The unpredictable predictability of Trump

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Many bemoan the unpredictability of Donald Trump. In fact, on several occasions he has loudly — how else — proclaimed his own preference for unpredictability and that he deliberately does not advertise his operational plans ahead of time. Time and again numerous journalists, academics and other commentators have speculated on what he might do next.

Way back on Nov. 9 (it seems so very long ago), when we were picking ourselves up from the election floor and wondering what had happened, very few — other than Steve Bannon — had predicted that Trump would win. Hillary Clinton, who had been mentally measuring the drapes in the Oval Office, was looking distinctly poleaxed and Trump himself had not prepared any victory speech. Unpredictable seemed scarcely sufficient a word to describe what lay ahead as we all looked over the new cliff edge into the abyss.

Yet here we are, a year later, and — surprise, surprise — we have in the presidency an incumbent who is actually trying to implement the promises that he made during his election campaign. By his promises he predicted that he would do certain things, and in taking executive action he is so doing. He said that he would renounce the TPP, and he did. He said that he would back away from the Paris Climate Accord, and he has. He said that he would re-negotiate NAFTA, and that is currently in hand. He said that he would build a wall on the southern border and he is still trying. He promised to undo Obamacare and he is annoyed and frustrated at the incompetence of the Republican leadership in Congress to deliver the goods.

Someone once said that the difficult things take time, and the impossible takes a little longer. As yet he has been unable to do anything to stop `Rocket Man' from developing his nuclear deterrent in North Korea, nor has he walked away from the Iran nuclear deal although during the election campaign he described it as "the worst deal ever" and "an embarrassment to the United States." He has given Congress 60 days to come up with action to impose further sanctions with the clear implication that if Congress fails again he will do it himself. During his campaign, Trump promised tax cuts and slimming the federal tax code and he is now demanding that Congress bring a bill to his desk for signature by the year's end. Whether that will happen remains to be seen, but it will not be for want of noise on his part.

All these actions were presaged in his election campaign. In these respects, therefore, whatever accusations we citizens of Trumpland may level against him, unpredictability is not one of them. But we should also note that his campaign promises were delivered with much bluster and soap box oratory: He promised what he would break and destroy, but with a marked absence of detail. Even today we have no detailed idea of what he will do about North Korea, or Iran, or China, or Russia, or healthcare, or tax reform.

Moreover, in foreign affairs there is another face to unpredictability. It is called reliability and it is something that is much prized in foreign affairs, particularly among allies. Trump's positions and actions in the past ten months have created deep concern among America's friends, who now wonder whether an American president's signature on an agreement is worth the paper it is written on if it can so easily be overturned by a successor. If the United States was a banana republic it wouldn't matter much, but for members of NATO and countries such as Japan, South Korea, Israel and others with which the USA has security commitments, reliability matters a great deal. Solid confidence in US security assurances is paramount. Trump's initial omission of a reaffirmation of US commitment to Article Five of the NATO Treaty, whereby an attack on one is an attack against all, and other signals caused Chancellor Merkel of Germany to say, "The times in which we could completely depend on others are on the way out. I've experienced that in the last few days. We must really take our destiny into our own hands."

So we have a president who is doing in many respects what he predicted and what his fawning base elected him to do. But the pattern of his predictability, his mercurial personality and his style of leadership inevitably give rise to concerns at home and abroad about the steps of action or inaction that he might adopt on other issues. In sum, the very predictability of Trump might well have unpredictable consequences, and that is very worrying.     

Derek Boothby, a resident of Manchester, was a Director in the United Nations Department of Political Affairs

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