By Conor Holohan
When Donald Trump took office as President of the United States earlier this year, he did so amid the agreement that his election was an earthquake in western politics, and that, for better or for worse, a significant change was on the horizon. During his campaign, Donald Trump stood out for his willingness to make explicit promises to the American people such as the border wall and the repeal of Obamacare. Unlike in the UK, American Presidential candidates don’t produce a manifesto with specific pledges, but Trump actually offered material solutions instead of political slogans. He constantly claimed that he would ‘drain the swamp’ of Washington, which not only referred to an attack on anti-American unelected civil servants, but also on those politicians of decades past who had promised so much change and delivered so little. Indeed, this idea perfectly fitted Barack Obama, who, although he was a beacon of hope and change during his early presidency, was himself absorbed into the swamp of reversed promises and compromised principles. As Donald Trump’s first 100 days drew to a close, the perception that Trump was following that same path as his predecessor was growing.
Trump’s acts of legislation in the opening weeks of his presidency were, although controversial, very much in keeping with the ‘America First’ ideology that he had preached during his inaugural address. Indeed, the fact that this was repeated throughout the address is a perfect illumination of how important a nationalist agenda was to Donald Trump. In his first few weeks, he acted to freeze travel from a number of problematic countries identified by President Obama while the security agencies reviewed their system of vetting. This was very much in line with the principle that Trump always promoted, which was to place the safety and wellbeing of the American people above all other considerations.
During the campaign he regularly took advantage of Hillary Clinton’s history of involvement in American foreign wars, and he portrayed Clinton as a warmonger. Meanwhile he portrayed himself as the candidate to vote for to avoid needless, neo-conservative foreign wars which had, in his view, hurt America morally, politically and financially. In 2013, following the previous alleged chemical attack by the Assad regime, he tweeted, ‘We should stay the hell out of Syria, the “rebels” are just as bad as the current regime. WHAT WILL WE GET FOR OUR LIVES AND $ BILLIONS?ZERO’. He also tweeted ‘What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long term conflict? Obama needs Congressional approval.’
As of recently, Trump’s commitment to the promises he made to the American electorate has come into question. More specifically, since early April, when Trump, without congressional approval, gave the order for a missile strike against a Syrian government airbase, thought to be the base from which the gas attacks a few days earlier had supposedly been executed. Although the action was not of incredible strategic significance – indeed, the runways were far from unusable and the planes thought to carry deadly chemical weapons were still able to take off from the base afterwards – it was massively symbolic, and represented a night-and-day difference between the President’s actions and his campaign promises.
Announcing the strikes whilst speaking more solemnly than usual, Trump was unable to conceal – if he was attempting to – the level of his emotional outrage at the chemical attacks in Syria. ‘Beautiful little babies’ was the phrase he used, and that still stands out. Though his emotional outrage is completely understandable, it called into question the very nature of the Trump presidency. Up until this point, Trump had put America First and was staying true to his campaign promises. In this way, up until this, his presidency was fairly predictable. At this moment, though, it was demonstrated that the current President is not predictable, and is subject to changing his mind on even his most valued issues.
Much of the media’s explanation for this shift in foreign policy ideology has been attributed to the warring ideologies of Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, who refined Trump’s ideology during the campaign, and Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of Mr Trump, senior advisor to the President, and husband to his daughter, Ivanka. The general view is that this shift in policy on issues such as Syria is a result of Trump taking less advice from Steve Bannon, who would never have advised the strikes, and more advice from Jared Kushner who is closer to Clinton’s style of politics than Trump’s. Kushner, a registered democrat, is much friendlier to globalism than Bannon, and represents a genuine threat to the promises that Trump made to the American people. Reports have also suggested that Ivanka’s emotional reaction to the chemical attacks in Syria had a significantly upsetting effect on her father. If nepotism is to continue to be favoured over Mr Trump’s campaign promises, he will certainly become, by his own definition, part of the swamp he promised to drain.