Speaking of America

Trump the pragmatist keeps everyone guessing

Trump is not wedded to his campaign promises and may still be figuring out what to do

US President-elect Donald Trump and his wife Melania walk with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (right) following a meeting at the Capitol in Washington, DC, on Nov 10, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON • In the week and a bit since billionaire Donald Trump won the United States election, predictions of what sort of president he will be have ranged from optimistic forecasts about him becoming the greatest president ever to doomsday scenarios about a leader turning the US into a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

If there is one thing everyone agrees on, it is that no one really knows anything for sure about what Mr Trump will do once he gets into the Oval Office.

In fact, it has sometimes seemed this past week that the President-elect isn't quite sure himself about what he will do. The candidate who has defied every possible prediction during an extraordinary 18-month presidential election campaign is quickly proving to be just as difficult to read today.

In the few interviews he has given since his victory, Mr Trump has shown little attachment to a whole host of his campaign promises - sometimes to the relief, and sometimes to the horror of his critics.

Take the now infamous wall on the southern border. Chants of "build that wall" have been a constant fixture at Trump rallies, and the tycoon repeatedly responded to criticisms from Mexican leaders by pledging to make the wall "10 feet higher".

None of that stopped him from revising some of the key specifications after the election. Asked in an interview with CBS' 60 Minutes whether he would accept a fence in certain areas, Mr Trump said he would.

"But (in) certain areas, a wall is more appropriate. I'm very good at this, it's called construction. There could be some fencing," he said.

Similarly, questions have cropped up over what Mr Trump's controversial Muslim ban will look like when implemented. The campaign has tweaked the proposal several times since it put up a press statement on its website last December but, on election day last week, the original press statement became inaccessible on the website.

It was restored subsequently after media enquiries about its disappearance, with the change described as a technical glitch. Then, after raising hopes of softening, the Trump team was reportedly looking into a plan to register visitors coming in from countries deemed hostile to the US.

Even the strongly Republican Party-supported move of repealing Obamacare now seems open for debate. After months of campaign promises to "repeal and replace" the law, the President-elect recently raised a new possibility - amending it. "Either Obamacare will be amended, or repealed and replaced," he told the Wall Street Journal, before going on to say later that he wanted to keep some of the major provisions of the healthcare law.

What to make of all of this?

As with most things Trump, there isn't a single straightforward explanation for the current policy fluctuations.

The present unpredictability is likely the result of a multitude of polarising forces pulling the President-elect every which way.

And, because Mr Trump has never really been an ideologue, those forces are having a particularly large effect.

An optimistic reading of Mr Trump's post-election actions is that he is trying to unite the nation by moderating his policy positions. After all, even President Barack Obama expressed confidence that his successor would take a pragmatic approach.

"He is coming into this office with fewer set hard-and-fast policy prescriptions than other presidents," Mr Obama said. " I don't think he is ideological. I think, ultimately, he is pragmatic."

The big problem for Mr Trump is, however, that pragmatism - especially in the current set of political circumstances - just isn't very practical.

None of the tactics that Mr Trump used so effectively during his campaign - mobilising a specific group, launching sharp attacks against opponents - are going to be of much use to him right now. His counter-punching style that worked so well cannot be deployed outside of a contest. There is no opponent to play off right now, so the President-elect needs to find a different style. But, what sort of style would that be?

If he focuses on making nice with the Republican establishment that controls Congress, in the hope of creating an effective governing coalition, he risks upsetting the core of his voter support. Voters sent a clear signal in the election that they were upset with the status quo in Washington and embraced Mr Trump's promise to "drain the swamp" - removing the influence of special interests on government.

Congressional lawmakers, however, have already dismissed all of Mr Trump's swamp-draining proposals and it might be politically very awkward if he fully embraces the party leadership.

Yet, neither can Mr Trump just focus on appeasing his base. The Republican Party has its first unified government in more than a decade and there will be significant pressure on the President-elect to go along with its legislative priorities like entitlement reform and repealing Obamacare. Very few of those priorities are moves supported by Trump voters who want the government to do more for its citizens, and not necessarily get out of the way.

He ran on the right on social issues and immigration, and the left on trade and the use of military force.

He needs to somehow find a way to satisfy a core base of voters upset with the establishment, a Republican establishment upset with him, while simultaneously trying not to further aggravate liberals who have spent every day of the past week in the streets protesting his upcoming presidency.

And, he has to do that with the weakest mandate of any president in recent history. A Washington Post-Schar School poll released this week found that just 29 per cent of Americans say he has a mandate to govern. It is a figure more than 10 points lower than that of president George W. Bush in 2000 who, like Mr Trump, was elected president while losing the popular vote.

Given the immense difficulty of his task, it is perhaps not entirely surprising that Mr Trump's current course of action is to keep everyone guessing. The question, then, is how long the President-elect can keep up that balancing act. Businessman Peter Thiel recently said that Mr Trump should be taken seriously, but not literally. That dichotomy may have worked for Mr Trump in an election campaign, but now that he has real responsibility, he may well find that presidents who are taken seriously are also taken literally.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 19, 2016, with the headline 'The pragmatist keeps everyone guessing'. Subscribe