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A vital ingredient in Donald Trump’s electoral success was his willingness to buck convention. With his undisciplined public statements, and a makeshift, bare-bones campaign machine, he did not – to put it mildly – follow the standard playbook for presidential aspirants.

This unconventional streak extended to policy. Trump beat 16 opponents in the Republican presidential primary, all of them with more political experience and service to the party behind them. It is widely appreciated that he did this by outflanking his intra-party rivals often on their right: promising a border wall with Mexico; calling for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States; stridently defending controversial uses of force by police against minorities, and condemning activists seeking to draw attention to it.

Less universally appreciated is that Trump was simultaneously, on some issues, an outlier to the left of the party consensus during his primary contest. While pledging to repeal Obama’s Affordable Care Act reforms, he promised to replace it with healthcare for all. He said he would give no tax cuts to the wealthiest citizens (though his verbal statements were inconsistent with his campaigns published tax plan). He proposed a major infrastructure investment plan to put Americans to work.

To no small extent, his inexperience facilitated this. Uninitiated in the dogmas of his new party’s conservative intellectual class, he did not perceive the need to genuflect to their obsessions of cutting taxes and slashing redistributive government spending. This was a risky, if often unwitting, experiment on his part. But his success in stealing the nomination revealed small-government conservative ideology to have shallower roots among the Republican voting base than many had supposed. With appeals to nationalism, cultural reaction, and white racial resentment, Trump overcame the resistance of the party’s leadership, elected officials, and donors to mount a hostile takeover. Unsurprisingly he emerged from victory feeling neither great loyalty to those groups, nor great regard for their political acumen.

This led some to expect that, on entering office, Trump would make use of his unusual freedom from party ties to reach out to Democrats in Congress to collaborate on some issue of overlapping priorities, such as infrastructure investment. By this means he could notch up an early legislative win, consolidate his status as a breaker of partisan norms, and potentially divide his opponents over the question of whether to cooperate with a controversial  president.

He did not take this course. Instead, during his first months he hewed strikingly to Republican orthodoxies in his major policy efforts: supporting the Congressional party’s push to slash federal subsidies for healthcare, and endorsing a ‘tax reform’ including sizeable cuts for the wealthy.

September 2017, however, witnessed a couple of events that breathed new life into the fading idea of Trump as bipartisan deal-maker. First, at a White House meeting, he shocked and embarrassed Republican legislative leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell by siding with their Democratic opposite numbers Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer over the details of ‘raising the debt ceiling’ (a technical, in recent times controversial, legislative manoeuvre, periodically required to service America’s national debt).

Only days later, Republicans were greeted by a public statement from Pelosi and Schumer, after a private dinner at the White House, that they had reached a deal with the president to extend protections against deportation for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. The White House quickly moved to play down the claim of a settled deal. But this unwelcome surprise, combined with the debt ceiling affair, stoked Republican fears that Trump’s relationship with Republican leaders had broken down, and that he might be setting the stage for a larger-scale betrayal of the party’s agenda.

By the end of September, talk of a Trump pivot towards bipartisanship had come to seem overheated. After intemperate remarks at an Alabama rally and on Twitter, the president has become involved in a heated public argument over the right of black athletes to protest policy brutality during the national anthem before National Football League games.

This served as a reminder, if one were needed, that the core of Trump’s political appeal to his supporters lies in his taste for divisive, inflammatory and often needless interventions on racially-charged topics. This is the president, after all, who as recently as August was pilloried from all sides for failing to unequivocally condemn white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, even when one of their number drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one woman and injuring many more.

Both these trends will likely continue for as long as Trump remains in office. One the one hand, Republicans will rightly distrust him because ‘not one of their own’, and not authentically in sympathy with much of their agenda. They know he is well capable of betraying them without guilt if it should suit his needs of the moment. Democrats, meanwhile, know that they cannot risk being too closely associated with him, even if tangible policy or legislative rewards are on offer. This is because at any moment he might derail efforts at pragmatic deal-making with a lurch into the ‘culture wars’, in rhetoric or policy, that inflames the Democratic base. This makes cooperation risky, and potentially very costly, for Democratic elected officials.

