Despite all the hype, the decision of Donald Trump to fire his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was a rational act. In view of their policy differences, Trump probably should not have appointed Tillerson in the first place. But it makes no sense for a president to have a secretary of state who does not fully believe in the administration’s policy.
Speaking on Fox News this week, Australian-born journalist Jonathan Swan, who appears to have good contacts with the White House and the congress, said businessman Tillerson never really accepted that it was the President who determined foreign policy.
Addressing The Sydney Institute last Tuesday, New York business identity Len Harlan compared the upheaval in the US government with the disruption that has affected most parts of society in recent years. Many of the leading American companies were not even in existence two decades ago. It’s not surprising that, with the Trump administration, disruption has gone to Washington, DC.
The Trump phenomenon has been misunderstood throughout much of the Western world. That’s why so few commentators, in Australia and elsewhere, thought that Trump had a path to victory in 2016. He always did. It was to retain all the states that Mitt Romney had won in 2012 and win Florida, which is invariably close, then prevail in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Trump did all of this, and won Michigan and Wisconsin as well.
There were some who did not believe that Trump wanted to defeat Hillary Clinton. In Australia, the view was expressed on the ABC TV News Breakfast program by comedian Sami Shah. On the eve of the 2016 US presidential election, he said Trump was “frightened out of his mind” at the prospect of becoming president. Shah added that if Trump won he would hand over authority to Vice-President Mike Pence. Later, after his prophecy had been discredited, Shah ran the familiar “just joking” defence. In recent times he has been rewarded with the position of co-presenter on the ABC 774 Breakfast program in Melbourne. This is yet another example of the propensity of the ABC to merge comedy with news and current affairs in an attempt to woo a younger audience. Tonightly with Tom Ballard on ABC Comedy is another such example.
Trump today is much as he always was, except that he is President. In electing Trump, Americans did not believe they were voting for St Francis of Assisi. Trump is an alpha male who can be rude and a bully and does not claim to be a paragon of virtue. He is also unpredictable and impulsive, which does not always work well in the age of Twitter.
Lifelong Democrat voter Alan Dershowitz, who has known Trump for about four decades, claims that the President has not changed much in this time. He’s just acting in Washington much the same way he did in business in New York. In the past, most successful Democratic politicians were skilled at forming coalitions and reaching consensus by means of compromise. Trump is bringing what he calls the art of the deal to politics. This tactic may or may not work. But attempting to resolve the instability on the Korean peninsula by means of a deal with the communist dictatorship is worth a try.
It is no secret that some senior figures in Malcolm Turnbull’s government wanted Hillary Clinton to win in November 2016, despite the fact she is left of centre and they identify as right of centre. But pragmatism has prevailed and Australia has benefited from making deals with Trump.
The US decision to take some refugees detained in Papua New Guinea honours the agreement reached with the Obama administration. And it appears that Australia has done a deal to be excluded from Trump’s decision to lift tariffs on steel and aluminium imports.
The evidence suggests that Trump is a tribalist. He is likely to support nations that are allies with respect to national security. This list includes Australia. And he is likely to discriminate against nations that he regards as trading unfairly with the US and refraining from pulling their weight on national security or who are rivals.
I support free trade and oppose protectionism. Yet I understand Trump’s position and recognise that he needs to win some rust-belt states to successfully recontest the presidency in four years.
Interviewing American-born journalist Sara James on News Breakfast last January, Ali Moore put to James that a “lot of people wouldn’t have thought” that Trump would achieve a year in office. James dismissed this view: “This is a guy who is a pugilist in every kind of way and he’s going to go the distance.”
That’s correct. Trump wanted to be president and achieved his aim. He’s unusual in that he is attempting to do in office what he promised to do in the election campaign. But this approach is working. Trump has achieved success, particularly in cutting taxation and abolishing regulation.
It makes sense for Australians to treat the President as he is. Trump is clever and cunning. He does not read much but he is highly intelligent. Moreover, according to some who know him, the President is a good listener. This is evident as footage emerges from some of his meetings with Americans in the Oval Office concerning issues such as protection and gun legislation.
In all likelihood, Trump will be President until at least January 2021. Since Trump has not changed much in the past, he’s unlikely to do so any time soon.
From Australia’s point of view, it is valuable for Trump to have a supportive secretary of state such as Mike Pompeo. Moreover, those who doubt the President’s judgment in hiring would be well advised to look at the early successes of Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN. She looks like a disrupter in an organisation that needs disruption.