Daniel Hamilton: The Republicans must now decisively reject Trump

7 Jan

Daniel Hamilton works in international business consultancy and was a Conservative candidate at the 2017 General Election.

In decades to come, Donald Trump’s presidency will be remembered by two speeches that book-ended his term in office, both delivered from the steps of the US Capitol.

The first, his inaugural address in January 2017, spoke of “American carnage”, ending “the ravages of other countries” and preventing the “wealth of the middle class being ripped” away by ill-defined actors. It clearly defined the politics of paranoia and division that followed.

The second, delivered yesterday afternoon, was nothing short of an incitement of violence. “We will never give up and will never concede the election”, Trump said, baselessly asserting that the election had been “stolen by emboldened radical Democrats”.

Trump knows the power of words – and the actions they can result in.

The objections raised in Congress to the certification of the electoral college votes can only charitably be described as a malodorous cocktail to outright falsehoods, half-truths and sophistry grounded in no legal or procedural reality. The results of this pageant of absurdity – the storming of the US Congress by protestors, the ransacking of parliamentarian’s offices and the placing of pipe bombs at the headquarters of the Democrat and Republican parties – are plain to see.

But democracy, just as it always does in America, will win the day. Joe Biden will be inaugurated as President on 20th January – and then it’s time for Republicans to cut the Gordian knot of the Trump years and decisively move on.

“In a President, character is everything”, Ronald Reagan’s former speechwriter Peggy Noonan argued. “A President doesn’t have to be brilliant. He doesn’t have to be clever; you can hire clever. You can hire pragmatic, and you can buy and bring in policy wonks”.

Trump at least partly took Noonan’s sentiments to heart.

His appointments to the Supreme Court may not be to everyone’s taste, yet Trump has ensured conservative orthodoxies will guide its rulings for the next quarter-century or more. His Tax Cuts and Jobs Act slashed America’s high corporate tax rates and delivered meaningful income tax cuts for working people. On foreign policy, while his intransigence towards traditional allies caused consternation, clear successes in the Middle East have been achieved.

“But,” as Noonan also reminds us, a President “can’t buy courage and decency, can’t rent a strong moral sense and needs to have a vision of the future he wishes to create”.

Therein lay the problem for the Trump administration; and hereby lies the challenge for a Republican Party that appears willing to present itself, at least for now, as the Trump Party.

Despite a successful economic agenda, Trump’s insensitive and intransigent approach to everything from sexual assault to coronavirus to immigration proved too much for many.

Make no mistake: Trump’s defeat in November was a personal repudiation, not a wholesale rejection of the Republican Party. Indeed, one of the biggest surprises of the recent elections was the robustness Republican congressional candidates showed, with the party only narrowly missing out on gaining control of the House despite a seven million vote deficit in the Presidential race.

In California, two naturalised Korean American women gained congressional districts from the Democrats at the same time as Biden won them convincingly. In the overwhelmingly Hispanic Miami area, two Democratic seats fell to Cuban American Republican challengers – also in areas Biden won handily.

The common message from those with knowledge of the campaigns on the ground was that the success of the two campaigns rested on two pillars: stressing their divergence from Trump on issues such as environmental policy and immigration and striking aspirational, positive – Reaganesque – tone on the personal and economic freedom.

Contrasting the strategies adopted in California and Florida back in November with those of the two Republican Senators defeated in run-off elections in Georgia on Tuesday, the differences are clear to see.

Rather than being able to highlight their own accomplishments and proposals, the campaigns of now ex-Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler were reduced to a referendum on the President’s insecurities. Campaigning in the state earlier this week, Trump used his primetime TV slot to berate Republicans he saw as insufficiently loyal to his agenda and to bolster his claims about electoral malfeasance. Loeffler’s closing pitch on the same evening was essentially reduced to: “vote for us on Tuesday and we’ll throw out our state’s electoral college votes on Wednesday”.

