Ever since the US Primaries, I’ve made the assumption that Donald Trump, if elected, would be an unimaginably catastrophic president and that Hilary Clinton, though badly flawed, would at least provide a stable administration with no big foreign policy cockups. Having now dug a little deeper, I’m not so sure this is how it would play out.
Look at Trump first. On the debit side, he’s politically inexperienced, ignorant, racist, narcissistic, arrogant, makes wild promises and extravagant claims, and has no serious political agenda to speak of. He’s a bully who shoots his mouth off and who doesn’t hesitate to pick on the weak and powerless if he thinks it will aggrandize his own position.
Against that, he is patently not part of the cosy Washington political elite, and because of his personal wealth is largely beyond the reach of the PR slimeballs, lobbyists and influence peddlers that line the banks of the Potomac, waiting to grease political palms.
If elected, he would quickly find himself in a straitjacket of existing power structures. Trump will undoubtedly arrive in the Oval Office and start firing off memos. But without the inside knowledge of the levers of power he is likely to receive Sir Humphrey-style evasions to his more outrageous demands.
His being in office and unable to carry out most of his ludicrous campaign promises would underline to the American public just how little power a US President really has (and this may be what Republican strategists fear most about him.) He may – theoretically – be commander in chief with his finger on the nuclear trigger, but in reality the president is embedded into a complex set of interlocking power structures who call the shots out of sight of the 10 O’Clock News.
It is not like The West Wing, where President Jed Bartlett wrestles with his conscience for 50 minutes before deciding to do the right thing. US Generals and Admirals these days are not just honest soldiers who read their orders and carry them out. They are also powerful players who order the manufacture and deployment of hugely expensive and immensely complex weapon systems. And they are an extension of the State Department in that they are the face of US power overseas, negotiating face to face with local warlords, militias, religious leaders and sovereigns, in situations where politics is very much the art of the possible, rather than the implementation of policy.
The last time someone like Trump got himself elected against the wishes of his party it was Warren Harding back in 1921. Harding was a successful newspaper owner who entered Ohio politics and later campaigned for the Republican nomination. He was initially laughed off as an also-ran but he eventually persuaded the convention to adopt him and went on to beat his Democratic rival James Cox. Once he got to Washington, he imported his old Ohio poker-playing and drinking cronies and they sat around in the White House playing cards, smoking and drinking although prohibition was in force. His cronies were caught with their fingers in the till in the Teapot Dome scandal.
Although a wealthy and successful businessman, who looked every inch a President, Harding achieved nothing of substance during his four years in office, but equally he did little harm because he was surrounded by experienced professionals who pulled the strings behind the scenes.
Descriptions of Harding’s speeches sound very familiar. One contemporary described a typical Harding speech as “an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea.” H. L. Mencken said, ” It is so bad that a kind of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm . . . of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of tosh. It is rumble and bumble. It is balder and dash.” At the same time, though, the New York Times thought that in Harding’s speeches the majority of people could find “a reflection of their own indeterminate thoughts”.
Similar comparisons might also be drawn with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who also was the mouthpiece of others, although Reagan was probably more intelligent that Trump.
So, although a Trump presidency appears to be cause for alarm, it might well represent a period of calm as Trump and his cronies quietly steal the White House spoons while leaving the professionals to pour water on the flames of any diplomatic fires that start, rather than deliberately embarking on dangerous international adventures, like Obama and the Bushes, father and son.
Hilary Clinton is very nearly the polar opposite of her rival for the presidency. She is very much part of the Washington political elite and the Democratic political machine. She is very experienced in Washington and White House politics. She is – in the words of Colin Powell – “greedy for money” and has been shown to be willing to exchange access to power and influence in return for cold cash.
