New York, Dec 30 (IANS) The rumbling controversies and divisive trends of 2018 erupted in a perfect storm of chaos at the year’s end with parts of the US government paralysed by a showdown between President Donald Trump and the Democrats, while senior officials quit, foreign and strategic policies fell into disarray, and the stock markets tumbled.
Chief of Staff John Kelly and his Defence Secretary, Jim Mattis havr quit, and so has Nikki Haley, his United Nations ambassador and the first Indian American to serve on the US cabinet, along with several other officials.
Adding to his sense of isolation, Trump lost control of the House of Representatives, the lower house, to the Democrats in the November mid-term elections (even though his Republican Party strengthened its hold on the Senate).
“I am all alone (poor me) in the White House waiting for the Democrats to come back and make a deal on desperately needed Border Security,” Trump tweeted on Christmas Eve, a picture of isolation.
He lacked the votes that are required beyond a simple majority to pass budget legislation in the Senate to include funding his $5.6 billion demand for building a wall along the Mexican border to prevent illegal immigration, which was one of his election pledges.
He stood firm on not accepting a budget without the funding for the wall and the Democrats were equally defiant about not providing for it, leading to the government running out of funds and causing the shutdown.
Illegal immigration was one of the flashpoints this year as Trump moved to curb the inflow of migrants – many of them economic migrants or those upset by gang-violence and seeking to claim refugee status.
To discourage parents and others who bring children with them to claim sympathy and lenient treatment, he ordered the separation of children from parents citing a President Barack Obama-era court order against keeping children in custody for more than 20 days.
It became a public relations nightmare for Trump and under a new court order, he had to reunite them.
Meanwhile, more than 10,000 Central Americans came in a convoy in November to the Mexican border hoping to enter the US by the sheer force of their numbers.
Trump mobilised the military to back up the border patrol to stop them. After some unsuccessfully tried to attack border patrol personnel and rush through the border, they are now camped out in Mexico awaiting their turn to appeal for asylum and posing a problem for both countries.
While his campaign promise to build the wall has failed so far, he partially made good on another pledge to bring US troops home from the Middle East. He ordered a complete pullout from Syria and halving the troop-level in Afghanistan to about 7,000.
Coupled with the pressure from within the US and the West against Saudi Arabia because of the killing of Washington Post coloumnist Jamal Khashoggi, the troop withdrawals threw Washington’s Middle East strategy into disarray.
This opens the way for Israel’s and the Saudi’s nemeses Turkey, Iran and Syria (and, by extension, Russia) to increase their influence in different areas of the region – upending the core of US policy that relies on Riyadh and Jerusalem.
The withdrawals from Afghanistan will likely have an impact on South Asia and affect India.
The troops pullback led to the resignation of Mattis, who opposed the pullout from Syria, and to criticism from many Republicans and conservatives.
A positive development in 2018 – though still clouded by uncertainties – is Trump’s North Korean diplomacy that led to a summit between him and Kim Jong-un, the Pyongyang strongman, after Trump’s characteristic blasts of insults and threats.
They agreed in principle to denulearisation of the Korean Peninsula and North Korea has begun dismantling its missile production and test facilities while there has been no progress on nuclear disarmament.
On the economic front, Trump, who had promised to tackle the trade deficits and bring back manufacturing jobs, took on Mexico and Canada and reworked the trade agreements to reflect what he considered a fair deal for the US.
While India and other countries were in his sights as tried to lower trade deficits, he launched an almost full-fledged trade war of tariffs against China, which retaliated. It has added to the uncertainty from the budget battle and the US central bank policies and wiped out all the gains the stock markets made this year. Wall Street indices ended in the red for 2018, even though by most measures, especially the low unemployment, the economy was strong.
With their control of the House, Democrats, who are smarting from the 2016 election defeat that they blame on Russian interference, will be pushing harder for investigations into Moscow’s role and into whether Trump collaborated with the Russians, as well as into various allegations against him and his family.
So far the 18-month investigation by a special counsel has only trapped people connected with Trump campaign, including his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, on charges like lying to investigators and bank fraud.
A significant reflection of the nation’s political divide is gun control, which the Democrats overwhelmingly support and Republicans oppose, and that will be a key issue as the nation gears up for the 2020 elections.
This year saw at least four incidents of mass shootings, including one at a Florida school that killed 17 and at a Jewish temple that took 11 lives in Pennsylvania.
Trump is crossing the half-way mark of his four-year term and will be in full campaign mode in 2019 as all parties start preparing for another polarising election in 2020.
Short of an impeachment or evidence of direct collusion with Russians or a major criminal case, Trump will be his party’s candidate.
For the Democrats, the test will be to come up with a charismatic and unifying leader and a coherent policy alternative, which they did not manage in 2018.
(Arul Louis can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @arulouis)