Huffington Post, 11/28/2016
It is now three weeks since the U.S. elections, and except for writing a short piece that appeared in Helsinki in Finnish, this is the first time that I have put pen to paper to comment on them. I greatly appreciate the notes from several readers asking why I have been silent. There were two reasons. First, writing when one is extremely involved emotionally with a topic is usually a bad idea. Second, I wanted to see President-elect Trump’s behavior in the aftermath of his victory.
By now the shock of the results has worn off, and Mr. Trump has had ample opportunity to show us his likely policies and governing style. Alas, I am now even more pessimistic than I was on the morning of November 9th. I see the same egotistical, immature showman who barnstormed his way through the primaries and election campaign. To be sure, one might look at a few recent statements in which he apparently softened his positions on the use of torture, on climate change, on possibly prosecuting Hillary Clinton, and even on his worth of the New York Times as an indication of an open mind. However, given Trump’s proclivity for sudden 180 degree turns when he feels it expedient, not to mention his demonstrated total disregard for the truth, I view these musings as further evidence of an opportunist without firm beliefs.
What are my principal worries about the upcoming Trump presidency? There are six, beginning with Trump’s character, which in the absence of policy convictions looms even more important than usual. This is a man obsessed with winning at any cost. When things go the wrong way, he bullies, threatens, and lies. Even though Trump won a majority in the decisive Electoral College, it clearly rankles him that Clinton trounced him in the popular vote. As of November 27th her lead stood at 2.24 million votes, and is still rising as absentee ballots are counted.
Trump’s reaction was an unhinged tweet: “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” Of course, there is absolutely no evidence of such voter fraud having occurred. It is, rather, the latest of Trump’s Big Lies, in this case supported by one of the country’s most odious, right-wing websites, which, among other ravings, pushes the conspiracy theory that the murder of 20 schoolchildren and six teachers in Connecticut four years ago was all a government hoax to push for new gun-control legislation.
This affinity for right-wing radicals is a second, grave worry. Trump’s choice as chief strategist and senior counselor to the President is Executive Chairman of Breitbart News, which proudly calls itself the voice of the “Alt-Right” or Alternative Right, a leading White Supremacist, racist, misogynist movement. Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, who among other things directs enforcement of the country’s civil rights laws, was rejected for a federal judgeship by the U.S. Senate three decades ago because of his documented racist statements. Trump’s choice as National Security Advisor, a retired general with a distinguished career in intelligence, nevertheless sits on the Board of Advisors of ACT for America, labeled by a watchdog organization the “largest grassroots anti-Muslim group in America” and has called Islam a “vicious cancer” and a “political ideology” hiding behind a religion.
Such personnel decisions have so skewed the public debate that other nominees who are ultra-conservative but not tainted by radical fringe associations have been greeted as balancers in the Trump cabinet. But no U.S. President should ever choose top aides from the racist fringe, whose views are simply unacceptable and cannot be “balanced” by principled conservatives.
A third concern is the glaring potential conflict of interest, or even appearance thereof, that Trump’s business empire constitutes. The President-elect has stubbornly refused to disclose his income tax returns and details of his privately held companies. He has business interests in twenty countries around the world, including several run by autocrats who would not permit journalists to investigate and publicize the details of ties between their citizens or subjects and Trump’s companies. One does not need a fertile imagination to worry about possible situations involving China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, the United Arab Emirates, or even India or the Philippines in which policies in the U.S. national interest might adversely affect one or more of Trump’s investments.
Although the President is shielded from conflict of interest regulations, the Constitution says that no elected official can take an “emolument” of “any kind whatever” from a king, prince, or foreign state without Congressional approval. However complex it might be, the best solution would seem to be for Trump to divest his holdings in his companies and put the proceeds into a real blind trust, not a sham one run by his children.
Trump’s entire foreign policy is a fourth and extremely worrying issue. Whether his motivation is dictated by personal economic interest or by philosophy, Trump is outspokenly pro-Russian. He openly admires Russian President Vladimir Putin, routinely excuses Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea, and publicly casts doubt upon Russian cyber-attacks against U.S. targets despite having received intelligence briefings detailing just that. He and his chosen National Security Advisor naively advocate a deal with Russia, perhaps at the expense of our European allies, in order better to battle ISIS. Trump has belittled NATO as “obsolete” and would reduce the world’s most effective political-security alliance to little more than a protection racket. Trump will, however, be confronted by passionate, pro-NATO Senators, many of them Republicans. On an even larger stage Trump has declared that he would pull the U.S. out of the newly negotiated Paris environmental agreement, thereby seriously undermining the effort to combat global warming.
The fifth danger is Trump’s economic policy, which if it follows the broad outlines of massive tax cuts for the wealthy and increased government expenditures sketched out during the campaign, threatens to undo the Obama-led major recovery from the Great Recession and ultimately balloon the national debt beyond recognition. Supply side economics has failed repeatedly. Trump’s latest variation on the theme will suffer the same fate, although having first wreaked havoc on the country.
Sixth and perhaps most importantly, Donald Trump is well on his way to debasing the Presidency by seriously exacerbating racial, ethnic and religious tensions within the United States. His demagogic “Make America Great Again” campaign of fear mongering has already borne fruit in the alarming increase in verbal and physical assaults against minorities since the election. The thought of such a man soon to be in a position earlier occupied by Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt fills me with revulsion.
Fortunately, America’s democratic institutions are strong enough to resist a President with authoritarian tendencies, and the vast majority of its people, I am convinced, unwilling to succumb to the xenophobia he preaches.
Michael Haltzel, former foreign policy advisor to U.S. Vice President (then-Senator) Joseph R. Biden, Jr., is Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.