Ben Roback is a Senior Account Executive at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leader’s UK programme.
President Trump continues to isolate himself, causing self-inflicted problems that are getting more attention than his policy agenda, and in turn reducing the chances of passing key legislation. No president should be an island, and having seen his healthcare reforms fail, Trump should by now realise that he needs a wide range of support to get things done.
Some maintain that isolating his party, vast parts of America and the media is a political strategy: ‘He’s appealing to the base!’ But he’s the President of the United States – his base is now the whole country, not just the portion of the nation that voted for him.
The self-defeating presidency?
There should be absolutely no doubt that President Trump is a force to be reckoned with on the stump. In campaigns and at rallies, he feels politically at home when surrounded by those who clearly adore him. Unsurprisingly, a Trump rally is not a representative group of the country, in the same way that not all Trump opponents protest as viciously as those who border his public events. But the President has continued his habit of flexing his muscles by distancing himself from those who can widen his support base and appeal beyond his core support. That self-defeating habit has gone into overdrive.
The White House’s main business and advisory councils have all folded since his response to events in Charlottesville. They have all been pushed to the President’s periphery in a rocky fortnight for a White House that is supposed to have been reined in by a new Chief of Staff, General John Kelly. Renewed activism in corporate America reflects another crossroads for the President. The Breitbart-reading, Fox News-watching Trump supporters will cheer on his rejection of ‘Wall Street and the establishment’, as the president blasted the fleeing CEOs as “grandstanders”. But less enthusiastic Trump supporters who voted for America’s first CEO president may wonder why the billionaire businessman was almost instantly deserted by the country’s biggest companies.
Meanwhile, rank and file members of the GOP find it harder and harder to offer their lukewarm support for him. Trump’s first Charlottesville remarks drew scorn from corners of the party he can usually rely on for firm backing, and not just frequent critics like Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain. A Politico/Morning Consult poll of Republican voters reflected similar displeasure. The poll showed the president’s approval slipping to 73 per cent among Republican voters from 81 per cent the week before. Take note of the 58 per cent of Republican respondents who also said that they would prefer to see Vice President Mike Pence take over as the Commander-in-Chief, in the same week that an adviser to the Department for International Trade said, “the vice-president is effectively acting as the president”.
Broadening the base of support
Rifts between the President and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are reportedly widening; this seems unlikely to be fake news. Having jointly failed to pass healthcare reform, the two will need to work together to broaden the political appeal of the Republican legislative agenda, starting with tax reform. Undeterred, Trump is trying less hard to make friends but succeeding in alienating people. At a rally in Arizona, he attacked the state’s two Republican senators and the “obstructionist Democrats”. To pass legislation, he will need Republican support and a handful of opposition votes. The incentives to vote for the President’s agenda are disappearing far quicker than new incentives are appearing.
Before then, a major hurdle is approaching the administration head-on – the deadline to raise the debt ceiling. The President looks to be spoiling for a fight. His most extreme political instincts could kick in and decide that it’s worth shutting the government down to promote one of his pet projects, like the US-Mexico border wall. At his rally in Arizona, President Trump dropped a clear hint: “If we have to close down our government, we’re building that wall.” A red White House and Congress failed to pass healthcare reform, but shutting down the government would be even worse, creating desperate political optics ahead of mid-term elections in November 2018.
A shifting power base in the White House
The President promised to act like a CEO, and he has certainly hired and fired like one. Steve Bannon’s exit from the West Wing could serve to increase his influence, as he returns to Breitbart “fully unchained.” Moments after Trump concluded his Afghanistan policy speech, Breitbart took a heavily critical approach to the address, likening him to President Obama and condemning the “flip-flop” that “reverses course.” Influential Conservatives that remain in the White House like Stephen Miller could be guided by a fear of condemnation by ardent right-wing news outlets, in their persistent defence of the Trump doctrine. Combined, that all spells bad news for Jared Kushner and the globalists.
The President’s political calculations still appear to be made along the lines of a candidate and not the Commander-in-Chief. Unless he reverses his strategy, the rest of his term looks set to be desperately unproductive. He still enjoys the support of 80 per cent of those voted for him, but he is not just beholden to them now. Trump keeps isolating himself. No president should be an island.