There are very different shoes under the famous desk in the Oval Office today, writes Alec Marsh.
As the eyes of the world fall on Washington DC’s Capitol Hill today, the moment that millions never thought would happen finally arrives: the inauguration of Donald J Trump as 45th President of the United States of America. No matter how you dress it up, the whole spectacle is astonishing: from the septuagenarian hairdo-in-chief himself, to his wife, Melania, to the whole coterie of familial hangers-on and dependents; the court of Trump and its sheer, staggering gaucheness defies convention and liberal media comprehension.
Yet for all of Trump’s apparent inappropriateness for the role (in hindsight how appropriate was Nixon or Herbert Hoover?), there’s one thing this reality TV star and property magnate has got right all along: the market, and he got that way before anyone else did. He saw Brexit coming - long before David Cameron and most over here - and he was happy to embrace it, along with Nigel Farage as well.
Right from the start - when to the majority his candidacy was regarded as a joke - Trump had the voters, his consumers in his sights: and then he went out and got them, one tweet at a time.
And already, quite rightly, the perception of him is changing daily and the narrative is being rewritten as we go along; from a joke, to a dangerous joke, to I-can’t-believe-it’s-really-happening- not-funny-any-more-joke, Trump has now morphed into something presidential: just in time.
So what will it mean for Britain? Well the good news is that he could arguably be the most Anglophile president since Bill Clinton. His mother Mary Anne was a Scot from Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides, making him the first US president since Woodrow Wilson, who left office in 1921, to have a parent born in Britain. That helps.
‘I love the UK,’ Trump said the other day in an interview with the Times. And of his mother’s birthplace, which he visited in 2008, he remarked: ‘I like it, I feel very comfortable here. It's interesting when your mother, who was such a terrific woman, comes from a specific location, you tend to like that location. I think I do feel Scottish.’ He added: ‘I think this land is special.’ All of which is music to the ears of anyone who’s even faintly bothered about the health of the Special Relationship.
And of course Trump has said he wants to conclude a trade deal with Britain as soon as possible (taking Britain from the back of Obama’s queue to the front of Trump’s), which is undoubtedly good news, and should give UK plc better access to the world’s most dynamic economy, one that may also start growing all the faster under the new administration (with its plans for a trillion dollar infrastructure investment programme, greater deregulation and lower corporate taxes).
And what of Trump’s other more populist policy proposals? This week, his confidant and adviser Anthony Scaramucci was in Davos to reassure assorted business and world leaders that his boss was on their side. Instead of launching a trade war with China and hiking up tariff barriers (for example on Range Rovers), Scaramucci insisted that Trump ‘could be one of the last great hopes for globalism’. ‘If you guys get a little bit upset about the tweeting or some of the things that he’s saying,’ the Wall Street Journal reported him telling attendees, ‘I want to put your mind at ease. Directionally, this is a super-compassionate guy. He’s not necessarily communicating in a way that the people in this community would love, but he is communicating very, very effectively to a very large group of the population in Europe and in the United States.’ If that wasn’t emollient enough (and transparent enough with at least five former Goldman Sachs staffers lined up for his cabinet despite his rhetoric on Wall Street), Scaramucci promised that the Trump administration would be ‘very Reaganesque’.
One eminent American expert who agrees with this appraisal is the twice Pulitzer nominated historian, Professor Henry Brands, biographer of Reagan and Teddy Roosevelt, among others. Like Reagan’s election in 1980, Prof. Brands says Trump’s is a repudiation of the political status quo. However, whereas Reagan painted government as the problem, Trump has portrayed it as the villain, which offers greater challenges. ‘You can fix a problem, but it’s a lot harder to fix a villain,’ says Prof. Brands. Another important difference is that Reagan was tried and tested in government whereas Trump has never held public office. ‘Donald Trump is fundamentally unique,’ states Prof. Brands. ‘In all other cases the public had an opportunity to see how they could handle it [public office]. We won’t know until he becomes president.’ Which means it’s harder to tell quite what will happen.
With the wait almost up, Prof. Brands says that the president that Trump most closely resembles is Andrew Jackson, president in the 1820s and 1830s and regarded as the original anti-establishment candidate. Like Trump he had a colourful private life, Scots ancestry and, most importantly, he also ‘rode the populist wave to the White House’ in an election was very much a repudiation of the political landscape of 30 years standing. ‘To Washington it really did seem like a hostile takeover of government.’ On the plus side, Jackson is remembered for entrenching democracy in the US and for shoring up the union; on the downside he was disastrous economically. ‘His fiscal and monetary policy was a mess,’ states Prof. Brands. ‘It led to a financial crash which was the worst in American history until then.’
For all our sakes we can only hope that that particular chapter of history doesn’t repeat itself. Time will tell. In the mean time, we’d all do well to remember Mrs Thatcher’s mantra on how to treat the leader of the free world. ‘All American presidents do well,’ she told me in her dotage, ‘when they’re there.’