Both Congressional parties would like to make use of a president who often appears shallow and easily led when it comes to policy issues. But both know that he is fundamentally untrustworthy and unreliable – except to the extent his predictable unpredictability can be relied on to make life difficult for those who seek to do business with him.

 

This post first appeared on the University of Birmingham ‘Perspectives’ site.

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So now we know: the FBI has for months been investigating not only Russian interference in the US presidential election, but also Russian contacts with members of the Trump campaign team. Its scope includes the possibility of criminal collusion. The Conversation

If this doesn’t seem altogether shocking, that’s because leaks from inside government had already indicated counterintelligence and law enforcement were investigating the activities of Trump’s associates. But there’s “knowing”, and there’s knowing. FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee has made all the above a matter of public record, even as the president tried to muddy the water with one of his now-familiar bursts of factually dubious tweets.

 

 

 

 

We also now know that no one of substance is prepared to stand behind Trump’s claim that President Obama ordered a wiretap on his campaign office. Comey, on behalf of both the FBI and Justice Department, told Congress he could find no evidence to support the allegation. NSA Director Mike Rogers, appearing alongside him, was similarly unequivocal, and also endorsed GCHQ’s use of the words “nonsense” and “ridiculous” to characterise the White House’s claim that British intelligence had carried out the surveillance and fed information back to Obama.

Republican members of the committee made their lawyerly efforts to try and redirect the hearing’s discussion towards less politically damaging ground, but not one was prepared to defend the actual substance of Trump’s wiretap claim itself.

Rooted in the most thinly-sourced chatter among the far-right media, this allegation enjoyed a short life as a tactical distraction, and is now being treated as an embarrassing liability even by those disposed to try and help Trump’s cause. The president seems characteristically disinclined to back down, but even the Republican party’s most partisan water-carriers have signalled that if he perseveres with this particular battle, he’ll be on his own.

Battle lines

In another sign of things to come, the Comey/Rogers hearing quickly devolved into a face-off between the two political parties. Democrats used it to restate the facts of Russia’s hacking of the DNC and Clinton campaign, its strategic use of Wikileaks to feed damaging coverage of Clinton and boost Trump’s chances of victory, and the substantial circumstantial evidence of contacts between Russian agents and Trump campaign figures.

The committee’s Republicans, meanwhile, worked hard to focus the hearing on the question of who leaked information from the FBI investigation to the press, demanding that they be hunted down and punished.

Hypocrisy notwithstanding, it may be politically astute of Republicans to take this line. In February, National Security Adviser Mike Flynn was forced to resign just three weeks into his job in the Trump administration, after being caught in a lie over the nature of his communications with the Russian ambassador during the transition.

Even if his departure was the right outcome, its manner raises legitimate questions regarding the role of the intelligence services, surveillance, and leaks of damaging information about antagonistic officials, that, if asked in good faith, any healthy democracy should grapple with in earnest.

Unfortunately for the president, while such efforts at distraction may well find a favourable audience among his supporters, and perhaps even with much of the general public, they will do nothing to deflect the focus of what we now know to be the most serious threat to his administration: the FBI investigation itself.

Bad karma

A full-scale counterintelligence investigation with this level of priority enjoys practically limitless resources. It has jurisdiction to look under every rock, including any and every aspect of the Trump campaign’s activities that might be relevant to the Russia connection. That includes anything done by anyone flying under Trump’s flag. Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort already faces specific public allegations of having been compromised, as does Flynn. Sometime advisers such as Carter Page, Roger Stone, and J.D. Gordon will also be under investigators’ microscopes, and the Trump administration seems none too keen today to vouch for the propriety of their conduct during 2016.

Given what’s already in the public domain, it’s sobering to contemplate what an access-all-areas investigation into every corner of the activities of individuals such as these may turn up. And if they should end up caught in a legal vice, who knows what information such figures might potentially give up, either about matters currently under investigation or as yet below the public radar? At the very least, we can be assured this is an investigation with the fuel to run some distance yet, and by its end much will likely be known that currently is not.

