Saturday,23 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)
Saturday,23 March, 2019
Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Shock politics

Ever the showman, Donald Trump says and does things that keep his friends and foes guessing, writes Abdel-Moneim Said


اقرأ باللغة العربية

I happened to be in the US throughout the 2015-2016 presidential elections, from the start of campaigning, to the Republican and Democratic primaries, then the final race between the two major candidates. It was a heated contest, and although I am familiar with presidential races, this one was most extraordinary due to dramatic revelations worthy of Hollywood because one candidate came from the world of business, reality TV and front page news. Donald Trump was a relatively confident man even during difficult debates against 17 other candidates who were eliminated one after the other with one word or phrase from him. Since the start, opinion polls were in his favour and when he stood among his rivals he was the centre of gravity for insignificant planets orbiting around him.

In the final battle, however, it was different. Hillary Clinton was no novice and what she lacked in celebrity status she made up for in her husband Bill’s legacy, and her ally in the White House Barack Obama.

Trump succeeded in winning the White House, mainly due to his uncanny ability to transcend the familiar and blindside his opponents with a word, phrase or action. Even when skeletons poured out of his closet, including words and actions that offended US sensibilities, he knew how to turn it around in his favour. He even said that if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York, his supporters would not leave him.

No matter what is said in hindsight that Trump was not prepared or expected to win, going back to his campaign footage it is clear he was steadily walking towards the White House. Now that he is there, no matter what is said that “institutions” change people, Trump is the one who trips his opponents with a word, action or continuous tweeting.

Shock politics through words and deeds is how Trump reached the White House and will guarantee him a place in history. Look at the surprises and shocks he revealed during campaigning: he hates China, loves Russia, is cold towards Europe, hostile towards Mexico, and demands a price tag to protect Japan. In his first year as president, he transformed the issue of North Korea from a policy of “fire and fury” that obliterates Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities to a willingness to sit down with the president of North Korea to talk about Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons at a moment when it seemed war was inevitable.

In both cases, whether confrontation or diplomacy, Trump’s announcement shocked and surprised everyone. The doves in US politics were startled by the first shock threatening nuclear war, while the hawks shuddered that Trump was close to surrendering. The same happened with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Despite what happened in the Ukraine, the messages during the campaign were calm and constructive. However, the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain forced Trump to expel 60 Russian diplomats and immediately afterwards announced he is willing to meet Putin in the White House.

That is how Trump’s shocks are viewed by everyone. Those who thought he would withdraw from Afghanistan were surprised to see him increase the number of troops there. Those who expected him to withdraw from Syria found him escalating the fighting and partnering with Russia, and then suddenly announcing the US will withdraw. And the fight against Islamic State has now become someone else’s problem.

Looking at the latest outburst triggering a trade war, Trump has always opposed free trade, NAFTA and WTO but nothing much had happened on these issues, so he announced tariffs on steel and aluminum imports and added $60 billion in fees on imports from China. This caught Beijing off guard and it responded by slapping tariffs on US products. In short, a trade war that no one expected began, while Europe and the rest of the world are confused and unsure of what to do.

Since he is now in the White House, Trump does not need to live in an atmosphere of campaigning but he is, and perhaps never stopped, because he knows his policies will never be implemented unless he holds onto his electoral base or those who supported him at a time when everyone turned away — including the mainstream media which he now accuses of “fake” news. In all opinion polls, Trump has maintained his base even though his numbers rise and fall. What is most important is that his supporters remain loyal, and the new tax law passed by the Republican-led Congress and signed by Trump has been key in making the majority happy.

In the Middle East, the shock was the decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and put pressure on countries not to obstruct the move. What is surprising is that this happened at a time when a much-hyped new form of diplomatic “deal of the century” between Palestinians and Israelis was being promoted. Even though turnover at the White House is very high and leaks are frequent, no one knows anything about the “deal of the century” or when Trump will unveil it.

It is most likely that relocating the US Embassy to Jerusalem is Trump’s shock to the Arab world, so will the next shock be directed towards Israel now that they have received their gift ahead of time? Or will it be an offer they can’t refuse? Or will the shock and surprise be that the US will not do much more in a conflict that is no longer urgent in Trump’s view? It is difficult to second-guess Trump and many around the world are waiting for the other shoe to drop. He is the type of US president who does not care much about liberal sensitivities, peace issues, global warming or human rights. Neither does he sympathise with any “globalisation” theories or issues.

Trump has much more in store for the US and the world, full of shock and awe and bewilderment. There is certainly nothing humdrum or business as usual about him.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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