That the incumbent American president, Donald Trump, is so radically different from his immediate predecessor, Barack Obama, has consequences. While these consequences differ, of course, depending on the contexts within which they play out, they have one characteristic in common: they do harm. The change in leadership style and substance is so abrupt and disruptive people both at home and abroad get whiplash. Our heads are snapped first in one direction, then in the other, opposite, direction, leaving us as disturbed as unsettled.
Few back-to-back presidents have ever been as dissimilar as these two. Obama and Trump have radically different personas, radically different presentations, radically different politics, and radically different policies. If Obama was one thing and went one way, Trump has seemed almost willfully to be the other and go in the other. This see-sawing, this whipsawing, has been in everywhere in evidence in our domestic affairs, and it has been everywhere in evidence in our foreign affairs.
One could, however, reasonably argue that nowhere has it been so starkly apparent as in America’s stance vis-à-vis Iran. No need for me to spell out the differences between Obama and Trump on Iran: broadly speaking they have been dramatically, diametrically opposed. Most strikingly, whereas Obama spent an enormous amount of his foreign policy capital on crafting a nuclear deal with Iran, Trump has spent an enormous amount of his foreign policy capital not only on undoing the deal but on transforming Iran into America’s archenemy – and then containing or trying to the fallout.
My point is not to point a finger. Rather it is to draw attention to the damage done by a leader who comes to captain a ship of state only to whip it around 180 degrees – in the historical equivalent of a human heartbeat.
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. Agreed. But … how about a clever consistency? How about a consistency grounded in reasonableness and rationality? Seems to me that, barring an unanticipated crisis, some level of consistency at the top is to be desired, not disdained.
Whiplash is disorienting – even dangerous. Moreover, when we’re talking about the American president, we’re talking about being disorienting and perhaps dangerous not only to America’s putative enemies – imagine you’re Iranian leaders Khamenei and Rouhani, navigating Obama in early January 2017 and Trump in late January 2017 – but to America’s ostensible allies, and to Americans themselves.
When leaders take over, they naturally seek to distinguish themselves, even separate themselves, from their predecessors. But when they do so heedlessly, with reckless abandon, they put at risk everything and everyone.