Ominously for those inside, the protective walls around the administration have already started to crumble. The Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, was himself revealed to have falsely denied meeting with the Russian ambassador during the campaign, and has been forced to recuse himself from any handling of matters related to Russia. His recusal deprives the White House of a potentially valuable firewall between the FBI’s ultimate findings and any potential prosecution.

During the campaign, Trump made it clear that he didn’t care if leaks helpful to his campaign came from illegal email hacking. What mattered, he said, was the substance of what the leaks revealed: the facts should be laid out for the public to judge Clinton’s character.

Politically speaking, it worked: while Clinton turned out to have done little if anything wrong legally, her image was ultimately damaged too severely for that truth to matter much. (She has herself blamed the damaging optics of the FBI probe into her email use for her electoral defeat.)

Now Trump seems set to receive a bitter dose of the same medicine, as he faces an unfettered investigation beyond his power to stymie or curtail. Even if he is certain there is no wrongdoing to uncover, this is bad for him politically. If he cannot be so confident, there is no limit to how much worse things could yet get for the administration. The trail of Russian breadcrumbs has already led investigators uncomfortably close to Trump Tower. On Monday, Comey sent a clear if understated signal that for those with something to conceal in this matter, a reckoning may be coming.

Adam Quinn, Senior Lecturer in International Politics, University of Birmingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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I have a new piece out today for the Political Insight blog:

“This presidency offers the chance – of a kind the real world is rarely so accommodating as to provide – to see an experiment run in real time that touches on an array of widely-held suppositions, debates and hypotheses about the power and limits of political and presidential agency. It might be considered a gift from the gods to social science, were the stakes not so terrifyingly high and the likely consequences not so dire.

…One of few things that is certain is that one day Donald Trump will be gone, the political and cultural moment that elevated him to power dissipated. The questions all must anticipate facing when that time comes are stark: where were you during the Trump presidency, and what did you do?”

Full article is available here.

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A new piece from me at UK in a Changing Europe

“The Prime Minister has boxed herself in such that the only play she has left is to hold fast and hope that Donald Trump will prove in time to be a greater respecter of basic liberal principles and a less widely reviled global political figure than his first ten days in office have indicated likely. Few would envy her that position.”

http://ukandeu.ac.uk/may-bet-big-on-trump-she-has-no-easy-way-back/

 

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New post by me at UK in a Changing Europe blog:

“…The key points to remember for observers are these: First, do not assume, as one would with a normal president, that any view Trump expresses on any topic – however emphatic it may appear – reflects a considered, stable position. His level of knowledge and preparation on the issues is simply too low for him to have reasoned, settled views on policy matters. If it sounds, on camera and in transcripts, as though these are the words of an inarticulate man, asked about something he doesn’t know about, speaking off the top of his head – that is because that is precisely what they are.

Second, do not assume that because Trump has said something on the record, he will consider this to constrain his future actions in the slightest. One reason he is so unusually carefree for a politician when it comes to expressing opinions on the record is that he is entirely comfortable simply ignoring what he has said before if it is inconvenient. This often takes the form not of any sophisticated strategy of retrospective reinterpretation, but simple flat denials that the past statements even took place, even if those statements were recorded on video.

To illustrate the point, let us take a final detour to the domestic front. The biggest legislative issue currently unfolding in the United States is the Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act (‘Obamacare’) and replace it with a less generous health insurance regime. Trump has been a disruptive, erratic presence in this national conversation, simultaneously supporting Republican plans but also saying there will be ‘insurance for everybody’. But only the very naive would consider the latter being a meaningful pledge. The primary drivers of Trump’s lack of consistency is that he simply doesn’t understand the policy issues or the machinery of government. This leads him to say things that will in due course prove irreconcilable with reality.

So consider this: Donald Trump is the kind of leader that is willing to offer promises that cannot be kept to his own voters about their future access to essential healthcare, based on a combination of his failure to grasp the policy issues and a breezy assumption he can ignore his own words later. In light of that, how much weight would you advise British politicians to place on off-the-cuff reassurances he provides in interviews with foreign press?”

Full article: http://ukandeu.ac.uk/trump-as-brexit-britains-bff-remember-for-him-talk-is-cheap/

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A piece by me at the LSE USA blog:

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/usappblog/2017/01/19/the-uk-should-expect-no-favors-from-the-new-president-trump-will-look-out-for-trump/

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A couple of new pieces by me, reacting to Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election:

Trump’s election: should the UK worry?

