With a chain of resignations and dismissals of ranking White House staff, this summer has got particularly hot for Washington watchers. Overall, the reshuffle manifested an irreconcilable internal discord over basic policy lines as well as personality conflicts. e U.S. mainstream media cast a serious doubt about the presidency’s viability, with a major focus on Trump’s competence to control and lead his top aides and staffs.

However, the world has been largely misinformed of what is going on at the center of American politics. In the presidential campaign of 2016, the U.S. mainstream media one-sidedly supported Hillary Rodham Clinton, while consistently assailing Donald Trump with hostile criticism against his “politically incorrect” remarks. Evidently, Trump challenged liberal values, policies and, above all, the liberal international order under U.S. dominance, as deemed orthodox by the globalist establishment, both Democrat and Republican. Nonetheless, Trump won the election because he had unflinching grass-roots core supporters, particularly the cornered white working class.   

In his inaugural address, President Trump declared an outright political strife against the establishment. He has since upheld “America First” line, while rejecting to bear as much economic and military costs as necessary to maintain the liberal international order. Until today, the struggle between the two is under way and, rather, all the more intensified, without seeing any good prospect for earnest reconciliation.

In the ongoing power struggle at elite levels, Trump and his allies are outnumbered and embattled by the establishment forces. They include the opposition Democrat legislators on the Capitol, the mainstream Republican legislators thereof, the mainstream media, the intelligence community, and the Wall Street business leaders. Yet, these forces are far from a monolith. In fact, they continually fought one another over specific policy measures even in the Cold War period when they had a bipartisan consensus on the strategy of containment against the Soviet Union and on free trade under growing interdependence. Now that such a consensus already dwindled away almost completely, the forces are in disunity and, occasionally, in disarray.

Until the reshuffle in this summer, Trump maneuvered rather successfully by driving a wedge after another between the establishment forces and by forming temporary alignments and counter-alignments with some of the forces against the rest. No wonder that the President remarks and conducts, made out of political expediency, have quite often appeared inconsistent and incoherent. The approach helped him to weather several offensives of antagonists.

In February, the President made Gen. Michael Flynn to resign national security adviser amid the merely alleged “Russiagate” interference in the presidential election. The resignation appeased anti-Russia hardliners on Capitol, especially Republican Senators, who worked closely with the defense-industrial complex, significantly breaking a political deadlock over Senate confirmation of major cabinet-level political appointees. Trump instead had to give up early opportunity to pass security burdens, particularly in the Middle East, to Russia, which is in line with his “America First”.

Toward the end of April, to keep running the government, the President maneuvered to make the Republican-controlled Congress to pass additional legislative measures before the provisional budget expired. Trump accomplished this by taking hardline military and diplomatic actions against Syria and its backer, Russia, and against North Korea and its backer, China, enabling his temporary alignment with mainstream Republican legislators who theretofore blocked the bills.

In May, the President abruptly dismissed James Comey, FBI director, to challenge establishment forces in the Congress and the mainstream media that were bent on flaming the “Russiagate” scandal. Apparently, Trump was confident that he would never be impeached in the Republican-controlled Congress, at least now. For he enjoyed passive yet substantial support of the defense-industrial complex and anticipated tacit approval of the Wall Street. It was eager to avoid the seeming good performance of the hopelessly debt-ridden U.S. economy, buttressed with the expectation to Trump’s domestic economic reconstruction policy line.  

In this summer, however, the struggle in White House over basic policy lines intensified, centered on the budget bill of 2018 and legislative measures to raise debt limits. Trump was forced to make a major compromise with the interests of the establishment through the reshuffle in the White House, including his closest aide, Steve Bannon in particular. He had no choice but to alienate his allies, particularly Tax-Enough-Already (TEA) Party legislators who oppose budgeting to continue the big government.

Surprisingly enough, taking advantage of the undeniable need to finance post-hurricane rehabilitation and reconstruction policy packages, the President struck a deal with the opposition Democrats on Capitol for a three-months-long provisional budget, nothing new given precedents in the recent years marked by intensive partisan strife. It may be quite possible to keep running the government for additional several months by contriving to raise necessary funds through borrowing from other budget items. Now Trump has good political room awhile to proceed with “America First” agenda. 

Consequently, the power struggle between President Trump and the establishment necessarily continues, and its outcome remains utterly unforeseeable. True, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has kept a satisfactory working relationship with President Trump, which is essential for Japan’s national security under the current turbulence in regional security environment. But, to hedge against never-fading uncertainty, future Japanese top political leaders and policy makers also have to actively engage the establishment forces.

Masahiro MATSUMURA, Ph.D.

Professor of International Politics and National Security

Faculty of Law

St. Andrew's University (Momoyama Gakuin Daigaku)