U of T professors on Trump's first 100 days: “the world is a strange place now”

Historian and political scientist debate impact of Trump's actions on trade, immigration and health care
donald trump
U.S. President Donald Trump signs an executive order related to the oil pipeline industry, among many executive orders he has signed in the first 100 days (photo by Shawn Thew/Pool/Getty Images)

For months, much of the world has been watching with bated breath as Trump has settled into the presidency.

From efforts to suspend immigration from predominantly Muslim countries to trying to repeal Obamacare and picking fights over NAFTA, softwood lumber and dairy – it has been a busy 100 days. In the midst of it all, the 45th president has also reportedly found the time to install a Coke button in the White House to quench his thirst.

So, how has Trump performed in his first months on the job?

U of T News talked with historian Robert Bothwell from the Faculty of Arts & Science, an expert on post-1945 international and Canadian history, and political scientist Ryan Hurl of U of T Scarborough who specializes in American politics.

Trump's critics have said his presidency would be a disaster. How do you think he's done? 

Robert Bothwell head shot

Robert Bothwell: It's a slow moving disaster.

I guess people were a little optimistic in thinking that it would take only a 100 days.

I think his essential qualities have been revealed.

He comes across as capricious, very ill-informed, unprepared for office – he's actually said as much.

Ryan Hurl head shot Ryan Hurl: Without disagreeing with what Professor Bothwell said, let me look at it from a different perspective.

Let's begin with the absolute and incontrovertible truth: Trump was not qualified to be president and lacks many aspects of the policy expertise that either President Hillary Clinton would have had or certainly President [Barack] Obama or President Bill Clinton. Has this created a disaster? Well, political disasters – even slow-moving ones – depend very much on your politics.

The initial political problem is maintaining that Republican coalition. On that front, it's been a political success. This might not be apparent to everyone.

What do you think he has learned from his first 100 days? 

Robert Bothwell: I'm very sceptical that Trump really learns.

His various attempts to cobble together something on health care – renewed this week for short-term political purposes – have failed.

Ryan Hurl: On the steep learning curve, I more or less agree with much of what Professor Bothwell said.

What Trump's finding out is that his election in 2016 is in no way equivalent to the election of Obama in 2008 or, goodness knows, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. There's not much of a mandate. It's a narrow electoral victory. And in those kinds of circumstances, the ability of the president to lead through the power of personal charisma or bullying in some instances is simply very limited.

What Trump is learning is that balancing that party coalition is going to be extremely difficult. Perhaps, he's also learning that he won the election despite his personality as opposed to because of it.

Are you saying he's learning humility? 

Ryan Hurl: He's been given the opportunity to learn humility, or at least the opportunity to learn what leadership means in the context of a political system as opposed to leadership in the business world. It sort of reminds me of what Truman said about Eisenhower when he said that Eisenhower is used to working in the army when he's in charge. He will find that being president is very, very different. 

A photo of an anti-Trump protest in Minneapolis
Protesters hold up signs criticizing U.S. President Donald Trump at a rally in Minneapolis in February (photo by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr)

He promised to repeal Obamacare and to limit immigration from certain countries. So far, he hasn't been able to do this. Has this hurt his support? 

Robert Bothwell: I think it's less policy than it is attitude. The kinds of people who are the Trump base like his personality. They like the forcefulness. They like the uncompromising statements.

By the way, it's not limitation from certain countries. It's Muslims, and that's what he said during the campaign. And Mexicans of course. 

His base likes that. It's a simple solution to problems that are not unreal, even if the definition of the problem would differ from person to person.

I don't think elite commentators are at all comfortable with this so they ignore it. 

Ryan Hurl: On the broader immigration question, I think you're dealing with an issue where there is a significant degree of ambiguity among the public, not so different from the health-care issue.

It's one thing to say, 'Yes, there are immigration laws, we should follow the law in general.’ When we see what that could mean in terms of how it's disrupting families, opinions can change. 

U of T keeping close watch on impact of US travel restrictions

Ultimately the problem that Republicans face and the Democrats as well has to do with the ambiguity of public opinion. People wish to have the advantages of public health care without some of the unavoidable consequences, which are that you're not going to have the same level of choice. You might have to pay additional taxes and so on and so forth. 

What do you make of the disputes over NAFTA, softwood lumber and dairy? What do you think will come of them? 

Robert Bothwell: We do see how Trump has proceeded with NAFTA, which is to have several policy reversals over the course of a week. That ought to tell you something about Trump and his administrative style. He may inadvertently blow up NAFTA. 

If you look at the basic NAFTA strategy in terms of politics, it's poor. If you look at it in terms of the Trump base, it's a very hard thing to put together because a lot of core Republican areas – whether they know it or not – are benefiting from NAFTA.

Just to go back to my basic point: I think he's so capricious and irresponsible that I wouldn't be at all surprised to find Trump take some drastic decision that he can't run back on.

Ryan Hurl: We know as Canadians that free trade even within a country can be a difficult thing to achieve, and we also know it's a process of ongoing negotiation, even within a country.

From that perspective the notion of reconsidering aspects of a trade agreement or the notion that trade deals will be difficult and have to be reconsidered, that to me is not that unusual. But again, Trump's negotiating style is somewhat...um...unique let's say. 

I hope Trump has some legal advisers that tell him the president can't simply annul a treaty, that the president has to work with Congress on these issues. I hope he would have advisers say there can be a common ground.

There was a lot of talk about the Trump administration's ties to Russia in the first few months. Where do you see this leading?

Robert Bothwell: Who knows? What really is quite striking about this is how little the Russian issue has impacted American politics. In the days of [U.S. Senator Joseph] McCarthy this would have been enough for burnings in the street.

They seem to have gotten rid of the person who probably was most vulnerable to conspiracy charges, and that's [Michael] Flynn.

I really don't see the Russian connection being at all clear in terms of American action for the future. 

Ryan Hurl: I think that's exactly right. Let me just add one thing: for years during the Obama administration, there was the ongoing birther controversy, and I tried to just ignore it. I didn't discuss it in my classrooms. It was just so ridiculous. In the back of my mind, I sort of treated the Russian connection the same way – not that it's inconceivable or that there isn't some suspicious behaviour, but the evidence just isn't there.

We will see what evidence could emerge, but I agree with Professor Bothwell. At this point, it looks like this is an issue that will die out.

There's no real sign that the Trump administration is unwilling to challenge Russia when necessary – which is probably the most important thing. 

How would you grade Trump on his first 100 days? 

Robert Bothwell: F. He's been unsuccessful in forming a coherent administration. He has brought a form of dynastic and cliquish politics into the White House, in a way independent of the party system. I'm worried about that. I'm worried about all the evidence that he makes decisions irrationally.

He will have done nothing about – in fact, he will have exacerbated – the problem of the one per cent and the divisions in society, and he runs the risk of endangering race relations

I think this guy deserves a fail, and we should all be alarmed because there's the possibility he won't serve out his term. 

Ryan Hurl: This is sort of the situation where you're dealing with a student who is showing some signs of trouble early on in the term. You would basically say, 'Well, you're going to have to think about what you're doing and change direction on some things. Seek some additional help if necessary, if you're going to complete the course or get the kind of grade you're looking for.'

In terms of his personal leadership and attempt to heal the fractures in the nation, I think he has done very poorly. But on the broader issues, it's simply too early to tell. He's engaging in an experiment that could be described as libertarianism in one country.

Anyone who says I'm absolutely confident this is going to fail or absolutely confident it's going to succeed – we just don't know. This is sometimes difficult for professors to admit, but the world is a strange place right now.


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