Donald Trump is probably the most extraordinary individual to ever be President of the United States. But his presidency is actually rather ordinary.
This is not to argue that Trump is an ordinary President – far from it. In almost everything he says and does, how he projects himself in speeches, tweets and meetings with world leaders, Trump is unorthodox, unconventional, and anything but ordinary.
But in substance, policy, and deeds, his presidency is largely conventional and conservative, rather than revolutionary or radical, while its outcomes to date have been meager, mediocre, and quite ordinary.
US Presidents are constrained by a constitutional structure that deliberately makes it very difficult to get things done. The checks and balances were designed specifically to hold ambitious and potentially tyrannical executives in check. They are the constitutional equivalent of a dog leash and muzzle.
Strong partisanship between Republicans and Democrats also stifles reform. It is all very well to run on a promise to “drain the swamp”, but how do you do that when the swamp is full of clever, large and aggressive alligators, and your lead is short and muzzle strong?
Trump is ordinary in that, like most Presidents, his accomplishments are few and not radical. The few successes he can lay claim to, like the 2017 tax cut, are largely mainstream Republican ones.
Thus the alleged tribune of the working class has morphed into a classic Republican plutocrat, with the richest cabinet in history, cutting the taxes of the wealthy and the social provisions of the poor, striking free-trade deals that all but mirror those they replaced.
If Trump had delivered on his promises to protect the economically precarious and insecure, it would have been a truly extraordinary accomplishment for a Republican President. But there is huge chasm between Trump’s words and actions, his promises made and promises delivered.
He is a faint-hearted revolutionary, talking the talk but not walking the walk – the people’s tribune turned mainstream Republican.
Trump has overused executive actions to try to deliver on campaign promises, like building the wall along the Mexican border, rather than using the skills required to secure successes as President. The resistance from Congress, even when controlled by his own party, and from the courts has frustrated his excesses, just as it was designed to.
Outsider Presidents are usually not well equipped to govern. He does not have the experience or political connections that a successful presidency requires. In fact it is precisely the attributes and methodology that make Trump an extraordinary President that also make his presidency ordinary.
Trump’s personalised version of leadership undermines the White House’s work. He has created a divided team, refuses to manage the divisions carefully, and adds a layer of further chaos with his hyperactive Twitter thumbs. He has not understood how to mobilise the power of the presidency to pressure the key Washington players who can make or break his agenda. His base strategy has failed to deliver action on his more radical proposals.
In foreign policy, the area which garners the most global media attention, Trump’s brashness and lack of diplomatic tact worry and confuse allies and appear to be disrupting the international system. But so far he has delivered outcomes based on familiar assumptions that are relatively ordinary and limited.
Trump’s worldview is rooted largely in an orthodox set of realist assumptions that reject globalism, emphasise the role of nationalism, are sceptical of international organisations and multilateral agreements, and see the balance of global power as a mostly zero-sum game.
Compared to the Obama administration, this appears to be an extraordinary, revolutionary change in direction.
Yet, as with much of Trump’s domestic agenda, what his administration has done is largely to return the US to an emphasis on traditional Republican foreign policy priorities, utilising an underlying strategic approach that reverts to the long established Republican idea of seeking “peace through strength”.
The dangerous rhetorical assault on North Korea followed by summits looks extraordinary on one level, but it fits within this tradition, and has also so far failed to deliver concrete outcomes.
The Trump administration has not yet bucked the trend of recent presidencies that have struggled to secure US interests abroad.
Like his predecessors, Trump is faced with intractable international problems, allies who do not always share US goals, adversaries who will not bend to the will of the US no matter how great its military and economic might, and a world that is increasingly interconnected in ways that limit the power the US has to get its own way.
So for all the extraordinary behaviour of the President himself, the fanaticism whipped up among his supporters and the attacks heaped on him by his critics, in terms of actual outcomes both at home and abroad, the presidency of Donald Trump is so far rather ordinary.