Trump's Mixed Mandate

Secretary of state nominee, Exxon Mobil's Rex tillerson shares a joke with vladimir putin after the former received the Order of friendship award

Secretary of state nominee, Exxon Mobil's Rex tillerson shares a joke with vladimir putin after the former received the Order of friendship award

There is an especially boring debate raging in the US as to whether President-elect Donald Trump has a "mandate" or not.

Critics claim that Hillary Clinton's thumping popular vote margin denies Trump legitimacy. Some are even urging Electoral College delegates to flip their vote, a constitutionally dubious move at best, in order to reflect Hillary Clinton's 2.8 million vote margin. Others point to increasingly incontrovertible proof of Russia's interference in the election as further cause to question Trump's election.

Meanwhile, Trump's supporters understandably scoff at all of this, contending that his mere victory — along with Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress — affords his administration all the legitimacy it needs.

This silly debate reflects the irritating tendency to straitjacket nuanced arguments into starkly opposed binary propositions. Of course President-elect Trump has a mandate. Like it or not (and I do not), believe it or not (and I can barely), a real estate tycoon, reality TV star, confessed sex pest and Kremlin debtor Trump made it to the White House fair and square.

The question, therefore, is not whether Trump has a mandate, but what kind of a mandate is it?

In the absence of evidence that the election was tampered with by, or with the direct knowledge of, the Trump campaign, we have no choice but to live with the consequences of the vote.

The nature of one's mandate is not determined solely at the ballot box. It is shaped in no small part by the clarity with which you present your plans to the electorate. Simply put: what did the voters believe they were getting themselves into?

It seems clear, for example, that many Trump voters were inspired by his promise to "drain the swamp" in Washington DC, stripping lobbyists and corporate interests of their grossly inflated influence. To hammer home this message, Donald Trump repeatedly took aim at Goldman Sachs as the embodiment of crony capitalism, acting as if Clinton taking speaking fees from such a malevolent behemoth amounted to corruption.

But in the weeks since his election, Trump's actions make abundantly clear his rabble rousing against Wall Street was nothing but play-acting. Not only has Trump's snapped back to Republican orthodoxy on economic matters with dizzying speed, he has appointed not one, but two, Goldman Sachs executives to key posts: former partner, Steven Mnuchin is nominated for Treasury Secretary, while the company's second-in-command, Gary Cohn, will chair the National Economic Council, a role that pointedly does not require Senate confirmation.

Moreover, despite his muffled assurances during the campaign to protect America's modest welfare state in the form of Social Security and Medicare, it's abundantly obvious that Trump has no intention of getting in the way of House Speaker Paul Ryan's plans to gut these very programmes.

These early indicators suggest millions of Trump voters will be disappointed with the incoming president's economic priorities. If they'd wanted a reprise of George W Bush era economic rationalism, they could have voted for Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio after all. 

It's an open question as to whether voters will forgive this mammoth duplicity, but Trump's opponents in the Democratic and Republican Party are well within their rights to ask whether his mandate should be taken to encompass such an egregious backflip on a central plank of his campaign.

On foreign policy, the picture is less clear. Before the election, Trump made no secret of his disdain for the Iranian nuclear deal, and his abiding affection for Vladimir Putin. And remember his plan to destroy ISIS so secret that he could not divulge its details?

Trump's foreign policy views are dangerous and disturbing, but he did not hide them under a bushel.

Post-election, his foreign policy appointments have largely been in line with this warped worldview. Rex Tillerson, the Exxon Mobil chief nominated as Secretary of State, is so cuddly with the Kremlin he has received Russia's Order of Friendship, one of its highest civilian honours. John Bolton, rumoured to become Tillerson's deputy, is perhaps America's most avid hawk. His antipathy towards Iran is legend, and it is hard to see the nuclear deal surviving many weeks beyond his arrival at State.

However troubling these appointments, they are categorically different to those Trump has made in to his economic team. Bizarre as it seems, his promotion of Putin's apologists, nuclear proliferators and warmongers to key national security posts falls squarely within his mandate. This was precisely the calamity he promised.