Trump’s election: should the UK worry?

 

Is Donald Trump gaslighting America?

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So I’ll say this for Trump: he had a punchy exchange on the emails that probably did him some good with his base. He also at least got a joke or two in there, which is an improvement on the perma-snarl. As far as everything else is concerned: He didn’t apologise properly for his words about women the way he *so clearly* needed to; he passed up the chance to disavow Islamophobia in favour of a riff about Muslims as fifth column; he threatened to *jail his opponent*; he was mind-bogglingly ranting and incoherent on foreign policy; seemed to admit he pays no federal income taxes; he moved around weirdly on stage between answers; he said he hadn’t spoken to his running mate about Syria and disagreed with him about it. Wall to wall ignorance and indiscipline on show. Fun for his base. Nothing that could win over a single person with doubts.

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The big question going into the first debate of the presidential election was whether Donald Trump would decide to tone down the cartoonish, belligerent alpha male shtick that has carried him this far. The debate gave him an opportunity to present himself unfiltered to an audience predicted to rival that of a Super Bowl, and to reinvent himself as a calmer, more coherent candidate for the benefit of the unusually large number of undecided voters up for grabs.

If that was the plan, he didn’t have the self-control to pull it off; perhaps he didn’t even try. And in the end, the tens of millions of people who ultimately tuned in were given a stark view of Trump’s deep – many would say disqualifying – flaws.

He had clearly failed to prepare adequately for the occasion. He was unable to grasp with even moderate seriousness the issues, even when it came to his own proposals, and what positions he did articulate frequently appeared incoherent. He also repeated untruths on which he has previously been corrected – to put it bluntly, lying.

But perhaps the strongest impression he made was in how he carried himself: ranting, hectoring, often shouting. If part of the test was whether the candidates “looked presidential”, it was glaringly obvious by the end that a Trump presidency would radically redefine what that means.

Hillary Clinton’s main task, meanwhile, was to turn the spotlight on Trump’s past sins and to try to provoke him into an intemperate reaction, all without seeming supercilious. It was a slow burn over the course of the debate’s more than 90 minutes, but by the end she had certainly put Trump under pressure and visibly got under his skin.

It was perhaps impossible to avoid a touch of condescension, such was the gulf in knowledge and capability between the candidates. Whether the voters will hold that against her, we shall see – but the gap between the two could not have been more apparent.

The cracks appear

Things actually started in somewhat subdued fashion. As is her trademark, Clinton came out of the gate like someone carrying several binders of preparation in her head, running gamely thorough a list of proposals – employee profit-sharing schemes, the importance of women’s work, paid family leave, debt-free college attendance, and the need to ensure the wealthy pay their fair share of tax.

Trump, also invited to open on the economy, accused China and Mexico of stealing American jobs. It wasn’t coherent by any normal standard, but he did sound a clear anti-trade note consistent with a core campaign theme.

This seemed to set the stage for exactly the debate many had predicted: Clinton vastly superior on range and detail, but failing to connect; Trump shallow and crass, but perhaps sending a clearer and more emotionally engaging signal.

A cool head prevails.
EPA/Rick Wilking

It was enough to make some of those who consider Trump a terrifying threat shift a little nervously in their seats. And then his slow-motion meltdown began.

After some exchanges on trade in which Trump at least stuck to his message, Clinton took her first big swing, needling him on his failure to release his tax returns – as all other modern presidential candidates have.

Hitting her stride, she rattled off a list of the possible reasons Trump would keep them under wraps: that he is not as rich, or as charitable, as he claims; that he doesn’t want to reveal how much money he owes and to whom; or that he pays no federal income tax at all. Whatever the reason, she suggested, “It must be something really important, even terrible he’s trying to hide.”

Trump was stumped. At one point, he even interjected to apparently acknowledge that indeed he didn’t pay federal taxes and that that made him “smart”. He tried to pivot to the lingering topic of Clinton’s controversial use of a private email server while at the State Department, but she deflected that with a simple and direct expression of regret – and Trump duly set off on another tangent never to return to the email theme again.

