Opinion Trump Is Not America
In an editorial, SPIEGEL ONLINE's Washington correspondent describes how a European views the United States in the age of Trump. Is there still hope, after all?
Call me a hopeless optimist, but I'm sure the United States and the rest of us will survive this insane presidency. I simply do not believe that Donald Trump will fundamentally change the U.S. or even the world.
He's too chaotic for that. Above all, though, Trump is not America. I have come to this realization during the time I have spent living in Washington and while traveling to many different parts of the country. America is incredibly large, diverse and pluralistic. It has a strong rule of law, and it is still a wonderful democracy, with a rather unruly and self-confident population. The president is not omnipotent here. All sorts of strong institutions and rules are in place to ensure that his power is kept in check. As such, I'm certain that no president has an easy time governing here.
Of course, Trump has his supporters, and they would probably even walk over burning coals for him. But the rest of the country either has no clear opinion about Trump or is clearly against him. What I have witnessed is that these people haven't simply disappeared or shut up now that he's in power. Many question his policies in the media, at universities, in Congress and in liberal states such as California or New York. They slow Trump down by filing lawsuits against his actions, annoying and distracting him and mounting protests. Some Americans may be pessimistic about their country's future, but as a European, I see these all these things as impressive symbols of the strength of American society and democracy.
Trump is not America. Trump surely imagined his presidency would be far easier than it has been when, a year ago, he gave his dark inaugural speech on the steps of the Capitol in Washington. At the time, he promised to do everything differently, to completely renew America -- politically, economically and socially. He proclaimed his own groundbreaking Trump Revolution, but what we have witnessed so far could at best be described as a "mini revolution."
The economy is running smoothly, but that's the result of a normal economic cycle. And Trump's tax plan probably would have been implemented in the same way by any other Republican president. And rather than abolishing his predecessor's Obamacare health care reform, he has merely improved it for the worse. On the issue of immigration, meanwhile, he has so far only presented at best hardline, patchwork solutions. What's more, it's very unlikely he will obtain funding for his much-touted infrastructure plan or to build a wall on the Mexican border without the Democrats' consent.
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His foreign policy follows the same logic: He stirs considerable confusion -- take the Middle East conflict or his threatening rhetoric toward North Korea, for example. But the cornerstones of American foreign policy remain untouched: He's still sticking with NATO, even though he called it "obsolete" during the election campaign. Trump is even trying to rein in Russia. At the same time, he's also seeking common solutions with the Chinese on trade issues. And at the World Economic Forum in Davos, he even seemed to back-peddle from his "America first" approach by proclaiming that "America first doesn't mean America alone."
Of course, one can still get worked up about the nonsense Trump churns out every day. His tweets are mostly idiotic, and his attacks on the press, the way he has handled the Russia scandal and his in part overt racism are all unworthy of a president. He hurts people and he's a major nuisance to many Americans.
In my view, however, the real problem with Trump's policies is a completely different one: Under Trump, too many important things simply remain unresolved. Be it the U.S. or the world, this presidency is lost time for us all -- four years or even eight if things get really bad.
Since I've been living in the U.S., I find myself thinking that America is a great and very rich country. But Trump is also justified in his criticism of some things. That's probably why he won the election. And although every American president has a massive workload on his plate, Trump seems to have difficulty getting anything done. In many ways, the country is regressing rather than progressing under his leadership.
The health care system is indeed insane -- a "disaster" as Trump calls it, especially from the perspective of someone who comes from Germany. And this despite Obamacare. In Germany, everybody gets almost full health insurance coverage for every illness that may occur, and the premiums are relatively affordable. A few years ago, there was such an outcry after people were slapped with a 10-euro ($12), out-of-pocket co-pay for each visit to the doctor that it eventually got dropped. In the U.S., however, the pharmaceutical industry demands skyrocketing prices, and the same drug can cost anywhere from $70 to $600 depending on the insurance plan you have. A routine check-up at the dentist can cost as much as $400. People pay high premiums for their insurance and yet they must often still pay thousands of dollars out of their own pockets if they have an operation.
And then there's the poverty in the cities and in some rural areas. For me, as a European, that's astonishing. I've been to Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. You see parts of these states that are so run down that you inevitably ask yourself: What have the presidents of the last two decades, including Barack Obama, really done to address this issue?
Or take the issue of immigration. Why, I wonder, does the U.S. allow so many people from desperately poor regions of the world into the country who are then largely left to determine their fates on their own? And why do highly qualified foreigners sometimes have such a hard time obtaining a work visa? The country seems to lack a coherent immigration strategy. Nobody really seems to care about the newcomers from Latin America or Asia and whether they learn the language or land decently paid jobs. They often live at the margins of society, with the American Dream well out of their reach.
One would think that the Republicans and Democrats would have to pull together to come up with working solutions. But they don't -- and therein lies the problem. Instead, the atmosphere remains toxic, as evidenced by the current budget dispute. Trump is unfit to be a leader. Rather than bring people together, he deepens the trenches. It's time for him to finally make good on his lofty pledge to "heal" the country. But is that what he really even wants to do?
There's More To America than Trump
Trump is not America. And this also means that there's more to America than Donald Trump. Life goes on in many places, people continue to focus on the more mundane aspects of their everyday lives. Does the subway run on time? What's the price of gas? What's new at school? How are things at work? It may be hard to believe, but the world doesn't spend all its time occupied with Trump's scandals on Twitter. People live through crises like the "shutdown-showdown" with little more than a shrug. The Americans already know well that their politicians stand in each other's way. That isn't new. Gridlock also happened under Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.
At the end of the day, the president is just one American among many. The everyday life of most people does not change fundamentally just because he's now in the White House. The Americans I meet every day are as friendly, open-minded and courageous as ever -- regardless whether they like Trump or not.
There is a pendulum theory in American politics: It states that the political mood in the country sometimes swings in one direction, and then in the other. From that perspective, Trump's successor would have to be a reconciler, wise, friendly and successful. That would be a welcome change.