Much has been written about the historic nature of the victories of Reverend Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Martin Luther King’s former church, and Jon Ossoff, the first Jewish Senator in the Deep South. The victory of Warnock, in particular, is a victory for both post-racial politics in the Deep South and years of hard work among Democrats to organise around the state’s changing demographics. That should ring alarm bells for Republicans.

Rather than expand the Republican coalition as Democrats have successfully managed to do, Trump’s legacy as a both a candidate and President is to have narrowed it.

Suburban areas around the country – from Atlanta to Seattle to Philadelphia – have sharply moved against the Republicans under Trump. Polling further suggests that the outgoing President’s vulgar pronouncements and boorish nature had the effect of pushing ordinarily Republican-friendly groups such as the affluent university-educated voters and white women away from the party.

Only time will tell what further damage has been done to the party’s brand by the scenes of near insurrection in the Capitol yesterday. For 121 Republican congressmen – almost three in five of its members in the US House – to have backed the first procedural motion to throw out the results of the closely-fought state of Arizona shows just how badly Trump has toxified debate inside the party.

As the results on Georgia on Tuesday prove, demonstrating fealty to an unpopular President does not motivate voters; positive messages about economic recovery, aspiration and opportunity do.

In two years, Americans will go back to the polls to vote in mid-term elections history suggests they will be favoured to win. After the appalling scenes overnight, the Republican Party has a clear choice to make: to be the party of Donald Trump or to decisively move on, regroup and return to its roots as a low-tax, pro-freedom movement. What would Ronald Reagan do?

Daniel Hamilton: From Europe to Iran, what a Biden foreign policy will look like

10 Nov

Daniel Hamilton works in international business consultancy and was a Conservative candidate at the 2017 General Election.

On January 20th, Joe Biden will take office as President of the United States. First elected to public office in 1972, his length of tenure in public office is striking.

He first joined the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee in 1973, when Mao was Chinese premier, Willy Brandt was Chancellor of West Germany, Tito ruled Yugoslavia, and Brezhnev was premier of the USSR. The foreign policy universe Biden cut his teeth in was one still framed by carnage of the post-World War Two order; far removed from the less clear threats we see today from organised terrorist groups and non-state actors like ISIS. Asia and Africa were then economic minnows.

Given the length of his record, a number of conclusions can be drawn about how Biden is likely to approach foreign policy challenges and the projection of US power on the world stage.

In Washington DC, the cache of “Europe” as a foreign policy focus has been gradually declining since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. With the long-term US policy ambition of seeing swathes of Eastern Europe admitted to NATO and the European Union realised, recent administrations have deprioritised European affairs to instead focus on strengthening US ties with fast-growing Asian markets.

Biden’s history of involvement in European issues is likely, however, to see a slight shift of US attention back to the continent. He was a senior member of Senate Foreign Affairs committee during the collapse of the USSR, the reunification of Germany, and Yugoslavian conflicts, where he was one of the key cheerleaders for the allied intervention in Kosovo. His decades-long relationships and interest in flashpoints such as Georgia, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Ukraine will de facto represent in an upgrade of White House interest in European security policy.

Biden has always been a supporter of multilateral institutions – be they NATO, WTO or EU. Power blocs of this kind have, according to his worldview, led to collective action and pressure for positive change. To this end, it would be fair to conclude that Biden sees no particular upside to Brexit and has concerns about its impact upon the Belfast Agreement.

Despite fears in some quarters, a trade deal with the UK remains an easy win for any US President. Indeed, one could conclude that a Biden administration is less likely to push for the inclusion of some of the more politically-controversial health service and food hygiene aspects of the deal that the Trump administration were alleged to be keen on; making its passage simpler on a UK level.

The issue of US-Russia relations has been one of the reoccurring sagas of the Trump administration, with the outgoing President having been accused of kowtowing to the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. While Donald Trump reluctantly maintained sanctions under huge political pressure from Congress, Biden was one of the leading forces behind their initial implementation during the Obama administration and has been sharply critical of Russian operations in Syria.

