Richard Coulson looks at what the inauguration of President Trump might mean for the US and the Bahamas . . .
What many said could never happen, has happened. On Friday, Donald Trump was sworn in as 45th President of the United States.
Starting with the election on November 8, a fair portion of the world expressed astonishment and dismay at his elevation to the presidency. Even as inauguration day approached, they could hardly believe that an upstart like this, breaking all traditions, would really take office. Even those who favoured him admitted that his victory was a surprise. Perhaps so did Trump himself - although he would never admit it.
Donald Trump is the leading example of that famous Frank Sinatra hit “I Did It My Way”, whether you like that way or not. The first president who never held elective or appointive office or served in the military; the first to create virtually his own party by not only attacking Democrats as near traitors but also shattering the leadership of his own Republicans; the first to degrade females to a locker-room sexual joke; the first to dismiss leading black politicians and the entire Muslim world, and the first to use his inaugural address to claim that America was in a state of “carnage” that only he could fix, and to dismiss the “elite establishment” of Washington in whose heart he was speaking. Despite the undeniable charm of his wife and daughters, his image was not helped by many blank spaces visible along the parade route and thousands of unsold inauguration tickets.
It is something of a miracle that the man who claimed the loyalty of blue-collar, working-class Americans could be a capitalist of inherited wealth who lived in the vast and vulgar gold-tinted splendour of a Fifth Avenue penthouse and Mar-a-Lago, the largest mansion in Palm Beach. We have to admire his chutzpah in overcoming this paradox, and in ignoring the impression given by the literati of Western Europe that he is a throw-back troglodyte spawned by America’s primitive society - a view in fact shared by much of US academia.
For a calmer view, consider the complexities of the United States itself, the nation that actually elected this oddity by unquestioned democratic procedures without any of the fraud endemic in other nations. Followers of Hillary Clinton will not let us forget that she won the popular vote by some 2.8 million votes. True, but they never mention another statistic: leaving out the votes from two populous states, California and New York, Trump would have won by about three million ballots.
As I have written before, the United States are two nations with vast cultural differences that spill over into politics. On the two coasts are found the smarty-pants intelligentsia, breeding Meryl Streep uttering her ultra-liberal fulminations in Hollywood, and the Harvard-New York-Washington network of “the best and brightest” along the Atlantic seaboard. Quite separate is the lumpen proletariat in all the wheat fields and rust-belt cities in between. Their denizens have been distorted by much of the media, but now we can read interviews with folks far from racist, sexist, bible-thumping reactionaries, just ordinary people who deplore Trump’s extremist rhetoric but ask the same questions about the state of the nation.
It’s certainly arguable that federal bureaucracy has gone too far and would have gone further under Hillary, that the Environmental Protection Agency has stifled growth with nit-picky environmental regulations, that the 1,200 pages of the Dodd-Frank Act will leave banks tied in red tape rather than improving service to the public, and that there are better solutions for health treatment than ‘Obamacare’.
Unfortunately for his backers, much of Trump’s image as a potential national leader was deeply stained by the events one day later. Even the right-wing Wall Street Journal reported that over 200,000 rainy-day marchers flooded Washington streets on Saturday to demonstrate for women’s rights, with tens of thousands more throughout the country and abroad - a rebuke unprecedented for a brand-new president, with signs it may continue.
The political/cultural split across the US is not merely geographical, it cuts across every shade of opinion that we see published daily. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman bluntly calls Trump both corrupt and incompetent, and The New Republic says his inauguration was another “day of infamy”. Every supporter of civil, racial and sexual rights uniformly loathes his proposals and tells us that he has no interest in reducing poverty, inequality or global warming. By contrast, the late Bill Buckley’s National Review believes he is on the right track, and investment advisers tell their clients he will introduce steady economic growth and a wide range of solid stock market choices. The two sides of America seem to be talking past each other.
A president, particularly in his inaugural address, is expected “to bind up the nation’s wounds” as Abe Lincoln memorably said, but this new president’s first words were more vindictive and pugnacious than designed to soothe bitter passions. “Put America first,” he kept saying. Yes, but what kind of America?
As for every new president, his more extreme projects will inevitably be eroded by simple bureaucratic inertia and the pressure of countervailing interests. He may never expel seven million undocumented immigrants or build an impenetrable wall along the whole Mexican border (much less get Mexico to pay for it), or withdraw from NATO. But whether or not he accomplishes these aims, he certainly boasts about them and they will influence his policy decisions.
What will be the effect on the Bahamas of this surreal new administration, where only a tiny fraction of over 600 executive positions has been filled? Probably not too great. When Mr Trump finally gets time to think about our little country, he will be shrewd enough to appoint a genial Ambassador, of considerable wealth, very likely a black capitalist, who will fit smoothly into our existing power structure without rocking the boat.
Tourism from the US will surely not suffer from the kind of affluence bound to flourish under a Treasury headed by millionaire Goldman Sachs alumni. A quick Trump flight over from Palm Beach for a round of golf at Albany would be an easy move, importing a host of high-spending celebrities. Since he has doubtless used offshore financial centres in structuring his own fortune, he is unlikely to press over-hard the Obama campaign to catch every untaxed US dollar of unearned income, thus easing the strain on the business of our financial sector. On the negative side, he and his embassy may not vigorously support our long-campaigning activists who battle for female equality or greater recognition of the LGBT community. It’s pretty clear that those concerns are just not on his personal radar.
The real message for us is simply the fact of Mr Trump’s campaign. Here, as in the US, a rank newcomer to politics, a maverick blessed with energy and imagination, could overwhelm our established parties in barely a year. Listen, Messrs Christie and McCartney and Dr Minnis.
• Richard Coulson is a retired lawyer and investment banker born in Nassau and from a long line of Bahamians. He is a financial consultant and author of A Corkscrew Life - adventures of a travelling financier.