trump inauguration bible
Foreign Affairs

Happy Inauguration Anniversary, Mr President. And thanks for getting back to the separation of powers

One year ago, our friends in the USA exchanged one thin-skinned narcissistic president for another, and immediately a fresh chapter of their ongoing culture wars began. Less inhibited than their Republican opponents, self-styled Social Justice Warriors declared themselves to be ‘the Resistance’, and on this side of the Atlantic, any suggestion that one might wait to see what the new man actually achieved before rushing to judgment was considered only slightly above professing a sneaking regard for Josef Goebbels.

Trump was far from the best candidate during the GOP primaries, but he won the nomination for one reason only: he was the only one in the short-list field who could have defeated Hillary Clinton, and he did so with an audacious strategy that only he could have brought off.

He understood the power of the culture. Bill Clinton won as the Rock ‘n’ Roll President, schmoozing on his sax and oiling his way across the floor. Barack Obama won as the Hollywood President, effortlessly gracing the chat show sofas, oozing style and bonhomie. Trump won by embodying another iconic persona beloved of mainstreet America: he became the World Wrestling Federation President.

Loud mouthed, brash, coarse, direct, repetitious, opinionated and rooted in blue-collar values, he tapped into a vein of US identity that was ready for a breath a fresh air, and it worked. Unlike generations of politicians who went to Washington on promises constantly restated but never fulfilled, at least the WWF show had a proven track record of inviting Joe Public to open a beer, settle down on the sofa, and watch the fighters deliver exactly what they had promised. If the ‘pointy heads’ disapproved, well, so much the better.

In this, Trump bears comparison with the former boxer Cassius Clay, who modelled himself in the early years on the WWF fighter ‘Gorgeous George‘. Both bestowed nicknames on their opponents, mocked them and deployed catch phrases: Gorgeous George even employed someone to spray perfume on his opponents before the contest. Clay was borderline racist at times, graceless before a fight and he treated women badly – yet as a black Muslim he died America’s most loved sportsman. As they say in the fight game, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

From the very earliest of days, the meme was that Donald Trump was stupid. That was a foolish miscalculation. Not only had he been a top predator in the highly aggressive New York real estate market, he took on and defeated the formidable Clinton electoral machine, the Bush clan, the GOP establishment, the mainstream media, the Trades Unions, academia, the payroll vote, ethnic voting blocs, and 17 good primary candidates (Hillary Clinton struggled to defeat one extreme independent socialist who has since left her party). Clinton outspent Trump by 3:1, yet the measure of his strategic brilliance is that in a contest where every indicator insisted that he could not win without winning Ohio and North Carolina, his last minute storming through the rust belt like Sherman’s March to the Sea won him states that meant he could have lost both those two key battlegrounds and still won the Presidency.

Bad politicians win votes where they don’t need them; smart ones win the votes that count.

The wisest words I heard on the subject came from Salena Zito, who said Trump’s opponents take him literally, but not seriously. Yet his supporters take him seriously, but not literally. My strongest advice for the coming year is to ignore most of what President Trump tweets, but watch what happens.

Notwithstanding that the mainstream narrative has been uniformly hostile, the US economy is booming, jobs are coming home, China is co-operating on North Korea, General ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis has been destroying ISIS with a zeal and a strategic purpose wholly missing during the Obama years. Tax cuts have been delivered to ordinary voters. No Mexican Wall has been built, yet illegal immigration has plummeted – something all candidates promised but only Trump delivered. There is actually no wall, but that doesn’t matter, suggested humorist Greg Gutfeld: “Trump doesn’t need a wall – Trump IS the wall!”

Yet beneath all the knockabout politics, there is one very serious development which will probably prove to be Trump’s lasting legacy to his country, and one which may prove highly beneficial to all. He filled the Supreme Court vacancy with Neil Gorsuch – a conservative choice, no doubt, but also a man of impeccable qualification and integrity.

His judicial record was one of being on the majority side of cases 96% of the time. He was slightly more liberal than his colleagues on the 10th Appeal Circuit. He is, however, an ‘originalist’ in his judicial philosophy; that is, he is not one who easily legislates from the bench overturning the will of the Legislature. His appointment is being followed by similar ones across the judiciary.

When judges of ‘the Resistance’ struck down the Trump travel bans (which actually only replicated identical provisions passed by preceding Presidents), their ‘successes’ were all over the UK media. Those high profile ‘successes’ have quietly died. Extreme vetting is lawful and working. The judicial climate is changing, and it matters. Getting back to the old ways of the separation of powers will be good for America and good for the world.

Consider the ‘progressive’ reforms enacted in the United Kingdom over recent decades: homosexual law reform, abolition of the death penalty, restricted gun rights, abortion, gay marriage, the hunting ban. Each of these significant developments were debated and voted through by Parliament. Their advocates did the work, won the votes and, whatever our private views, none of us can deny fair process was followed.

By contrast, in the USA (a rather more socially conservative society), these issues have often been secured through liberal judicial activism; by unelected judges torturing the precedent texts to deliver outcomes that were never intended. The landmark abortion cases of Roe v Wade was founded on a case of marital privacy permitting contraception. Whatever one’s view of abortion, it was judicial activism writ large, and it angers those who think that a handful of unelected judges should not take such momentous decisions away from the people’s elected representatives.

It is easy to regard judicial activism as a benign force; it is not. After the American Civil War, Republicans (without any Democrat support) legislated equal rights for America’s newly liberated black slaves and citizens. The 14th Amendment provided:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Immediately thereafter, in the case of Plessey v Ferguson, activist judges emasculated the text, creating the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’, which blighted the lives of black Americans for the next 60 years, not through the will of the people’s representatives but by the decisions of seven unelected judges. Such activism is not a one-way ratchet, and our US friends would do well to allow our UK experience to guide them in how to manage these social controversies a little better: by winning the argument, winning the votes, and changing minds, which is an altogether better recipe for social harmony and peace.

So much of what President Trump attempts and achieves will take place in the hurlyburly of visceral debate. He undoubtedly bears huge responsibility for much of the noise and confusion that exists, yet his lasting legacy may prove to be something altogether quieter and rather more politically philosophical and cerebral than his opponents currently realise.