While one should expect a further deterioration of relations with Moscow in the coming months, his record of dealings with Russia as a Senator is instructive. While he was repeatedly critical of domestic human rights abuses against political dissidents and Chechen separatists, he quietly championed a USSR-US deal on nuclear arms controls as far back as mid-1970s, resulting in a strengthened Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty that curtailed ballistic missile manufacturing in both countries. Biden is willing to negotiate – but to extract a price. This is how relations with Russia will be framed.

Arguably the boldest foreign policy decision taken by the Trump administration was its decision to withdraw from the P5+1 Agreement aimed at normalising political and economic relations with Iran. While the outgoing administration framed their opposition to the agreement on the grounds of it being excessively favourable to Iran, Biden will likely recommence of US engagement with its structures. The Republican-run Senate will do its best, however, to erect legal roadblocks designed to stall aspects of the deal related to trade and the lifting of sanctions.

On the broad topic of trade policy, Biden’s record shows him to have been broadly committed to freer trade and has opposed most tariffs. He backed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement and China’s WTO accession. Given his close links with the trade union movement and the emphasis his campaign placed on winning industrial states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, it will be interesting to see his past positions reconcile with growing US public sentiment towards protectionism in the Covid-19 era.

The future of US-China relations remains the biggest question mark hanging over the incoming administration. While Biden opposed the rolling tariffs Trump has imposed on Chinese imports into the United States, he has similarly been sharply critical of Chinese intellectual property infringements and state subsidies that harm US competitiveness. He has also described President Xi as a “thug” – a pointed remark for a politician who has tended to value velvety prose over confrontation.

Climate change policy – another likely area of tension between the US and China in the coming years – will receive a significant upgrade under Biden. He has already announced intention to return to 2015 Paris Agreement from “day one” of his presidency. Given the importance to the UK and the post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ narrative, securing a successful outcome from COP26 is a key priority. An engaged, enthusiastic US presidency will help rather than hinder this objective.

If environmental issues represent the biggest schism between the Trump and Biden administrations, a noticeable area of agreement between the two men is their shared aversion towards neo-conservative foreign policy positions. While Biden voted for early stages of Iraq war, he shares Trump’s scepticism of military interventions. Under Biden, the likelihood of US troops being sent to Syria or Iran is highly unlikely.

Similarly, one can expect a Biden presidency to adopt a similar policy agenda in respect of Israel. He has been a long-standing champion of US military and financial aid to Israel and has, notably, stated that he will keep the US Embassy in Jerusalem. The difference between Trump and Biden rests on the issue of the realisation of an independent Palestinian state. Biden has long favoured a two-state solution while Trump, despite pushing policy proposals that would essentially realise that objective, has shied away from using the term.

In Latin America, a Biden administration appears likely to follow a similar path to Trump, yet placing a stronger focus on environmental and human rights concerns. He has publicly backed Juan Guaidó over Nicolás Maduro as the legitimate President of Venezuela and has stressed his willingness to build relations with Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian President, while raising concerns about his administration’s policies towards the Amazon. If an area of tension between the outgoing and incoming administrations is to be found, it is likely in respect of Cuba, where Biden will likely seek to restart US-Cuba talks on a reset in political and economic relations.

Despite his willingness to negotiate, Biden’s record of public pronouncements – be it in furious opposition to apartheid-era South Africa, anger at Milošević’s butchery in Yugoslavia, or fury at the murder of Jamal Khashoggi – have long positioned him as one of the foremost human rights-focussed politicians in America. Those sentiments will guide him in office.

In conclusion, when it comes to foreign policy issues, Biden is a pragmatist rather than an ideologue; a widely experienced negotiator who prefers playing the long game to the pursuit of quick wins that fail to yield results. Multilateralism, not unilateralism, is the Biden way – and it will guide US foreign policy over the next four years.