She and her husband Bill have used political office to enrich themselves. The most blatant example of this abuse is the Clinton Foundation – a charity that purports to collect donations for distribution to the poor and needy. In 2014 the tax-exempt Foundation raised $178 Million and spent $91.2 Million. But only $5.2 million of that money was given to charities. Most of the money was spent on administration, travel, and salaries and bonuses, with the fattest payouts going to family friends. One government watchdog has described the Foundation as a “slush fund” for the Clintons.
Smoking gun emails recently released by Judicial Watch show that during her time as Secretary of State, Hillary put the State Department up for sale, with top aides pulling strings and doing favors for fat-cat donors to the Clinton Foundation. Her willingness to sell her office to big business, or “Pay and Play” as the media calls it, is a worrying portent of what might happen if she attains the White House, especially since she will almost at once have to start thinking about the next Presidential elections in four years time.
It’s a curious fact that whenever Trump makes one of his ridiculous statements, it attracts intense media scrutiny. Whenever Hilary does the same thing, it tends to be treated by the media as some kind of temporary aberration that is best forgotten about, or is passed off by aides as her “mis-speaking”. As, for example, when she described minority youths as “super-predators” who must be “brought to heel” and described “half of Trump’s supporters” (about 50 million Americans) as “deplorables.”
Small wonder that, in commenting on this elitist side of Hilary, the Wall Street Journal described her as “the epitome of the self-dealing status quo that disdains their fellow Americans.”
More worrying than her elitism, her willingness to sell government access to big business and her sense of entitlement are her bellicose remarks directed against Russia. On 5th September 2016, she threatened to make war on Russia if she became president, saying, “You’ve seen the reports. Russia’s hacked into a lot of things, China’s hacked into a lot of things. Russia even hacked into the Democratic National Committee. Maybe even some state election systems? So we gotta step up our game. Make sure we are well defended and make sure we are able to take the fight to those who go after us. As president I will make it clear that the United States will treat cyber attacks just like any other attack. We will be ready with serious political, economic and military responses.“
So what can we expect from each if they become president?
From President Trump: once he has climbed the ladder of success, I predict that Trump will lose interest in making the crass and divisive comments he made to get elected and will try to act like a statesman. He is already personally wealthy and powerful so those aspects of the presidency hold little attraction for him. Instead, he will try to change his image from that of buffoon to respected leader, so that he can leave behind a legacy of real worth.
In this he is almost certain to fail as the task is beyond him and he already has too many enemies willing to drag him down. A prisoner of those who hold power in Washington, he will do as he is told in private and put his efforts into personal PR on the public stage. He will spend much of his term beleaguered by accusations of racism and cronyism, trying to counter domestic attacks. To deflect the media, he might well attempt a rapprochement with Putin on a personal level, imagining himself to be the same kind of strong man. This can’t do any harm and might even persuade Putin that not all Americans are carpet-chewing morons.
The result will be four years of relative calm internationally with few if any foreign entanglements. His cronies will enrich themselves and reward him with positive PR. He will be a photo-opportunity President who is powerless in private – much like Warren Harding
From President Hilary Clinton: Once elected, Hilary and Bill will set about parlaying their positions into wealth-making opportunities on a grand scale. The hundreds of millions they have made out of their Foundation will be small beer in comparison with the billions there are to be made from big business by a pair as unscrupulous and well-connected as the Clintons.
Plundering the treasury, however, might be considered as more or less normal political behaviour these days. It is what else Hilary is likely to do that is the cause for the concern.
Russia feels itself to be isolated and threatened by the Western alliance. Putin and his government long for the security that being surrounded by the buffer states of the USSR gave them and view Western attempts to annex Ukraine with alarm. Taking over the Baltic states would protect their northern flank. To flirt with military adventures against Russia – even on paper – is an act of folly that could rebound disastrously on Europe and America.
There is no other serious military rival to the US posing a real threat, only Russia. To put someone in the Oval Office who understands the levers of power in Washington and knows how to pull them could start alarm bells ringing in the Kremlin and put America – and us – in serious danger.
Even though the alternative is horrifying, electing Hilary is not quite the no-brainer it seems.