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What News of Trumpism? Letter from Washington
In Washington last week for input from think tanks of the federal capital on the future of the Iranian file, one could have the impression that "Trumpism" was in the process of institutionalization. We were told by a somewhat fatalist journalist: "Trump is the new normal".
"Trump is the new normal".
How could one explain this change of atmosphere? The first reason could be the reorganization of the White House, whose staff is now led by General Kelly's iron fist. However, he is being increasingly challenged, as he makes public his personal views - often reactionary (such as his recent eulogy of General Lee). Beyond a certain ordering of the "Trump House", it is perhaps the capacity of American institutions to absorb that could generate a certain impression of relative "normalization". The second factor goes in the same direction: "decision makers" of all kinds have no choice but to adapt to the the current administration’s characteristics and way of operating. Everyone now knows that the "decision-making process" at the highest level has unique ingredients in relation to American culture: the personalized nature of power, the unpredictability of a man who seems dominated by his impulses and his egocentricity, the weight of an entourage dominated mainly by the President's family and a small number of advisers, including those in the national security field who are referred to as the "adults" clan (Generals Mattis, McMaster, Kelly, and Secretary of State Tillerson).
We are told openly, in right-wing conservative circles, strongly linked to the Republican Party, that, to advance our ideas, "we must not talk big strategy but bet on the vanity of the President, on his need for visible gains on the short term".
This is because the “new normal” has not spared foreign policy. A "secret" visit by Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to Riyadh provokes more comment than the Secretary of State's travels, whose own trip a few days earlier in Saudi Arabia was interpreted by some as a sign of disgrace. On the Iranian case, the personal element counted indisputably: the President locked himself in a very critical speech with regard to the nuclear agreement of July 14, 2015. However, his advisers managed to convince him to confirm at least twice the validity of the agreement, maintaining the lifting of the sanctions, and then "certifying" the first time - as obliged by the law at regular intervals - the proper application of the agreement by Tehran. This could not last anymore. Mr Trump's decision on 13 October to refuse the "certification", which his colleagues had been working on for a long time, avoids the President having to deny himself longer without forcing himself out of the agreement, as seen in the interest of national security (they have declared it publicly) by General Mattis, Secretary of Defense, and Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State. It is now up to others, in Congress but also to the other signatories of the Vienna Agreement (permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, Germany and Iran), to manage the rest.
One may note in this respect, in the "new normal" foreign policy, that foreign leaders are more or less successful in capturing Mr. Trump's attention. Vladimir Putin is currently out of play because of "the Russian affair" (allegations of interference by Russia in the US election campaign). Ms. Merkel could not trace the handicap of the visceral antipathy of the President for Germany. Ms. May failed to capitalize on Mr. Trump's enthusiasm for Brexit. In the opinion of experts, the two statesmen who have managed to make themselves heard the best by President Trump – yet we are unsure about the listening part of course – are for the moment the Japanese Prime Minister, Mr. Abe, and the President of the French Republic, Mr. Macron.
A "strategy of tension"
A third factor must be taken into account, which is more ambiguous and undoubtedly more decisive. This administration, regardless of the personal equation of its leader, has so far dominated the political game in the country.
Certainly the liberal establishment, and especially the most renowned East Coast newspapers, do not let anything go to an administration that they believe endangers the freedoms and values of the Great Republic. But the Democratic Party does not seem to be able to overcome its defeat, torn between the boost of its left wing, with Mr. Sanders, and a largely discredited moderate wing, because of the failure of Hillary Clinton. This leads many interlocutors to think that in unchanged circumstances, Donald Trump has a good chance of getting reelected in three years’ time. Admittedly, what is more embarrassing for the administration, a beginning of revolt of the Republican party is emerging: the words of Mr. Trump at the time of the Charlottesville affair crystallized the discontent of the classical Republicans; his overtures to the Democrats on Obamacare and taxation shocked the caciques of the party in Congress; the personal animosity between the President and some Republican leaders has reached astonishing levels, as evidenced by the insulting words exchanged with Senator Bob Corker (one of the main supporters of Mr. Trump during the campaign, who now compares the White House to a "daycare") or Senator Jeff Flake, or the warnings of Senator McCain, or even those of George W. Bush. Mr. Trump is openly described as "unfit" for his current duties by "glories" of the party.
But Trumpian politics are not a personal affair. Trumpism is in a way a "strategy of tension": many observers think that the President's most shocking initiatives from the point of view of the establishment - including in foreign policy (leaving the Paris Agreement, denouncing TPP, threatening to come out of the Iran nuclear deal) - are intended to maintain the mobilization of his electoral base. The climate of permanent divisions and constant controversies serves Trump's purposes in this light. The President's reaction to the New York attack just recently gave us a new example of Trumpian political tactics. How does one know if this strategy works? Polls show a continued erosion of Trump's supporters, including among his base of "white, uneducated men". The mid-term elections next year will of course be a major test. Steve Bannon, who was dismissed from the White House, was reincarnated with the leading role of being a whip enforcing discipline on Republican candidates who would not follow the Trump line. He continues his work as warlord of "Kultur Kampf" against the establishment, in favor of Trump.
In this context, the decision made on 30 October by special prosecutor Mueller to charge three of Trump campaigners in the Russian case is reviving the debate. It risks destroying any possibility of "normalization" of Trumpism, provided that this formula has a meaning for a movement that is precisely identified with the challenge of the established order. Mr. Trump appears to have for the moment given up seeking the removal of Mr. Mueller, a former FBI leader respected in all parties. The procedure may still take a long time and we anticipate Mr. Trump's allies to denounce a biased justice system. In any case, the President may feel surrounded, even cornered. In domestic policies, he is unlikely to change his approach and break with the strategy of tension. In foreign policy, there are all the more reasons to fear abrupt decisions, aimed first and foremost at giving pledges of loyalty to his base.