WASHINGTON – The world is full of bitterly divided views, vastly amplified by the information revolution. But for sheer canyon-like separation it is hard to beat the current state of affairs in Washington, at the governmental heart of what is supposes to be the richest, biggest, most powerful, most influential nation on Earth — but somehow just now isn’t.
This is a city in argumentative mayhem. No one seems to agree with anyone about who is really in charge or in what direction America is supposed to be going. If this was just a matter of fast-talking heads attacking each other ceaselessly on every current affairs television show, that would not be too worrying.
If the turmoil of argument and doubt was just a reflection of the basic structure of the United States Constitution, as influenced by 16th century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s ideas on the separation of powers, that, too, would be nothing very different from healthy democratic normality.
But the divisions and disputes today, right now, go far deeper than in either of these instances. They run not just through the public debate but through the very heart of the administrative machine. Quite simply, on one side is President Donald Trump and a coterie of supporters, plus of course, his tweets and blogs and their staggeringly effective and wide impact, and on the other side is the whole governmental apparatus of mighty departments, agencies, advisory groups, Congress with all its parties divided and in a state of disarray, the uneasy liberal media, the think tanks and all the rest.
No one, even at the highest administrative levels, and even at areas assumed to be close to the White House, seems to know what the president is going to say or do next.
He recently called the young prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, weak and false, Canada being America’s closest, largest and friendliest neighbor. He has rubbished the communique from the Group of Seven meeting in Quebec, which his hard-working officials had just signed off. He has agreed things with the half sinister, half buffoon North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which few high officials quite understand and for there was which zero preparation (and which could leave close ally Japan in a nasty place).
Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which even his strongest free trade supporters thought was a good idea. He has rejected the painstakingly agreed deal with Iran to halt its nuclear weapons program, which many hard-line and experienced realists in the administration believed was at least a start in checking further nuclear proliferation in that region.
And now he has opened a trade war, with the target meant to be China but the shots scattering over all and sundry, including his European allies — making retaliation and damage to American exporters a certain prospect. If there is a single serious economist inside the whole U.S. Federal government machine and its supporting agencies who thinks this is all a good idea it would be hard to track him or her down.
Nor is it just economists and trade advisers who are tearing out their hair. China is just the country Trump needs to help him pin down the North Koreans to proper denuclearization. Canada is the next door neighbor who could be most help in reforming the North American Free Trade Agreement (which in Trump’s view badly needs repair). The Europeans are the ones America needs for sharing the defense burden and building effective counters to Russia’s disrupting hostility — even though Trump was calling for Russian President Vladimir Putin to be re-invited to the G7, after Russia’s expulsion for breaking all international rules and norms. Good luck working that one out.
One moment the other world leaders are all great guys, smart friends with plenty of embraces and hand clasps. The next moment it’s a kick in the teeth for Chinese President Xi Xinping, for French President Emmanuel Macron, for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for British Prime Minister Theresa May, for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for Trudeau, and for who next?
It’s no wonder that senior officials and diplomats, whose deepest instinct is to speak with a united voice and be loyal to their president, struggle to keep up with, and to explain, the latest twists and turns — or maybe to work on a carefully crafted policy position for years, only to wake up one morning and find the whole position has been overturned and reversed.
And yet stand back outside the Washington frenzy and there is a completely different side to this whole confused story. The Trump appeal endures. Few think he will be denied a second term. The very fact that he seems at war with the gigantic and lumbering apparatus of government increases his attraction and sustains his legitimacy.
The truth is that successful governance and leadership have always been mixture of two things — uplifting vision, with a touch of celebrity theater, on the one hand, and the hard reality on the other of reconciling endless differences with every interest and every ally through wily politics and statecraft. It has always been a conflict between hope and reality, between high moral ground and harsh realpolitik, which the clever leader weaves together.
People of course want both, but the magic of the information and communication revolution has put the vision and celebrity side right on top and on a separate stage. Wiser heads explain that while the Trump show goes on to wide applause, the real business of government has to grind steadily on beneath the headlines.
In short, it is a tale of two governments in one city — in this case Washington — each depicting the other as out of touch with real, grassroots feelings, everyday life and the necessities of good government,
Meanwhile a restive public peers in on the scene in wonder and people get on with their business. In fact, despite the talk of rust belts and America being ripped off by its competitors the U.S. economy is flourishing — yet another apparent contradiction.
Indeed, the whole lesson of the Trump era may be that government with a coherent and single voice and message — at least in the democracies — may be a thing of the past. There are just too many billions of conversations going on across the networks all the time disputing everything, challenging everything.
That is the new reality. Either one can block one’s ears and retreat into a private world, or live with, and even enjoy at times, the cacophony. It will not go away.
David Howell is a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. He is chairman of the House of Lords International Relations Committee.