. Even his much more limited attempt to ban all refugees and all entrants from seven Muslim-majority nations has now been put on hold by the courts.
In fairness to Trump, it’s true that Rome wasn’t destroyed in a day, and it will take him more than three weeks to undo 70 years of American foreign policy and trade relations. It is quite possible, even likely, that he will move to implement more of his campaign pledges as more political appointees join the executive departments. (Currently, the State Department and the Defense Department each have only one Senate-confirmed Trump official.)
But for the time being the 54 percent of Americans who didn’t vote for Trump — and the roughly 95 percent of the world that was horrified by his campaign — should be breathing a sigh of relief that his actions are not turning out to be quite as radical as his rhetoric.
Yet that is not the sentiment of the day. Americans and the rest of the world continue to be as alarmed about Trump as if he had actually implemented his whole deranged agenda on day one. Trump’s approval rating at home continues to hit new lows while in Europe surveys show that he — and the country he leads — is about as popular as an infectious disease. He can’t even visit the United Kingdom, America’s closest ally, for the time being because of protests, led by that country’s lower house speaker, against letting him speak before Parliament. So irony of ironies: Trump is as feared and loathed by America’s allies, notwithstanding the cynical genuflections of Shinzo Abe and Theresa May, as if he had actually carried out his full isolationist agenda. Which he hasn’t. Yet.
Why is it that no one is giving Trump any credit for his (relative) moderation in action? Because his words are so immoderate. He continues to engage in fraudulent rhetoric and unhinged personal attacks — he especially loves to tweet in UPPERCASE LETTERS! — that create an unsettled environment of crisis, uncertainty, and concern. His own babble and bluster does more than any critic to discredit him.
Look at Trump’s reaction after a federal judge in Seattle blocked his immigration order and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had to decide whether to allow the restraining order to stand. Instead of letting Justice Department lawyers make legal arguments in favor of the administration — which actually has a strong case — Trump stepped front and center with his hyperbolic oratory. On Twitter, he thundered: “The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!” And then: “Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!” Nor did he spare the 9th Circuit judges, saying that the arguments they entertained were “disgraceful” and that even a “bad high school student” would rule in favor of his “beautifully” written order.
No less than Trump’s own Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, felt compelled to criticize these comments as “demoralizing” and “disheartening,” and you can bet that all of the judges involved took full note as well. Trump turned what should have been a routine case about statutory interpretation into a full-blown test of the separation of powers. The judges knew that if they ruled in the administration’s favor, they would have been seen as caving into presidential intimidation. This may help to explain why a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit, including a George W. Bush appointee, ruled unanimously and completely against the government in spite of concerns from dispassionate observers such as Jeffrey Toobin that the plaintiffs may not even have standing to pursue the case.
Or look at the brouhaha over the “One China” policy. There is nothing unusual about a U.S. president affirming that Taiwan is, in theory, part of China; every president since the 1970s has said just that. If Trump had simply agreed with the settled policy from day one, there would not have been any news. But after the election he took an unprecedented call from Taiwan’s president, arranged by Taiwanese lobbyists in Washington. After Trump was criticized for this unusual act, he felt compelled to hint that this was all part of some brilliant grand strategy that, in retrospect, was as nonexistent as his plan to replace Obamacare. “Everything is under negotiation, including One China,” he grandiosely told the Wall Street Journal. This led to outrage in Beijing — and a climb down by Trump in a phone call on Feb. 9 with Xi Jinping. “Trump lost his first fight with Xi, and he will be looked at as a paper tiger,” crowed an advisor to the Chinese government. Another totally unnecessary defeat for Trump because of his own lack of rhetorical discipline.
If the White House wants to advance the Trump agenda, it should muzzle Trump. But that, of course, will never happen. The narcissistic real estate developer ran for the presidency precisely because of the megaphone it affords him, and he will continue to pop off on matters big and small, like denouncing Nordstrom’s “terrible” decision to drop Ivanka Trump’s product line, falsely claiming that the murder rate is at a 47-year high, impugning the intelligence of Mark Cuban, and accusing war hero John McCain of “embolden[ing] the enemy.” Naturally, Trump’s mini-me’s — Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, Stephen Miller — feel compelled to parrot his “alternative facts,” for example about imaginary voter fraud or Nordstrom’s supposed vendetta against Ivanka, thus contributing to the alarming impression that this White House is unmoored from reality.
As a Trump skeptic, all I can say to the president is: Keep it up. The best defense against your crazy ideas turns out to be your own big mouth.