The 2016 US election was a turning point for the republic. Having tolerated presidents Barack Obama (Democrat, 2009-17) and George W. Bush (Republican, 2001-2009), and with Hillary Clinton (Democrat) offering more of the same, large swathes of the voting American middle class were desperate for change. They wanted to see it in the way politics was done, and to stop being ignored by their elected representatives in Washington DC.
The election was a contest between former First Lady, senator and ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (a Washington insider) and a trailblazing entertainment and construction businessman from New York with a fondness for disruption, Donald J. Trump. Voters, particularly those living in the Midwest, liked what Trump was offering: making America great again. Trump promised to be their agent for change. He was catering for the needs and aspirations of ordinary Americans, who felt they had been neglected for much too long. The ‘basket of deplorables’ (Clinton’s remark showing her disrespect for millions of hard-working Middle Americans), one in two women, and one in three Hispanics voted for the ultimate risk-taker. A new dawn was emerging in the United States. Trump was to embark on a program of reform – and he was in a hurry to ‘drain the swamp’ of the Washington insiders who looked after only themselves. Trump was soon to discover how entirely different it was campaigning from opposition to governing.
Political historians warn that commentary immediately after an event will never stand as the final word. Dispassionate historical analysis, it is often said, takes time. Written works explain and clarify decisions and events that the participants expect historians to consider when assessing political, economic, social or cultural events.
The rise and fall of the Trump presidency has been the subject of much commentary, mainly by a handful of active participants including academics, commentators, journalists, and Trump family members. Little has been written by those who have some perspective on the machinations of politics and government. To date, the Trump presidency has been the subject of terse political commentary more than measured historical assessment; but commentary is not history.
Donald Trump: The Ultimate Contrarian (Connor Court Publishing, 2021) is Richard Alston’s second foray in two years examining the principles and practice of public leadership, and he offers a scintillating read. Drawing on his time in politics, as a senator and senior minister in the Howard Government, and as a state and federal party leader, Alston ventures where others fear to tread – offering a critique of Trump’s presidency. With outstanding effect.
Alston is no apologist for Trump. Quite the contrary. While seeing Trump as the ultimate political risk-taker, trailblazer and disruptive contrarian, Alston lists many of Trump’s personal character failings on no less than a dozen occasions, including: ‘not only an amoralist but a true vulgarian who fails the character test’; ‘brutish vulgarian’; ‘eccentric high achiever’; ‘disorganised’; ‘vindictive’; and of having the ‘morals of an alley cat’ to name a few. To counter these character failings, Alston does however describe Trump as having a ‘magnetic attraction’, acknowledges his ‘political bravery … [and] invaluable business experience’, and his ‘strategic and deliberate’ approach.
With unrelenting antipathy shown towards Trump from much of the media, the elites, academics, and the business community (both during and after his time in office), Alston argues that ‘if Trump were to be judged solely on character there is little doubt that he would be at the bottom of the class. But, if the criterion is performance in office, he may get a much higher score’. Holding the view there is not much to gain in attempting to retrieve the personal reputation of a deeply flawed human being, Alston suggests a more productive responsibility would be to look closely at Trump’s achievements in office with a view to identifying and learning from those that were successful. Alston’s essay therefore is devoted to ‘identifying those concrete achievements and policy initiatives of Donald Trump, which could be seen to be the key to not only electoral success but getting America back on track’.
Alston makes a worthy contribution to the debate by listing and describing some of Trump’s more noteworthy domestic policy reforms (appointments to the Supreme Court, immigration, tax incentives, jobs, infrastructure spending) and foreign policy achievements (Middle East, China, NAFTA, NATO). Having listed the racked-up achievements, many more than his immediate predecessors, Alston ponders whether Trump is the best one-term president yet. How’s that for a cheeky dinner conversation starter!
Much commentary in this area indulges in disgust for Trump’s personal qualities. Alston records his distaste for Trump’s character, but as a prelude to a serious review and critique of Trump’s record in office. While the dust is a long way from settling on the Trump presidency, Alston’s contribution is a stake in the ground. It is now on others to offer their qualified opinions.
Donald Trump: The Ultimate Contrarian
Connor Court Publishing, 2021
Andrew Blyth is a doctoral student at UNSW Canberra as is co-editor of The Art of Coalition: The Howard Government Experience, 1996-2007 (UNSW Press, 2022)