That Donald Trump has altered the American Presidency brand is not contestable. From the days of George Washington to Barack Obama, America’s first black President, no President has so fundamentally altered the Presidency brand in such a short time.
While I never doubted that Trump would beat Hillary in the elections, nothing would have prepared me for the ruckus that this most unexpected of Presidents has caused. At a fundamental level, Trump has not really altered American policy in any significant way beyond what a Republican President would do.
His tax reforms are typical conservative policy. His gutting of Obamacare was expected, the Republicans had been forced by the Democrats’ numbers in Congress to swallow the law.
As for foreign policy, meetings with the Rocket Man and threats to NATO notwithstanding, there has been little change in American policy outside of typical Republicanism. While Trump may appear Putin’s ally, America’s military actions in Syria against Russia’s allies are more vibrant than Obamas.
As for NATO defence spending and allies’ unfair trade terms, every American President knows that Trump is right, he is just more blunt, the reason Americans elected him! Even Trump’s choices for the Supreme Court are not radical, they are what one would expect of a conservative administration.
So, what Trump has changed is not America’s policy positions; it is the brand that America has taken ages to cultivate of its Presidency. As the American Presidency has evolved, it has generally been accepted that the person who seeks that office must be without controversy, especially of the moral kind.
To protect the image of the Presidency no one spoke openly of Jefferson’s slave mistress. Richard Nixon, despite knowing full well that the Kennedys had rigged the 1960 elections, refused to challenge the election in court. He believed that making those allegations would have irredeemably injured the Presidency.
When Bill Clinton was accused of inappropriate moral conduct with Monica Lewinsky, Americans reacted with disdain that he had dared smear the White House with shame. Yet in the year that Trump has been in office, allegations of sexual impropriety in earlier years, including with prostitutes who were paid off to keep quiet, hardly makes headlines. In the pre-Trump season a President openly telling lies would produce unceasing headlines.
Yet even Trump’s supporters accept that he routinely tells lies or flip flops sometimes on mundane issues like the size of his inauguration crowds to more fundamental issues like what he said during his Helsinki debacle.
In the years before Trump, American Presidents at least ostensibly, kept their private businesses totally separated from the Presidency. Everyone knew they benefited from the Presidency but they hid it from public view for the sake of the profile of the office. Trump has no such qualms and his family has been all over the world from India to China trumping the Presidency and obtaining significant advantage.
Previous Presidents hardly dared to make racist or bigoted remarks openly. Trump will call Mexicans rapists and thieves and openly equivalence white supremacists with civil rights activists. As for Trumps attacks on the media, the vigour with which he does it is unprecedented, just last week he told adoring crowds that only he and his people tell the truth all else is fake news.
Initially, I felt sorry and a little schadenfreude for America. But over time I am glad that Trump has dimmed American pretence. Many of what Donald does and says was previously said and done but covered in PR garb. Now we know America exhibits all the contradictions that other countries have; selflessness and selfishness, inconsistency and reliability, racism yet fair and impartial, gross immorality yet espousing family values, one could go on and on .
Trump has dulled our awe of this great nation but in this way also normalized the rest of us whose foibles were always hung up as examples of children of a lesser god. It is now patently clear that America, Africa, Asia; we are all a fallen people. Trump has played his part in enabling us see this truth.
- The writer is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya