This is the question that all anti-Trump individuals and groups are asking today, loudly and regularly. They are hoping of course for a positive answer, but they are not sure they will get one.
This is the question that Trump supporters and Republican politicians are asking in private, seeking reassurance that the answer is negative.
This question is debated as well by Democratic politicians, hoping to get a positive answer. They discuss it more publicly however than their Republican counterparts.
This is the question that most analysts seeking an answer un-influenced by political preference find it almost impossible at this point to give an answer that they do not hedge by pointing to multiple uncertainties.
But this is also the question to which individuals, groups, and politicians of all stripes and all levels of activity have to draw a conclusion fairly soon if they wish to achieve their objectives in the relatively short run. Most particularly, as the November 2018 elections in the United States approach, they find it harder and harder to evade a firm answer.
Finally, this is the question about which decision-makers in other countries also have to make a choice, or risk having the choice made for them and, as a result, one not to their liking.
In short, this is an impossible, but also inescapable question. In fact, the month of July 2018 has been a very bad month for Donald Trump, and leads me to suggest the ways in which his future is far less rosy than he would expect and wish. The person who probably agrees the most with this statement, but very privately, is Donald Trump himself.
One public issue for a long time now has been whether the Russian government intervened in some way in the U.S. elections of 2016, acting to aid him to become president. And, if they did, did Trump know of this and did he “collude” with their actions?
Several things in July made the situation worse for Trump. There was a very negative reaction to the fact of Trump’s one-on-one meeting; that it occurred at all, that Trump’s description of Russia’s President Putin seemed so sympathetic, and that Trump seemed to believe Putin more than he believed his own intelligence personnel.
The reaction was so strong and so swift that Trump backtracked on what he said and how he said it. He then undid the backtracking by inviting Putin to visit the United States. He again got a strong popular reaction because he seemed to be re-asserting confidence in Putin.
He then backtracked on the invitation, remitting discussion about it to a post-2018 electoral moment. The confusion caused by these back and forth statements increased the numbers within various constituencies who had previously been ready to give Trump the benefit of the doubt to cease doing so.
Worse yet, Trump’s repeated claim that a collusion with the Russians was fake news was suddenly confronted by hard data. Trump’s formerly ultra-loyal lawyer, Michael Cohen, secretly taped his conversations with Trump.
They seem to show Trump’s awareness of payoffs to prostitutes who have asserted he slept with them over a long period. Cohen is no longer willing to pay the price of a loyalty that is not reciprocated.
In this same month, Trump attended the NATO meeting of heads of state and government. He attacked openly almost all U.S. traditional allies. He threatened withdrawal from NATO if they didn’t conform to his demands.
Once again, uncertainty abounded as to what he would do. The European Union (EU) responded by entering into a very large common market arrangement with Japan, formerly one of the surest allies of the United States. Similarly, Canada responded to Trump’s tariffs with counter-tariffs, as did various West European countries. This exacerbated tensions within the EU between the “old” members and the now very nationalist East European members. But the East Europeans were not sure they could rely on Trump to defend them against perceived threats from Russia.
The tariffs also upset two U.S. groups of importance. One was the farmers whose products were directly affected by the counter-tariffs and also by the increased price of their products where they were still allowed to be sold without tariffs.
Trump was forced to allot funds to aid the farmers. This however was seen by the farmers as a short-run measure that would not hold over the longer run. And the short-term payments upset the ultra-right factions in the Republican Party. Trump was finding himself besieged on several fronts at once. And these various groups were less sure than ever that they could count on Trump to emphasize their primary concerns.
At this point, Trump very unexpectedly met with Jean-Claude Juncker speaking for the EU. They agreed to postpone any and all new tariffs until after the 2018 elections.
In effect, Trump abandoned for the moment the most serious action he had intended to make. In return, he received a very minor concession by the EU on soybeans. Trump proclaimed victory. To me it reads like a defeat, one that Trump had to paint in a different color.
If all this were not worry enough, a federal judge allowed a suit dangerous for Trump to continue in court. This suit argued that the so-called emoluments clause of the Constitution designed to counter corruption was being violated by the profits and advantages Trump was receiving through his properties, when these properties were used by foreign governments.
The suit will go on for many years. But the effect of this will be to force Trump as part of his defense to reveal much of his personal income, as well as that of his family. It could also force the release of Trump’s tax returns.
Meanwhile, he maintains that the denuclearization of North Korea is proceeding well. However, all that he has to show for it is the return of some remains of bodies lost during the war.
In Iran, Trump is still threatening war, and says he intends to renounce the agreement signed by the United States, despite the fact that the terms of the agreement are less porous than anything he hopes to get North Korea to sign.
Will Trump actually engage in military action? Even the Israelis are doubtful, as they attempt to create a situation that will force him to cease waffling. Bluffing in foreign policy is not a winning proposition. It reveals weakness, something Trump abhors.
The most positive result for Trump may be a negative one. He decided to enter the Republican primaries and endorse candidates, who then had to compete for Trump’s favor. His endorsement has made it possible for some ultra-right candidates to win. Many analysts, including it seems Republican establishment figures, worry that, as a consequence, the Democratic candidate for senator or representative or governor will win.
The bottom line is that the real actions of all the actors will be based on an appreciation of Trump’s strength and not his rhetoric. In July 2018 Trump was loud in rhetoric and hesitant in action. In another month or two, if this continues (and there is every likelihood it will), the negatives will overwhelm the pretense.
The final question then will be: if Trump is indeed in trouble, who will benefit?
Immanuel Wallerstein, Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, is the author of The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World (New Press).