As his presidency advances toward the one-year mark on Jan. 20, it is harder than ever to see Donald J. Trump clearly. A much-talked-about new book portrays him as a cartoonishly petulant, narcissistic man-child with no trace of curiosity about the world or his job. His backers insist it’s his politically incorrect, plain-speaking alpha-male forcefulness that so offends his critics. Competing cable channels give each view ample airtime, and American politics seems lost in the fog of perpetual war.
Foreign leaders see Trump more pragmatically. They’ve lost interest in his tweets and outsize personality, shocking and entertaining though both sometimes are. To understand the true impact of the man who leads the world’s only superpower, allies and rivals look beyond Trump himself to the changes created by his team.
No, Trump is not normal. He appears never to have aspired to be normal. But while a presidential Administration is led by the Executive, it is the sum of all the people who work in the Executive Branch, working and colliding with the rest of the American government as well as with governments of other nations. So as we mark the one-year anniversary of Trump’s Inauguration, let’s have a close look, not at this most distracting of all Presidents, but at his presidency. Not just at what he says, but at what he has actually done and not done.
Begin with his domestic agenda. To be fair, Presidents much more popular than Donald Trump have struggled to move legislation through Congress, and even with GOP majorities in both houses, this President faces an especially steep hill. He has no experience managing relationships with lawmakers, no patience for policy detail and a tendency to aggravate even his allies. His image isn’t helping. Media coverage, with help from Trump himself, presents him as a tweet-storming, bomb-throwing maniac. Outside his base, he’s associated most closely with personal pettiness, tirades against immigrants, demands for a border wall, support for white nationalists, sexual-misconduct allegations by multiple women and attacks on kneeling black football players.
But on policy, Trump has governed mostly as a garden-variety conservative Republican. He has rolled back Obama-era regulations, particularly on energy and the environment, signed a tax bill that sharply cut corporate taxes and eliminated the requirement that all Americans buy health insurance, and enforced immigration laws. He has nominated conservative judges and made an orthodox choice to chair the Federal Reserve. Markets are humming. By those measures at least, would a Jeb Bush presidency be all that different?
On national security, he has offered red meat for the base, for example by announcing plans to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But even if that eventually happens, it might not change much in the Middle East, partly because Arab governments are much more focused on Iran and threats posed by ISIS fighters returning home from Syria and Iraq these days than on the plight of Palestinians. He once declared NATO obsolete, then backtracked once other members appeared willing to spend more on defense. He has pushed to increase defense spending, let the generals lead on Afghanistan and Syria, and bombed Syria’s Bashar Assad in defense of the chemical-weapons convention.
U.S. taxpayer funding for the U.N. continues despite assertions of “America first.” The Trump Administration has expanded the NATO presence along Russia’s borders, embraced the Saudis with both arms, taken a harder line on Iran without (so far) scrapping the nuclear deal and engaged China to help with North Korea.
It’s not that Trump’s mouth doesn’t matter. The Saudis have seized on his rhetoric toward Iran, and even Qatar, to take a worryingly hard line on both. Trump’s claim that the Iran nuclear deal is “the worst ever” and his threats to tear it up have bolstered and emboldened anti-Western hard-liners in that country. His willingness to personalize the conflict with North Korea has pushed Kim Jong Un toward ever more dangerous demonstrations of defiance. On substance, though Trump has been more assertive than Obama, outside the Paris Agreement withdrawal, would a Hillary Clinton foreign policy have produced distinctly different tangible results?
Trade is the one area where Trump clearly differs from the establishment of both parties. The President has surrounded himself with trade skeptics like Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, advisers Stephen Miller and Peter Navarro, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. (National Economic Council director Gary Cohn is an exception.) The President withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, threatens to tear up NAFTA, wants what he considers a better bilateral deal from South Korea and complains about every country that enjoys a trade surplus with the U.S.–including China, Germany and Japan. U.S.-China trade relations are set for an especially rocky 2018, particularly now that Trump has decided that China hasn’t put enough helpful pressure on North Korea.
There are three other areas where Trump differs from his predecessors in ways that create unprecedented challenges for the U.S. political system. First, his (and his family’s) financial conflicts of interest are well past ordinary. It’s not just the overpriced shoes his daughter sells or his son-in-law’s real estate schemes, tawdry as those things are. There are conflicts of interest involving Trump properties reimbursed for the conduct of government business. More worrying are the President’s foreign holdings and the ways that other governments can create business opportunities for him to curry favor with his Administration. Robert Mueller may well find that Trump’s financial entanglements abroad raise troubling legal questions.
There is also Trump’s attraction to authoritarian leaders; his lamentations that the U.S. system denies him the sorts of power they wield; and his profoundly cynical attitudes, adopted by some of his followers, toward the media, courts, Congress, the opposition party and other institutions that check executive power, as the authors of the U.S. Constitution intended.
But Trump’s taste for authoritarianism and his conflicts of interest don’t appear to have any great systemic effects. Both seem more opportunistic and improvisational than strategic. Neither appears to have had much real impact on policy and its effectiveness. It’s on the question of competence that much more depends. You don’t have to believe Trump’s harshest critic to notice that he doesn’t understand how government works, doesn’t always follow the counsel of his experienced advisers, doesn’t have much impulse control and isn’t curious to learn more about his country or the world. Here, checks and balances offer only indirect help.
As we look toward the future of his presidency, our greatest concern should be that Trump hasn’t yet been tested by an unexpected crisis of someone else’s making. His luck may be about to run out, because the world’s increasingly uncertain balance of power makes a dangerous bolt from the blue much more likely this year. Cyberspace has become an arena of conflict for both governments and private players. The standoff with North Korea poses many dangers short of nuclear war. U.S. forces find themselves in heavy, sometimes hostile, traffic inside Syria. The potential for confrontation with Iran is on the rise. The Kremlin, which has given up on Trump’s ability to reset U.S.-Russian relations to Moscow’s liking, remains full of surprises. The dispersal of ISIS fighters from Syria and Iraq to other countries creates new forms of terrorism risk.
None of that is Donald Trump’s fault. These worries were growing long before he arrived in Washington. But at the dawn of Trump Year Two, one or more of these challenges may soon create his first true crisis, and then we’ll all learn more about what this President can and cannot do.
This appears in the January 22, 2018 issue of TIME.
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