Donald Trump is more than a blip in history

Trying to make sense of the Trump presidency, a quotation from Shakespeare's Macbeth keeps popping into my head: "A tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ Signifying nothing."

Might that one day serve as a suitable epitaph for Mr Donald Trump's time in the White House? There is a deep longing among the United States' traditional power brokers - Republicans and Democrats alike - to believe that the Trump era is a temporary aberration that may ultimately "signify nothing".

On a recent tour of American establishment redoubts - taking in Wall Street, Washington and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard - I encountered a cautious optimism that the Trump phenomenon can be contained, without doing lasting damage to the US. The optimistic case is interesting but also, I think, premature.

The optimists point out that early fears that the President would swiftly undermine American democracy have faded. Mr Trump's behaviour remains erratic and often outrageous, but it does not look like a coherent plan to subvert democracy.

America's institutions have also risen to the challenge. The courts were able to strike down early, unconstitutional versions of Mr Trump's travel ban.

The sacking of Mr James Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, led directly to the appointment of a special prosecutor, who is looking into the Trump-Russia relationship, and much else besides. The press has been relentless and effective in its pursuit of malpractice in the Trump administration.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price is the latest Trump appointee to be forced to resign, after revelations that he had spent more than US$1 million (S$1.36 million) of government money on private planes. If this were Mr Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Turkey or Mr Xi Jinping's China, troublesome journalists would be sacked or imprisoned.

In Mr Trump's America, they are free to continue their work. And it is hard to see that changing.

Trumpism is such a new movement that there are not enough able and determined officials to fill the top jobs in Washington. As a result, most of the key decision-makers in the Trump White House are still drawn from the traditional establishment and have fairly conventional views.

All of these developments are encouraging the belief that the US system will contain and ultimately reject Trumpism. At some point, normal service might be resumed. Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard, who has long made the case for the durability of American power, argued in a recent article: "If Trump avoids a major war and if he is not re-elected, future scholars may look back at his presidency as a curious blip on the curve of American history."

But, as Prof Nye concedes, "those are big 'ifs'". They are also not the only ifs. As well as the risk of catastrophic conflict and an eight-year Trump epoch, I would add a further reason why it is too soon to assume that Trumpism will not do lasting damage to the US. This is the likelihood that the Trump campaign has identified and nurtured profound discontents and divisions within the country that will outlast Mr Trump himself, and harden into a durable, far-right political movement.

These three ifs all deserve separate consideration. The risk of a war - even a nuclear war - with North Korea currently preoccupies much of official Washington. The conventional wisdom is that the generals around Mr Trump will restrain their commander-in-chief from taking reckless military action. One former senior official argues that even if Mr Trump gave the order to attack, the military might be able to frustrate him through a strategy of delays and leaks.

But the President has increased the risk of an accidental conflict with his wild and unpresidential language, including the threat to "totally destroy" North Korea. And he is now dropping heavy hints that he intends to take military action. So the risk of war is still uncomfortably high.

Mr Trump's low approval ratings and failure to deliver on key election promises have led many in Washington to conclude that he is unlikely to be re-elected. But his victory last year demonstrated that the US establishment is extremely bad at reading the public mood.

The results of the recent Republican primary in Alabama - in which a fire-breathing radical named Roy Moore beat the candidate of the party establishment - demonstrated that many voters remain drawn to extremists who are dispatched to Washington on a mission to destroy.

The fact that Mr Trump had actually endorsed Mr Moore's opponent also demonstrated that there is still room to the right of Mr Trump, in the identity-driven nationalism of Mr Stephen Bannon, his former chief strategist. That suggests that Bannonite nationalism has the capability of growing into a movement that outlasts President Trump.

One of the constraints on Mr Trump's ability to upend the American system is that he simply cannot get the staff. Trumpism is such a new movement that there are not enough able and determined officials to fill the top jobs in Washington. As a result, most of the key decision-makers in the Trump White House are still drawn from the traditional establishment and have fairly conventional views.

But if Trumpism hardens into a durable political movement, it will create a cadre of determined ideologues and political foot soldiers. At that point, the early haphazard days of the Trump presidency may give way to something more determined - and more dangerous.

FINANCIAL TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2017, with the headline 'Donald Trump is more than a blip in history'. Print Edition | Subscribe