Clinton followed up swiftly with a hard attack on Trump’s six corporate bankruptcies, and the long line of contractors he has failed to pay for their services over the years.

A new dynamic had taken hold: Clinton was sharp and on the attack, Trump was rattled and incoherent.

Asked to discuss race relations and policing in America, Clinton reached out to African-Americans while also seeking the presidential high ground: “Everyone should be respected by the law, and everyone should respect the law.” For his part, Trump returned to the theme of his dystopian convention speech, “law and order”, before proceeding to tout his endorsement from the Fraternal Order of Police, lament the abolition of much-hated “stop-and-frisk” policies long associated with racial profiling, and raise the spectre of criminal gangs of illegal immigrants roaming the streets.

It would be hard to construct a monologue more likely to alienate African-American and Latino voters.

Later, Trump was asked to address his former leading role in the “birther” movement that for years variously implied and insisted President Obama was not born in the US. Predictably, he dissembled – and Clinton helped seal the tomb of Trump’s relations with minorities. Calling birtherism a “racist lie”, she also took the moment to remind viewers that Trump had “a long record of engaging in racist behaviour”, dating back to discriminatory practices in his property business in the 1970s that attracted the attention of the justice department.

The denouement

The climax of the debate came, however, when the debate turned to foreign policy. At first, it seemed to revert to type. In a riff on cybersecurity, Russia and terrorism, Trump threw out vague assertions that current policy was a failure and that Clinton had been around for a long time but solved no problems; Clinton came off knowledgeable, if a little dry.

Trump did seem to be losing the thread somewhat, as an answer supposed to be about addressing domestic sources of terrorism – and responding to Clinton’s assertion that it was important to show all Muslims respect – turned into a free-associative ramble regarding NATO, the Iranian nuclear deal, Japanese car imports, and plenty else besides.

But it was when moderator Lester Holt pressed Trump on whether or not he had lied about being opposed to the Iraq War before it occurred that something in him seemed to snap. He set off on an epic rant that deserves to be remembered as one of the most spectacular meltdowns in the history of presidential debate.

His voice rose to a fully-fledged shout as he asserted again and again, losing his composure entirely, that his version of events was true. Bizarrely and repeatedly, he directed his questioners to ask Fox News presenter (and avowed Trump supporter) Sean Hannity to testify to their past conversations on the subject. The rant seemed to go on forever, as moderator and opponent looked on silently.

In response to the next question, the steam from his loss of composure still rising, Trump declared, straight-faced: “I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament.” Clinton laughed audibly, and the audience joined in. The most telling point of the night had been made. As the debate shortly turned to nuclear weapons, Clinton barely had to lift a rhetorical finger to remind the audience of the risks of turning over the codes for launch to someone so easily baited.

From that point, the deflating atmosphere of failure seemed to hover around Trump’s performance. He launched an attack on Clinton’s “stamina”, but she responded by listing the three-figure number of countries she visited as Secretary of State.

The moderator raised the topic of Trump’s previous comments about her “look”, and Clinton reminded the audience of Trump’s history of referring to women as “pigs, slobs and dogs”, even managing to work in the repulsive story of his calling a Latina pageant contestant, now an American citizen, “Miss Housekeeping” – a slur that won’t have been lost on Hispanic voters nationwide.

By the end of the debate, it was clear Trump had been defeated. First he was knocked off balance by a simple recitation of the facts of his own past, then he was provoked into a total loss of composure on live TV while applying for a job in which calm judgement is the absolute prerequisite. And finally, he was buried by a reminder of his rank sexism and racism. Clinton performed skilfully, but in the final analysis, he did it to himself.

As of today, there can no longer be any legitimate argument that voters are unaware of what kind of man Donald Trump is. He has been exposed, in the full glare of the public spotlight, as unqualified, unprepared and unfit for office. The only question is whether the American people will be responsible enough to act on that knowledge.

The Conversation

Adam Quinn, Senior Lecturer in International Politics, University of Birmingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Chatham House’s new report on elite perceptions of the US in Latin America and the post-Soviet states – which follows a previous survey of Asia and Europe – underlines the uniquely daunting task of expectation management task that awaits anyone in charge of America’s image in the world.

