Even those of us who didn’t have high hopes about what a Trump presidency might look like in practice have been astounded by his incompetence, ignorance and refusal or inability to confront reality.
As the old saw has it, you can have your own opinions, but not your own facts. Donald Trump clearly feels this is another idea that doesn’t apply to him or his administration.
Any doubts that the 45th president of the United States really is a thin-skinned blustering bonehead with appalling judgement and little understanding of the complexity of the job he is supposed to be doing were put to rest by his latest press conference. It’s not hard to see why he doesn’t like giving them.
It’s not just that his behaviour was “unpresidential” that was so striking – surely no one expects a man with his personal track record and “life experience” to be a role model for his country or anyone else’s – but that he refused to acknowledge even the most basic, well-documented claims about his administration and its operations.
The “fine-tuned machine” Trump claims to have created at the centre of America’s government is in reality chaotic, dysfunctional, and still populated with some deeply divisive, potentially dangerous individuals. A number are either the representatives of precisely the sorts of vested interests Trump promised to eliminate or – in the case of the Rasputin-like figure of Steve Bannon – ideologues with a Manichean worldview that sees chaos as necessary and potentially cleansing.
The demise of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who was belatedly fired because of his close ties to Russia – not to mention lying to the vice-president, the FBI and the public-at-large – is emblematic of Trump’s poor judgement. This “captain’s pick” was a compromised figure who should never have been considered for such a crucial role.
Even more worrying, however, is that Bannon has been appointed as a key security advisor, too – over the heads of more seasoned and potentially appropriate choices with defence backgrounds.
It is important to remember that Bannon thinks – as does Trade Secretary Peter Navarro – that war with China is inevitable.
Given their respective positions and the influence they appear to exert over a president who appears to have little understanding of, or interest in, the complexities of global politics or even economics – his supposedly strong suit, let’s not forget – they have the capacity to make some of their fantasies reality.
Neither is Trump going to lose any sleep about possible conflicts of interest when his own family is the living embodiment of all that is wrong with his administration and his complete contempt for the idea of good, never mind principled government. His wife and daughter clearly see occupying the White House primarily as an opportunity to leverage their respective brands and earning potential.
His refusal to answer questions from the “lying media” about his business interests or release his tax returns as he promised is another telling illustration of his unaccountability and hostility to one of the few institutions that seems potentially able to hold his administration to account.
Although, when the Wall Street Journal’s own staff are collectively uneasy about the lack of scrutiny the paper is applying to a regime that is seen as close to Rupert Murdoch, even this is no certainty anymore.
Speaking of the Murdoch press, The Australian’s Greg Sheridan can be relied upon to take a Panglossian view of Australia’s alliance with the US under any circumstances. This week he didn’t disappoint his admirers. In customary form, Sheridan suggested:
The substantial signs on policy from Trump over the past week or more have been generally very reassuring and showed a fairly rapid move back to the centre of the centre-right continuum on foreign policy.
No doubt this was due to the efforts of the “Trumble government” and its enormous influence in the US.
Yes, that’s a cheap shot at Trump’s beleaguered press secretary, Sean Spicer, but not being able to remember the names of supposedly key allies in not a good look. At least it was an inadvertent slip of the tongue, rather than a deliberate attempt to muddy the waters and the collective public consciousness with “alternative facts”, which is another trait of team Trump.
The key question to ask about Trump is whether he knows he’s lying when he dismisses well-documented facts about domestic politics, foreign relations and his own extensive business interests, or whether he actually believes the patent nonsense and untruth he spouts.
It really is hard to know which is the more worrying: that he is a congenital liar with an absolute contempt for the truth, or that he is so removed from the reality the rest of us inhabit that he actually doesn’t recognise it or feel the need to engage with it. This is not just a world of alternative facts; it is an alternative world.
The key question to ask Australia’s policymakers and strategic elites is: do we really want to be associated with, never mind potentially hostage to, a regime that is immoral, dishonest and more dangerous by the day?
We’re only four weeks into a rapidly unfolding nightmare. We must hope those who believe Trump will be socialised by America’s political institutions are right. There is little indication of it so far to judge from his rapidly deteriorating relationship with the fourth estate.
Authors: Mark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia