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Happy Fourth of July! This week you'll find a special edition of The 45th containing short and sharp analysis from members of our team of academics and experts. Think of it as a US progress report following a dizzying few months of the Trump presidency and in the shadow of both a potentially bruising battle over a new Supreme Court justice and the upcoming midterm elections in November.

We return to our regular programming next week.

Professor Simon Jackman
CEO, United States Studies Centre

The state of the American state

Dr Charles Edel
Senior fellow and visiting scholar

As disruptive as Donald Trump’s presidency has been, it did not materialise out of thin air. The willingness that so many Americans showed in voting for him indicates that the grievances he articulated are real, enduring, and far more prevalent than many had understood. The wholesale restructuring of the global economy that globalisation and technology have wrought will continue producing social disruptions. This is not unique to the United States; most advanced economies are dealing with this in one form or another. Because these disruptions are unlikely to slow – the number of affected industries and regions will likely increase – there is a dire need to fashion meaningful and stabilising policy responses to the information revolution.

History provides a useful model in Theodore Roosevelt’s active response to industrialism at the turn of the 20th century. Roosevelt saw that he could gain support by curbing industry’s excess, regulating business, and protecting the most vulnerable members of society. The analogy is inexact, but the ongoing populist revolt seems more like the response to a systemic shift than it is to any one particular candidate. The political question is whether the Democratic and Republican parties see more advantage fashioning a positive agenda than in attacking the other side’s perceived excesses. Innovative policymakers who begin experimenting with new deals for their societies now will be serving not only their own national interests, but those of all advanced liberal democracies.

Beyond the tyranny of the short term

Dr Gorana Grgic
Lecturer in US politics and foreign policy

As the United States marks the 242nd anniversary of its independence, the most pressing question is what its role in the international system is. During the first year of Donald Trump's presidency many have tried to normalise the administration’s decision-making and fit it into the mould of conventional Republican foreign policy. His second year proves this is a futile endeavour. 

President Trump’s campaign rhetoric and some of his long-standing beliefs around the purpose of US power and the nature of the international system make some recent developments unsurprising. However, the sidelining and aggrievement of loyal US allies; the ramping up of the protectionist policies which make global trade war all but a reality; and walking away from some of the hard-won multilateral agreements, while at the same time placing a lot of hope in elusive deals with old enemies and rivals bring a new sense of urgency to analyse what these developments mean for the future of the liberal international order.

A pair of US academics put it aptly in saying that the post-war order is an often rhapsodised, but rarely scrutinised concept. Indeed, as US foreign policy scholars and students we need to move beyond the tyranny of the short term and seriously grapple with diagnosing the systemic ails of the order and the acute challenges posed by the Trump presidency, as well as offering visions for the path forward.

Resistance amidst celebration this July 4

Dr Elizabeth Ingleson 
Honorary associate

For those concerned about the rights of immigrants, workers, minorities and women, there is little to celebrate on this year’s Fourth of July. From taxation to the Supreme Court to immigration, the effects of the Trump administration will be felt for generations to come. For instance, it's becoming a question of “when” not "if" the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade. Four states already have trigger laws waiting to be implemented that would immediately cut women’s reproductive rights as soon as this happens.

The Fourth does have a long history of resistance. In 1852, Frederick Douglas declared to his white audience “the fourth of July is yours not mine”. In 1876 Susan B. Anthony interrupted the official ceremony in Philadelphia to read the Declaration of the Rights of Women. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence itself is a fighting demonstration against tyranny.

But after a weekend of nation-wide rallies against Trump’s immigration policies, the key test now is how much of this anger is translated into action at the ballot boxes in November. Yet, even this would at best dampen, not stop, the impact of a man who is looking more and more like a two-term president.

Why a 1930s-style trade war will be hard to avert

Dr Stephen Kirchner
Director, Trade & Investment Program

There is nothing new in the United States using tariffs to tax and regulate international commerce. Like most other countries, it has a far from perfect record when it comes to free trade. Yet the United States led the process of competitive liberalisation that progressively unwound many of the barriers to international trade and investment in the post-World War II period, and especially since the 1990s.

In contrast to previous administrations, the current US government does not even pay lip service to free trade. President Trump invokes the idea of ‘fair’ trade, but his concept of fairness is one that denies that trade is mutually beneficial. In Trump’s view, the United States benefits when it exports to the rest of the world and incurs a cost when it imports.

We have every reason to be pessimistic about the prospects for averting a 1930s-style trade war. The economically-correct response for other countries to US tariffs is not to respond in kind and continue with unilateral trade liberalisation, while litigating the US measures at the World Trade Organization. But neither China nor the European Union have shown any willingness to exercise such restraint and US actions will be seen validating their own mercantilist instincts. If the American Republic, conceived in liberty, will not defend international freedom of commerce, who will?

Rise of the US tech titans continues to challenge policymakers

Claire McFarland
Director, Innovation & Entrepreneurship Program

Eight of the top ten companies at second quarter (Q2) 2018 are US companies, five of these eight are tech titans. The remaining two are Chinese tech titans. Just ten years ago this was a startlingly different story with only one of the top ten companies (Microsoft) at Q2, 2008 a tech company.

The rapid rise of the tech titans has seen regulation struggling to keep pace. Indeed the ongoing apologies of Mark Zuckerberg seem to indicate Facebook is struggling to keep up with the many and varied uses of its platform. In a world where humanity is more connected than ever before and in which the pace of change is accelerating, the challenge becomes how to keep up, how to analyse, how to respond. Evidence-based policymaking takes time and yet the bureaucracy of the United States is struggling with a president who announces policy via Twitter.

The biggest challenge facing open and democratic countries like Australia and the United States is how to set a strategic vision for their societies that harnesses the benefit of technological change and counters the negatives; and how to execute that vision in the same way that tech titans have tapped into the zeitgeist and brought their products to market. The private sector entities that have been steadily and rapidly innovating and transforming have been rewarded.

There’s a lot governments can learn from tech titans, but (as recent evidence shows) they’re not asking the right questions.

As the president steps back, allies will need to step up

Jared Mondschein
Senior fellow and senior advisor

Amidst President Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, his frequent attacks on NATO and the European Union, his dismantling of the US diplomatic corps, and his haphazard enacting of tariffs on friend and foe alike, America’s allies have generally taken a passive and reactive strategy. In trying to minimise Trump’s disruptions and trusting that the next administration’s foreign policy will be more reasonable and stable, many allies have argued that what he says or tweets is less important than what he actually does.

Trump’s recent actions make clear that as the administration loses more stabilising, countervailing and contrarian voices, he is becoming simultaneously more confident in his own abilities and more unconstrained in his exercise of power. This is likely to trigger an inflection point in how key allies deal with the administration, as it will become ever more difficult to maintain a passive or merely reactive approach to increasingly likely scenarios, such as the removal of US troops from long-time overseas bases or the United States withdrawing from the World Trade Organization.

If US allies want to maintain an international rules-based order, they will need to be pro-active, step up where the president has stepped back, and perhaps even take actions that preclude the United States.

Truth and reason trumped by emotions

Associate Professor Brendon O'Connor
Associate Professor in American politics

My recent research has examined celebrity populism and therapeutic politics to understand the election of Donald Trump and his governing style. Trump’s electoral success signalled that liberal democratic politics has increasingly been supplanted by some of the most negative trends from popular culture when it comes to how the public follows politics. The reality of this new relationship between politics and popular culture was apparent throughout the 2016 presidential election contest, in which Trump consistently flaunted the old rules of liberal democratic politics with far less sanction from the public than the press and academic commentators expected.

My research argues that celebrity politicians act as public therapists. The solutions proffered by these celebrity politicians have less to do with the development of public policy than with manipulating and soothing feelings. Several academic studies have concluded that white Trump voters were principally driven by “status anxiety” – a fear of falling culturally – not “economic anxiety”.

How do politicians address concerns about cultural displacement to gain votes? In Trump’s case he stoked fears and offered fantastic solutions to them. In this environment the media functions as a vehicle for Trump’s publicity as well as his constant critic. While quality media is continuously pointing out Trump’s mendacity and flaws, gatekeepers have far less impact in an age where truth and reason are so often trumped by emotions.

The midterms raise the stakes

Dr Shaun Ratcliff
Lecturer in political science

At present the odds are better than 50 per cent that Democrats will gain control of the House after the midterm elections, but they may go backwards in the Senate. Generic ballots put the Democratic share of the congressional vote at nearly 47 per cent, and the Republican share at 40 per cent. 

However, the actual outcome will be shaped by a number of factors. This includes gerrymandering (by both sides, but most egregiously by the Republicans since 2010); Democratic concentration in several large cities, which means they win big in a few places (California, New York, Massachusetts), but narrowly miss out elsewhere even when they do well; and perhaps the quality of candidates and the amount of money raised and spent on campaigns. 

Worth remembering is that in less than 18 months, President Trump has appointed approximately five per cent of all federal judges, including one Supreme Court justice. If his current nominations awaiting Senate confirmation are approved, this will increase to 15 per cent. This substantial number is partially the result of Republicans holding up appointments in the last years of the Obama administration. A Democratic victory in the House in November will provide a check on the legislative freedom of the Trump administration. But if they manage to do well in the Senate, Democrats may also slow down Republicans’ appointment of conservative federal judges until the next presidential election.

Get set for personnel changes at the highest levels of the US government

Dougal Robinson
Research fellow, Foreign Policy & Defence Program

In coming months, the Republican-majority Senate will invariably confirm a solid conservative Supreme Court nominee to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy. While Kennedy was nominated by President Reagan, he was the court’s key swing vote. His departure is unlikely to have much impact on rulings on business regulation, unions and campaign finance (where Kennedy tended to side with the court’s conservatives), but his successor is not expected to vote with liberal justices on issues like abortion, the rights of women and minorities. Democrats will be praying for the health of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (85) and Justice Stephen Breyer (79) – if either departs, the court could become a 6-3 conservative majority. 

Meanwhile, the Trumpification of the Republican Party is gathering pace. The president’s more vocal congressional critics, such as senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, are retiring at the midterms, while ailing Senator John McCain has not been in Washington since December. Mitt Romney might be outspoken in 2019 as a senator from Utah, but the key question is whether he will join senators like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski to vote against some of the president’s agenda.

Add in recent speculation about the potential departure of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and the year ahead could be very bumpy indeed.

Primaries forecast political climate ahead of 2020

Matilda Steward
Program associate, Foreign Policy & Defence Program

Last week’s upset victory by 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over senior House Democrat and ten-term incumbent Joseph Crowley rounded off a night of primary triumphs for the party’s progressive wing. The result in New York’s 14th Congressional District was the first primary defeat of a sitting House Democrat since 2014. Ocasio-Cortez’s success as a young female candidate of colour running on a progressive agenda of Medicare-for-all and abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement represents the culmination of grassroots enthusiasm that helped power Bernie Sanders’ campaign.

In research released earlier this year, Dougal Robinson and I forecast that this year’s primaries and November midterms would represent an important marker of the trajectory of both parties. Last week's result was an indication of the deep divisions over the identity of the Democratic Party that have been masked by unified opposition to President Trump. Meanwhile, similar divisions are emerging in the Republican Party, with candidates who shun the president failing to garner support from party loyalists at the ballot box.

The outcome of the primaries – specifically the success or otherwise of progressive Democrats and Trump-aligned Republicans – will shape not only the midterms but also set the political climate for the presidential election in 2020.

All eyes on Mattis

Brendan Thomas-Noone
Research fellow, Foreign Policy & Defence Program

One of the only original national security officials left standing in this administration is Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Mattis has shepherded in a new focus on great power competition as the basis for US defence strategy, advocated for increased defence funding (at least for the next two years) and focused his attention on the challenges in the Indo-Pacific.

However, it looks as if Mattis is being increasingly sidelined from major national security decisions of this administration. There are reports that he has fallen out of Trump’s inner circle; a potential repeat of patterns we’ve seen with the likes of Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster.

The removal of Mattis from his role, perhaps sometime before or after the midterms in November, would be arguably more significant than any other personnel change by Trump thus far. Mattis, widely respected inside the Pentagon, throughout the US military and in Congress, has been a (mostly unsuccessful) moderating voice in this administration. But he holds considerable sway: recent New York Times reporting from Europe has US commanders there saying they are “tuning out Mr Trump’s comments… and embracing [Mattis'] newest defense strategy”.

If Mattis were to be removed, expect a significant uproar in Congress where he enjoys immense support from both Democrats and Republicans. A Trump Administration with a different Secretary of Defense, like say Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton would be a different, and more disruptive, beast altogether.

Asia policy undermined by lack of support from the top

Ashley Townshend
Director, Foreign Policy & Defence Program

Despite initial hopes that Donald Trump’s Asia policy would be sensibly managed by “adults in the room”, the president is now marching to his own “America First” tune. Over the past six months, Trump has imposed punitive tariffs on America’s regional allies and partners, legitimised Kim Jong-un’s brutal regime without securing denuclearisation goals, cancelled important military exercises on the Korean Peninsula without consulting allies, and started a trade war with China and Europe that will hurt the whole region. These actions show Trump is unfazed about rocking the basis of US strategy in Asia – traditionally premised on cooperative alliances, free trade and support for liberal values.

This shock couldn’t come at a worse time. Amid mounting concerns about the sustainability of US power in Asia and China’s expansive foreign policy aims, America’s national security bureaucracy is trying to roll out a policy of “strategic competition” with China. In addition to strengthening the military, prioritising Asia, and safeguarding America’s technological edge, this requires a whole-of-government “Indo-Pacific strategy” to lift Washington’s economic, developmental, and security investments in the region. This appears at odds with Trump’s agenda. Although officials in the Pentagon and State Department are working with regional partners on Indo-Pacific policy options, the president’s hostility towards allies and free trade is undermining this process and sapping regional confidence. Strategy is hard to implement without support from the top.

Disengagement continues: America's UN Human Rights Council withdrawal

Elsina Wainwright, AM
Non-resident senior fellow

America’s recent withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council is consistent with the Trump administration’s deprioritisation of human rights and disengagement from the global framework of multilateral institutions and norms.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has stressed that the United States has withdrawn due to the council’s problematic membership and "chronic bias against Israel". After threatening to withdraw from the council early in the Trump presidency and then seeking to reform from within, it appears the administration didn’t heed the entreaties from like-minded council members, including Australia, for the United States to retain influence by remaining.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has stated that Australia is disappointed with America’s withdrawal and will remain on the council, while still committed to its reform. In doing so, Canberra has decided to maintain an active multilateral agenda and support institutions and norms that have engendered stability and served Australian interests well. 

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