Before November's US presidential election, Robert Kagan saw fascism rising again in Donald Trump’s populist campaign. Now, after 100 days of the new Trump administration, the neoconservative historian and political adviser views him as an incompetent rather than a cunning demagogue.
Almost from day one in office, the president failed to play by the demagogue’s tried and tested handbook, Mr. Kagan told Handelsblatt, adding that he should have lavished the nation with infrastructure spending. Instead, Mr. Trump decided to push health care legislation that would have taken insurance from people.
“A good demagogue knows that the thing to do is give people goodies, not take things away from them,” said Mr. Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The way he won the election is not the way he’s governing.”
Trump had and has the potential to be a demagogue who actually can run over American institutions and do a lot of damage. Robert Kagan, Author and neo-conservative
During the campaign, Mr. Trump promised to take on the financial and political elites by "draining the swamp" in Washington. Far-right firebrand Steve Bannon, now one of Mr. Trump’s key advisors, said that Mr. Trump's goal was “the destruction of the administrative state.”
Mr. Kagan in many ways is part of the old Republican establishment in Washington targeted by Mr. Trump in his campaign. An author of numerous influential books on US foreign policy, Mr. Kagan ardently supported President George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, and he advised Republican Senator John McCain during his 2008 presidential bid. After Mr. Trump won the Republican nomination, Mr. Kagan defected and backed Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton.
But Mr. Trump's populism has faded in the first 100 days of his administration. The president has appointed former Goldman Sachs bankers as his key economic advisers, and he has largely followed Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan’s lead on legislation. Far from challenging the establishment, he appears to have been co-opted by it. Mr. Kagan, however, remains an ardent critic of the president.
“He had and has the potential to be a demagogue who actually can run over American institutions and do a lot of damage,” Mr. Kagan said. “So far, I would say he’s incompetent at it. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
“The establishment still controls the commanding heights and he hasn’t done what would be necessary to disrupt that, but only because he hasn’t done it,” Mr. Kagan said. In other words, the much maligned establishment remains vulnerable to attack, and Mr. Trump could shift back into populist mode and rally his troops at anytime.
There is still a reservoir of populist and isolationist sentiment in the US that Mr. Trump can tap into. In particular, his rhetoric against free trade and free-riding allies appeals to a segment of the American public that is tired of the United States shouldering global responsibilities.
“It’s a very narrow, parochial understanding of American interests,” Mr. Kagan said. “Unfortunately, that’s where a lot of Americans are right now.”
Moritz Koch has been Handelsblatt's Washington correspondent since 2013. To contact the author: [email protected]