Trump's generals doing the real work

It has become painfully obvious that United States President Donald Trump does the ranting, and the generals (one still a three-star, the other two retired) do the governing. That's a problem for democracy and also for domestic policy.

Mr Trump tweets and bellows at campaign events. He threatens lawmakers of his own party and raises the possibility of a government shutdown. He incites racial animosity and turns his crowds against the media, declaring the latter to be disloyal Americans. ("I really think they don't like our country. I really believe that," he said in Phoenix.)

He pardons former Maricopa County, Arizona, sheriff Joe Arpaio as a reward for supporting his noxious birther campaign, without consulting the Justice Department, thereby siding with a racial profiler and disgraced law enforcement officer who had been found guilty of criminal contempt.

Again he aims to incite anti-immigrant vitriol and demonstrate his own disregard for equal protection of the law. Likewise, he sends out his order to bar transgender Americans from serving in the military, again without waiting for the official review process to be completed. He cowardly announces both these measures late on Friday, as the country is focused on an impending hurricane.

The impulsive, unsupervised and divisive Mr Trump, who disregards careful, expert review of decision, is the "real" Mr Trump. One can imagine that Mr Trump considers threats, tweets and press relations to be critical parts of the President's job; after all, that's what he seems the most energised about and what he spends most of his time doing.

When it comes to reading a speech on Afghanistan or on veterans' health, that's not Mr Trump's authentic voice, nor do we know if he fully comprehends what he is saying or even agrees with it.

Someone should quiz him about his own Afghanistan policy. (How is it a total reversal of President Barack Obama's policy if he is still nation-building - yes, he is - and maintaining a minimal number of troops with an outcome not designed to destroy the Taleban?)

The words are written by others, and the ideas are formulated by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster.

When it comes to major policy initiatives (as opposed to unilateral stunts for which he does not need to deal with Congress) in which the generals and retired generals have little expertise, nothing much gets said or done.

Bloomberg reports:"Republican congressional leaders don't expect to release a joint tax plan with the White House next month, and they'll rely instead on House and Senate tax-writing committees to resolve the big tax questions that remain unanswered, according to two people familiar with the matter ...

"The shift comes during a chaotic month for the White House that has seen President Donald Trump's attention diverted to public feuds with Republican senators, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and to weathering heavy criticism over his response to a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia."

An infrastructure plan? Nothing from the White House. Anything from Mr Trump on healthcare (other than complaints about Mr McConnell)? Nope.

To recap, we have a functioning national security apparatus because three experienced men with decades of military training are there to steer the ship and point Mr Trump in the right direction. (Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appears irrelevant.) That's a disturbing inversion of the democratic rule of civilian control of the military, but if the alternative is nuclear war or other catastrophic decisions, I am willing to play along and treat Mr Trump as though he is "really" - wink, wink - performing as commander in chief. He's in essence playing the president on TV, but the country can be thankful that grown-ups are there to do the real work.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2017, with the headline 'Trump's generals doing the real work'. Print Edition | Subscribe