When U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called a special congressional session, from March 9, 1933 to June 16 1933, to legislate the New Deal legislations, he defined more than half-a-century of the country's future in those 100 days. An unrivalled legacy among his successors, they set the standard to distinguish the extraordinary from the average future chief executive.
That yardstick, though, was not a U.S. innovation. France, the first European democracy preacher, made "les cents-jours" from Napoleon Bonaparte's Elba exile escape on March 20 to his failed post-Waterloo escape to the United States on June 29, the symbol of resurrecting democracy. Ironically, Waterloo also symbolised complete defeat, a point worth remembering.
Measuring Donald J. Trump along this scale may become a meaningless exercise. He was not elected by a rational body of voters (defined by Anthony Downs and other analysts of voting behaviour, as the candidate most likely to maximise benefits at minimal costs): many such voters were successfully "trumped" by those relying on their instincts/ideological beliefs/emotions. In an age of "alternative facts," therefore, whether campaign pledges turn into policies shed more light on the remaining 1,263 days of Trump's term (until Inauguration Day , 2021), than those of his inaugural 100 days in 2017 becomes more relevant. Accordingly, four features beg attention: his associations, inclinations, deviations, and inversions.
Beginning with associations, Trump possibly feels more comfortable with authoritarian leaders than democratic. It was not just how he stepped out of the OECD (Organisation of Economic and Cooperation for Development) box to congratulate Recep Tayyib Erdo?an for narrowly winning a controversial referendum, but also how this blends with his election campaign warmth towards the Russian dictator, Vladimir Putin. Based on reports from their own election monitors amid allegations of 3 million unstamped ballots, the European Union denounced that referendum and called for an investigation of the results.
Bypassing the ongoing congressional investigation into alleged Russian intervention in the U.S. election, Trump's election campaign reportedly received 500,000 US dollars from the Venezuelan dictator, Nicolas Maduro, pumped through PDVSA, the country's state-owned company at a time when the average Venezuelan struggles to put food on the table. He boasted in this 100-day celebration in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, how he already had more success with Egypt's dictator, General Sisi, than President Barrack Obama could in eight years. That China's President Xi Jinping's Mar-a-Lago visit received more of a five-star welcome than the democratically elected Canadian Justin Trudeau and German Angela Merkl (even Britain's Theresa May's), suggests a lot about Trump's comfort, indifferent, and discomfort zones.
What can be deduced from Trump's inclinations thus far, given these (and more)? Are they truly dictatorial or opportunistic? The following events say something, at the least: (a) The traditional first foreign visit to a neighbouring country was not scheduled for Canada or Mexico, but, Belgium, in May, for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) meeting, one with what he previously called an "obsolete" entity. (b) His refusal to shake hands with the visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkl, even as she beckoned him to, during a White House press conference. (c) His hosting and toasting the president of the very authoritarian "currency manipulating" country he chastised during the election campaign for exploiting the U.S. market with cheap goods, seems set to emerge as the most formidable U.S. partner in the years to come, given North Korea and Trump's new perception that China no longer trades unfairly.
As president, Trump has lambasted Canada over energy, lumber, and dairy cross-border trade, in addition to its more welcoming refugee policy. With Mexico his border-wall proposal, which his Attorney General nominee, Jeff Sessions, even said would be paid by Mexican-Americans if Mexico did not pay, may be overtaken by retaliatory Mexican gestures, souring the bilateral relation to the unhealthiest level in a generation. Adding fuel to that outcome was the late-April World Trade Organisation ruling against the United States in a tuna case filed by Mexico. With sabers rattling along the U.S. southern border, neighbourly camaraderie seems headed for eclipse.
His embarrassing Merkel gesture shook transatlantic ties, in spite of softening his NATO posturing. Although he was far warmer with the visiting Theresa May, he may also be vacillating on this front as well. News in mid-April of the European Union being prioritised over Britain in any free-trade agreement suggests Merkel may have been substantively more successful in her visit than on the personal relationship level; while the "wonderful thing" description Trump made to Prime Minister May about Brexit could have been another misleading statement. Like President Barack Obama, Trump's European preference over Britain (at least over trade), and non-European ties more than European, and dictatorships over democracies appear to have gained the upper-hand in his first 100-days.
Those first 100 days suggest how Trump as an isolationist, as projected in the campaign, may be as far from reality as any other post-World War II U.S. president, and his "America first" vow may be most evident only in military intervention, with Afghan and Syrian bombings as warnings.
Whether pledges become policy or not matters less if distortions intervene. Right after his inauguration ceremony, Trump blasted the media for showing a half-empty National Mall, when, he claimed, more a million-and-a-half spectators turned up. He gave no evidence, which is consistent with the neo-conservative "alternative facts" strategy, which began in the Obama years, but now championed by his Counselor Kellyanne Conway and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Spicer's reversal of his outrageous denial of Nazis using chemical agents on human beings exposed a slippery administration: when a superpower stoops so low, dictatorships thrive.
Smoothening such malfunctioning has opened an administrative cottage industry. Preventing Trump from direct public exposure is at the heart of this strategy. Though it would be virtually impossible to prevent Trump "twittering" his way into historical annals, Vice President Mike Pence, and daughter Ivanka, intervene as shock-absorbers, the former over foreign and security policies, the latter over his personal life. Though neither is a paragon of truth, their public relations approach is softer and more congenial, enough to (a) keep the die-hard supporters from softening, and (b) eventually repeat the November 2016 victory in 2020.
What they will not be able to undo is the series of promises and campaign pledges that is being reversed/inverted. It is not just that repealing the Affordable Care Act and the border-wall campaigns collapsed (those were failures, not reversals), but his own foreign policy wonks have started rolling back the brewing warmth in Russian relations, warming up the chilled NATO relations, and compromising the "America first" motto through China-anchored collaboration. In short, the road to "anything can happen" is being paved by a foot-loose, fancy-free administration. This matters in a democracy, but only when voting is rationally executed. Otherwise "anything can happen."
In that sense, Trump's 100-days can be correctly evaluated both ways: excellent, since keeping the rational-minded decision-maker out of the White House is the way the United States should operate, regardless of consequences; and a tragedy, since neglecting level-headed policy appraisals predicts long-term disasters. Mixing them can only alienate both groups. Future "100 days" under Trump will tell us much more if this mixed-bag tendency will ultimately prevail.