by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/CC
ONE OF THE frequent arguments used by those who suggest that a Donald Trump presidency will follow the terms of more conventional foreign policy, in spite of Trump’s frequent reversal of political positions, is that the president of the United States is only one human being and that Trump will ultimately be held in check by not only his advisors but by institutional safeguards as well. The question at hand, particularly after the Trump-Tsai phone call, is can Trump be counted on for Taiwan, given his past record of unpredictability? Accordingly, the claim by some is that America under Trump could become a dependable ally of Taiwan because, yes, Trump will be held accountable by his advisors and the institutional safeguards of American governmental institutions.
To begin with, as we see in his appointment of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson for secretary of state, Trump may simply surround himself with political appointments who will serve as no safeguard on his activity. Tillerson was not an expected pick, seeing as he was not even on the shortlist of expected secretary of state picks by Trump. Not only does Tillerson lack any political experience whatsoever, like Trump, but he also shares questionable ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin. One cannot expect Tillerson to hold Trump in check. So why was he chosen?
In examining the now-defunct list of individuals that Trump reportedly considered for secretary of state at one point or another, we can observe that many of Trump’s considerations seem to have been determined by who has demonstrated the most loyalty to him. There are indications that Trump is attempting to make many of his administration appointments on the basis of rewarding political loyalty. This was probably most visible in his consideration of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani for the position of secretary of state, despite his similar lack of foreign policy experience to Tillerson, seeing as Giuliani even went as far as to defend Trump’s past record of sexual misconduct when other high profile supporters of Trump shied away from the issue.
In general, one does not have faith in a team of those chosen on the basis of their absolute loyalty to Trump to keep him in line. Will a team of sycophants really be able to hold Trump in check? One also suspects that Trump will either remove or take steps to curtail the power of anybody who tries to defy him within his administration. The rise and fall of Chris Christie and the faction of Christie loyalists within the Trump campaign is illustrative of this.
Likewise, if some have raised the argument that the experienced members of the political establishment who have become a part of Trump’s administration may be able to hold Trump in check, we would do well to remember the radically anti-establishment nature of the Trump campaign. In many cases, the Trump administration, which arose out of a political insurgence in the Republican Party, is still antagonistic to the party establishment but it is now forced to rely upon some members of the political establishment because of its relative inexperience.
Namely, when the Trump team is forced to rely on members of the political establishment, it often still begrudges them. For example, when the Trump team has considered bringing individuals previously at loggerheads with Trump into the administration, it has demonstrated a vindictive streak, attempting to extract groveling apologies from individuals far more experienced than Trump who have previously criticized him before considering them for political positions in its administration.
We can observe this with Trump’s treatment of Mitt Romney, another possible candidate for secretary of state, with reports that his campaign team distrusted Romney because of his criticisms of Trump during election campaigning and wished for Romney to publicly apologize for accusing Trump of being a liar during election campaigning, before being considered for the position of secretary of state.
Antagonism towards the old guard within the Trump team and, in fact, resentment against them for their qualifications, seeing as Trump has no political experience himself, may impede any attempts by them to keep his administration in check. That they were only admitted into the Trump administration on the condition of loyalty would be another limit on them.
As such, it may be those most easily willing to swallow their pride and sell out their values who are rewarded with appointments in the Trump administration. Consequently, we can see a spate of experienced politicians swallowing their pride and flip-flopping on past positions in order to accommodate the Trump administration, for fear of being shut out of government under Trump.
We can observe this in the behavior of John Bolton, another potential nominee floated as a possible secretary of state who may still be named deputy secretary of state. Bolton is seen by some as an individual who has consistently spoken up in defense of Taiwan and a reliable member of the political establishment, if hawkish in nature, but Bolton would be currently thundering off claims that accusations of possible Russian hacks of 2016 election results may be a false flag operation by the Obama administration.
So much for such individuals being able to be relied on to keep Trump in line, then. No matter their past experience or what high government positions they might have held in the past, establishment actors cannot be counted on to hold to their past positions seeing as one cannot say what compromises to their integrity they will make to stay as part of government.
On the other hand, we might ask ourselves, can institutional safeguards hold Trump in check? However, it seems that Trump’s ability to easily shrug off any institutional safeguards is illustrated already in the Tweets that Trump has posted about his phone call with Tsai. These Tweets were a major part of the controversy about his phone call with Tsai, seeing as Trump referred to Tsai as the “president of Taiwan” in these Tweets when past presidents were not even allowed to refer to Taiwan by their minders in the American foreign policy establishment.
Indeed, while most presidents have press teams which manage a president’s social media presence, carefully considering the effects of what they post, Trump has a noted tendency to blast out off-the-cuff Tweets for all the world to see. Trump also has a tendency to use social media to circumvent his advisors when it comes to making major decisions. At a point in Trump’s campaign, his campaign team reportedly feared that Trump would decide his VP pick on his own, without consulting them, and announce it via Twitter.
The effects on global politics could be enormous if Trump decides to, for example, circumvent any advisors or institutional safeguards and start Tweeting pronouncements directly at Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un, or others. Even if Trump has no way to back up declarations he makes on Twitter with action, certainly his Tweets will likely be read as policy by other state actors or by media. The medium is the message, as McLuhan said.
With the Trump administration, then, we have a twofold problem. First, Trump’s team of advisors may consist largely of sycophants. On the other hand, experienced members of the political establishment who are part of his team cannot be counted on to hold Trump in check, whatever their previous political positions was, because they were only admitted into his administration on the condition of absolute loyalty to Trump. Second, whatever restraints his advisors might offer, Trump may defy his advisors anyway, taking to Twitter or going directly to the media in order to make unaccountable decisions with wide sweeping effects on his own. As the media hullaballoo which followed from his Tweets after his phone call with Tsai itself illustrates, Trump can circumvent any institutional safeguards which would otherwise limit his powers in this way because he knows how to drum up the media in a way that no previous president could and because he has a direct hotline to the world through social media.
It seems we are set for uncertain times under a Trump presidency, then.