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Durham University

Research & business

Thought leadership

Trump - Rating the presidency

(9 November 2017)

After a tumultuous year beset by controversy, how should we assess Donald Trump, twelve months on from his US presidential election win? 

Northern Echo journalist Stuart Arnold talked to Dr Neil Visalvanich from the School of Government and International Affairs, to get his expert opinion.

How are we to judge Donald Trump a year after he narrowly won the US presidential election from Hilary Clinton?

One man who can assess the currency of the Trump presidency better than most is Dr Neil Visalvanich. Not only he is an American living in the North-East, but he is also an assistant professor at Durham University, specialising in American politics.

“If you look at how we normally assess presidents in terms of approval rating and legislative accomplishment I think you would find on any objective look, that he has been doing a poor job,” he says.

“There isn’t really any a major legislative achievement to his name yet and his approval ratings are the lowest of any president at this time in their administration. He came into office with little governmental experience and changing things as he promised has proved a lot more difficult.”

He also says a lot of the controversies Trump has been involved in, whether it be rows over misogynist comments, sackings of his own staff and spats with American Football players have been of his own making.

Trump and Twitter

“He has taken situations and made them worse either because he wants to pick a fight or he has poor impulse control when it comes to Twitter. A good example are the comments he made over the white nationalist demonstrations in Charlottesville.

“He could have dealt with it in a more rational way, but instead he made it worse for himself.”

Dr Visalvanich said President Trump had built his ‘brand’ on Twitter and despite frequent faux pas emanating from the social media platform it was not something he would give up easily.

“His aides will be telling him not to do it, but he is the president and it is difficult to tell him what to do when he is your boss. The word from the White House is that once Trump goes to his bedroom, there is no managing him anymore, it is just him and his phone.

“Trump wakes up and he reads the news and decides to fire off some tweets, it is just how he operates.”

Support for Trump

Dr Visalvanich says President Trump retains a hard core of supporters, but many Republicans who supported him in the election remain sceptical with some now expressing their dissatisfaction openly.

Trump has attempted an unpopular unilateral travel ban on visitors from certain countries, only to be challenged by the courts. He has also attempted to withdraw from foreign trade agreements backed by his predecessor Barack Obama.

On the international scene his constant sabre-rattling battles with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have also provoked alarm among many foreign leaders.

“It’s unquestionable that he is less popular than Obama in terms of how he interacts with other countries,” says Dr Visalvanich. 

“Trump fits a lot of bad stereotypes in terms of what the world thinks about Americans - arrogant, loud and not really considerate of other cultures and norms.

“The North Korean situation is a difficult, intractable one for him and has become something of a stalemate. North Korea has nuclear weapons, they do tests, it makes people nervous.

“But I would be very surprised if the threats which have been made amount to anything more than talk. The status quo has persisted for a while now and both sides have an incentive for it to remain as it is.”

Mueller investigation

One issue that won’t go away for President Trump is the extent of the links between his camp and Russia with a probe by former FBI director Robert Mueller already having charged three of his former campaign officials. Dr Visalvanich says if there are more damaging revelations it could lead to the potential downfall of the administration and it comes down to “whether you believe where there is smoke there is fire”.

However he admits it is impossible to predict what might happen in the next few years of the presidency, although he believes President Trump is gearing up for another term in office.

“Trump is unorthodox and nobody expected him to win, so he can’t be dismissed out of hand. He loves campaigning and being around his fans at rallies and I wouldn’t be surprised if this motivates him to run again.

"The dynamics will be different and he will be judged not on his promises anymore, but what he has accomplished so far. It will be a very different campaign to what he ran the last time.

“For better or worse, with him American politics has become more interesting and he has captured the imagination of the people, but not necessarily in a positive way.”

This piece was originally published by The Northern Echo