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Imagining 2030 is a series in which PS21 writers describe the world as they see it in 14 years time.
Peter Apps is Reuters global defence correspondent. He is currently on sabbatical as executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21).
It is a truth universally acknowledged that time flies faster as you get older. Even now in 2030, however, it’s hard to comprehend that it’s already more than a decade since President Donald Trump — by far the most idiosyncratic president in recent American history — left the White House following his first, only and still phenomenally divisive term in office.
With hindsight, historians and political scientists say his narrow victory in 2016 should not have been as unexpected as it seemed at the time. Trump wasn’t just taking advantage of the inevitable turn of the political cycle after eight years of Obama, he was also riding a much broader trend of anti-establishment feeling. He had been the Republican front runner for more than half a year before even that party’s establishment accepted what he was.
The Democrats, for their part, try to avoid talking about the 2016 election. The increasingly brutal fight between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders ran all the way to the convention, sapping enthusiasm on both sides. When it came to the general election, the turnout just wasn’t there.
For the rest of the world, the wave of shock and popular ridicule verging on revulsion that greeted the Trump victory was almost the polar opposite of the reaction to Obama’s eight years earlier. The new president found it almost impossible to get an invitation to any other capital at all. Indeed, it looked as if a half a dozen or more liberal global leaders would boycott his first G20, but in the end most of them ultimately made it.
After his first never-to-be-forgotten major foreign trip to Japan, Trump largely avoided other ventures abroad.
Whether Trump himself ever expected to win is still hotly debated. Only after the election did he begin to show any serious efforts towards considering who would receive some of the top presidential appointments. Again, the ideological balance of his White House sometimes seemed to shift wildly unpredictably. Initially, there was widespread speculation he would appoint neoconservative John Bolton as his Secretary of State — indeed, the former Bush-era ambassador still clearly believes he had been offered the job.
Then, much to everyone’s surprise, came the announcement that Trump had asked John Kerry to remain for another two years. Kerry lasted barely 3 months, resigning in a hugely public spectacle after what he called the “most egregiously racist speech by the president too far.”
By the end of the first year, both critics and supporters were describing the Trump presidency “as much spectacle as substance”, although there was considerable disagreement on whether or not that was a good thing.
The man himself, some insiders complained, never showed much enthusiasm for governing. “We already have a wall to keep Mexicans out,” he announced in his first major post-inauguration comments on migration. “All we need to do is electrify it. And I mean really electrify it.” The comments prompted outrage — but nothing had actually been done before the 2018 midterms which were swept by the Democrats, who took control of both the House and Senate and made it even more difficult for the White House to push what agenda it had forward.
The same was true of his talk of banning Muslims from entering the U.S. Barriers to entry for those with joint Iranian nationality or recent travel experience to conflict affected countries were already on the rise before Trump’s unexpected victory. They would be tightened, albeit less widely than many had expected.
The optics of Trump rhetoric in the Middle East were predictably catastrophic. The expected propaganda victory for the jihadists, however, was less than many had feared — in part because his perceived xenophobia received such a rigorous response from so many other quarters. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in particular was so irritated by the U.S. president, he chose to ignore the issues of Iran altogether in his 2017 UN General Assembly address, instead castigating Trump for using rhetoric against Muslims that the Israeli leader compared to that of the Nazis.
On the economic front, Trump was noticeably less controversial. It was noted, however, that his administration appeared unusually focused on what would normally have been perceived as relatively minor real estate-related legislation.
Compared to 2016, however, his 2020 campaign seemed lacking in energy and some wondered whether he really wanted the role. That was, inevitably, widespread speculation Hillary Clinton might run again, but she ultimately chose not to.
As we move into 2030, however, the 83-year-old Clinton is now finally back residing in the White House — but now, of course, as the mother of the president.
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