It’s tricky to ask other countries to be realistic about the US’s national interests without pushing them into disillusion and resentment. Small wonder then that those consulted for the report say they’re more cheerfully disposed to Americans outside government than they are towards agents of the American state, who have no choice but to confront the hard cases.

Underlying the critiques offered by respondents, one can make out the same perceived American qualities about which those on the receiving end of US foreign and economic policy have complained for generations: presumptuousness, overconfidence in how much they know, a degree of obliviousness. And naturally, the respondents make clear that history casts a long shadow over the US’s image in both regions.

Many decades of quasi-imperial US intervention in its southern neighbours’ politics – sometimes calculated, sometimes blundering – has understandably made Latin Americans intensely sensitive to this sort of thing. Those from the former USSR, especially Russians, seem to have followed a journey from naive Soviet-era curiosity about the US to disappointment at the reality of it.

Western-leaning people and states in the post-Soviet sphere now regard the US as an inconstant ally on whom one would be ill-advised to bet everything. At the same time, Russia’s leadership and those in its political orbit have started to slip back into some old Cold War ways, which have played out visibly in the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts.

Along with disappointment, the report’s respondents level a longstanding charge against America: hypocrisy. Besides the highly chequered history of US interventionism, the report’s respondents are well aware of the US’ contemporary domestic shortcomings, including racial division, police violence and social inequality, which undermine its standing as an exemplar.

Casting the first stone

One can imagine mixed reactions among Americans who read the report. On the one hand, few informed people among them will be shocked by the news that their country has some shady interventionist episodes lurking in its past, or that its domestic conflicts look ugly when projected on a screen for the globe to see.

On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine many being eager to take notes on civil and political shortcomings from Brazil, Venezuela or Cuba, or criticisms of self-interested cynicism from the Russian elite and their post-Soviet neighbours.

This speaks to a key point that also gets a prominent mention in the report: that the US is often held to a higher standard than any other country.

When American intervention in a conflict fails to secure a final resolution – or worse, when Washington simply pursues its own interests rather than serving as a neutral arbiter – it seems to provoke a sense of entitled disappointment in those “let down” that other countries rarely encounter.

This is partly its own doing, thanks to its leaders’ fondness for “American exceptionalism” and the grandiose idealistic rhetoric that sometimes goes with it. It’s also a function of American power: any state that has played a major role in shaping the internal politics of so many other places is liable to be ascribed a sort of God-like omnipotence, rather than judged as just another country with its own interests to pursue.

The Marmite of nations.
EPA/Arshad Arbab

The report suggests that US leaders might mitigate this problem by taking a more “nuanced” approach to presenting and promoting their country. It also notes that it might help to “build awareness” among the world’s elites of the realities of “the US political system and its limits”.

This could help remedy the all-too-common exclusive focus on the presidency at the expense of the full complexity of American government. Such focus gives outsiders a myopic view, and can fuel the perception that the US is deliberately mendacious or unreliable when in fact it’s often simply bogged down by acrimonious or deadlocked domestic rivalries – a phenomenon familiar to almost every country on the planet.

That foreign elites’ limited grasp of American politics should present as a serious problem for the US’s image is of course an irony, given that foreigners often criticise US leaders for ignorance about other countries. But diplomacy is, perhaps, the business of letting such minor hypocrisies slide.

A final point worth highlighting is that notionally “domestic” issues (such as immigration policy) can clearly affect American relations with other countries. This year’s presidential campaign has seen the most inflammatory rhetoric on that issue in generations, with Latin Americans in particular bearing the brunt of verbal assaults from Donald Trump and his nativist supporters.

This reminds us that it’s not just overseas actions that affect the US’s international reputation: the way people of other nationalities are discussed within America’s domestic political discourse reverberates around the world.

When a country – and in particular a superpower – has opted for so long to define itself by reference to liberal values, any perceived betrayal of them is all the costlier to its image. This will remain a challenge no matter who wins the coming election.

The Conversation

Adam Quinn, Senior Lecturer in International Politics, University of Birmingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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