Award-winning columnist Paul Thomas has chronicled the Trump presidency since its beginning and reviews the extraordinary year since The Donald entered the White House.
Like so much of the weird, disturbing or downright scary stuff going on in the US these days, it’s all because of Donald Trump.
“I always took it for granted that, whether the Republicans or Democrats won, someone reasonably appropriate was in office, even if they weren’t my choice,” says DeVille. “Clearly, we as a country have decided you don’t need political experience … People seem more interested in celebrity than a person’s views and more interested in the spectacle.”
It would be easy to dismiss DeVille’s announcement as a publicity stunt, although it’s worth remembering that Trump’s candidacy was initially viewed as such, quite possibly correctly. DeVille appears to be a thoughtful individual. Her public statements on such issues as immigration and decriminalisation of drugs suggest she takes a closer interest in policy than the incumbent. She’s certainly more articulate.
Unlike the current president, with his murky past and uncertain future, DeVille has nothing to hide: “All my skeletons are on the internet for all to see. If you discount porn, I have zero moral scandals. I’d be a breath of fresh air.” Perhaps the most compelling point of difference between the aspirant and the incumbent, who insists he knows more about any given subject than those who have devoted their careers to it, is that she knows her limitations: “I will listen to my experts. I’m not an insane narcissist.”
DeVille’s campaign is just of one many side effects of the uncontrolled experiment that is the Trump presidency, now nearing the end of its first year. Given all that has happened, can we be sure the notion of a porn star in the White House is beyond ridiculous? If America could elect Trump, a man whose background, ignorance, temperament and personality would historically have disqualified him from consideration, why not a porn star? Or, for that matter, a pimp?
If DeVille and others are correct in labelling Trump a narcissist, then the man himself must be euphoric. To paraphrase Cassius’s characterisation of Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play, he bestrides the culture like a colossus. His tweets lead the news. His capacity for spite and his disdain for precedent and protocol mean nothing can be taken for granted; he fixates on matters to which previous presidents wouldn’t have admitted devoting a moment’s thought, let alone being consumed by.
We seem to be operating on Trump Time, in which scarcely a day passes without some headline-grabbing development that previously would have dominated the news cycle for a week. We are glued to the Trump Show, a hysterical hybrid of soap opera, black comedy, palace intrigue, political drama, spy thriller and wish-fulfilment fantasy. No one, not even the showrunner himself, has much idea what happens next, let alone knows where it will end.
In hindsight, the most laughable aspect of the Trump phenomenon was the reassurance provided by pundits, Republican Party leaders and members of Trump’s inner circle that the reckless buffoon of the campaign trail would be transformed into a homme sérieux upon taking the oath of office.
In fact, what we saw then is what we’ve got now. Candidate Trump refused to disavow former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke; President Trump refused to disavow the neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville. Candidate Trump suggested Republican rival Ted Cruz’s father was somehow tied up in the Kennedy assassination; President Trump suggested broadcaster and writer Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman and ex-friend, was somehow tied up in the “unsolved mystery” of a 2001 staffer’s death. (The authorities determined it was an accident.) As candidate Trump did, President Trump displays a closer affinity with tyrannical regimes than Western democracies. Like Candidate Trump, President Trump cosies up to Russian leader Vladimir Putin and the murderous Philippines leader Rodrigo Duterte, while treating the likes of Germany’s Angela Merkel and Britain’s Theresa May with contempt.
When will all the haters and fools out there realize that having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. There always playing politics - bad for our country. I want to solve North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, terrorism, and Russia can greatly help!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 12, 2017
The grandiose promises of the campaign trail have become grandiose claims: Trump takes credit for the state of the economy and the campaign against Isis, even though both had been trending positively for years. His campaign was a protracted blame-fest directed at Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who he said were jointly responsible for bringing the US to its knees, a development that had escaped the notice of the outside world. Now that Trump is in the Oval Office, the buck stops anywhere but there. When Obamacare survives the repeated attempts to repeal it, it’s the GOP leadership’s fault, not his. He troublingly refers to “my generals”, but when the news from America’s many battlefronts is bad – such as the botched raid on an Al Qaeda compound in Yemen in January or the ambush that killed four Special Forces commandos in Niger in October – it’s their fault, not his.
The bare-faced lies, the “fake news” campaign against America’s most respected newspapers and networks and the conspiracy theorising have continued unabated, as has the assault on the very concepts of objective truth and scientific knowledge. On the campaign trail, Trump dismissed climate change as “a hoax,” a make-work scheme for the scientific community and a Chinese scam to gain the economic upper hand. In office, he handed the Environmental Protection Agency over to climate-change deniers and took the world’s biggest economy out of the Paris climate accord.
Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me "old," when I would NEVER call him "short and fat?" Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend - and maybe someday that will happen!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 12, 2017
Predictably, given the overweening vanity and capriciousness so evident during the campaign, the White House resembles a medieval court in which sycophancy and back-stabbing abound, albeit without guaranteeing survival, and nepotism is part of the natural order of things. Like Henry VIII, who sent able ministers and loyal underlings to the executioner’s block, Trump discards aides as if he was overseeing a reality TV show rather than an administration. He appears to enjoy prolonging the humiliation: the latest team member to twist in the wind is his hapless Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, whose only qualifications seemed to be a full head of silver hair – as specified by central casting: Trump likes his Cabinet members to look the part – and a backslapping relationship with the Putin oligarchy forged during his time as boss of ExxonMobil.
From populist to Plutocrat
The America First posture is still in force although, like much else in Trump World, the specifics vary depending on whim and the views of whomever he happens to listen to on a given day. Amid the welter of mixed signals, three constants can be detected: a palpable lack of enthusiasm for the Western alliance and the values it stands for; a desire to see and raise North Korean despot Kim Jong-un when it comes to childish insults and blood-curdling threats; and an unwavering determination to ignore the mountain of evidence that Putin’s Russia is busily engaged in undermining democratic societies and institutions.
The one respect in which, on the face of it, Trump has reinvented himself is that the populist of the campaign trail who railed against Wall Street fat cats, coastal elites and the Washington “swamp” while vowing to work for ordinary Americans has transitioned into a plutocrat. But journalists who have visited low-income parts of the heartland that voted for Trump found delight that he continues to speak their language outweighing resignation that he’s not actually doing anything to improve their lot – that he’s doing the opposite, in fact. Trump, it would seem, grasps that the white working-class and rural voters he attracted and whose support he retains set a higher store on having a president whose behaviour and attitudes they can relate to than one who enacts measures that make their lives better. Perhaps this is what Trump was driving at when he declared he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing any votes.
Or perhaps the base is too stupid to realise that, although Trump may be every bit as rude, crude and unattractive as they are, that doesn’t mean he’s one of them. On the contrary, he’s taken them for a ride: behind the coarseness and populist bluster, he’s a front man for the plutocracy. As satirist Bill Maher pointed out, Trump told supporters he’d revive coal mining – “send you back down that toxic hole” – and take away their healthcare. And they loved it.
The simplest explanation is that Trumpism is, always has been and always will be essentially about race: as long as he holds that line, as long as he remains “the leader of the white tribe”, as former George W Bush speechwriter David Frum put it, his supporters will stick with him.
How much does it matter in the grand scheme of things? In years to come, will we look back on the Trump presidency as the political equivalent of Milli Vanilli, a novelty act that generated giddy excitement among the credulous before collapsing under the weight of its fraudulence? The difference is that pop music is, by definition, ephemeral. Trumpism may also be short-lived and end in sordid circumstances, but lasting damage will have been done.
Dark forces have been emboldened. Who would have believed that, in the second decade of the 21st century, white supremacists toting sub-machine guns, sporting Nazi regalia and chanting anti-Semitic slogans would be parading through the streets of a US city? Who would have believed that, after a counter-demonstrator was run down, the President would assert moral equivalence between the white supremacists and those protesting against their presence?
Moore of the same
Judge Roy Moore, the losing Republican candidate in the Alabama special Senate election, is a homophobic religious fanatic. He was too extreme even for the GOP leadership but the base wasn’t prepared to settle for a less-Trumpian candidate. The subsequent revelations of predatory sexual behaviour should have been the end of Moore but why would the base, and how could the party leadership, abandon him when they ignored the longer list of similar charges against Trump, bolstered as they were by confirmation in his own words of his penchant for sexual harassment and abuse?
Trump’s justification for continuing to support Moore was that the alternative – another Democrat in the Senate – must be avoided at all costs. Thus, as America finally confronts the scourge of male sexual abuse and sets about weeding abusers out of positions of power and influence, the President has made his position clear: “Better a predator than a liberal”.
But Trump has never embraced the concept of the president as unifier-in-chief. Why would he? America the divided is his sort of country. Polarisation enabled his rise; polarisation allows him to get away with nepotism, conflicts of interests and refusing to release his tax returns, conduct hitherto deemed unacceptable in a president. Polarisation will power the counter-attack if there are moves to call him to account.
Right-wing provocateur and unofficial Trump adviser Roger Stone may have been deliberately alarmist when he warned that any attempt to remove Trump from office would cause “civil war”, but it would be naive to think the process would be allowed to unfold in an atmosphere of calm deliberation. The message to the base, some of whom reside on the lunatic fringe, would be, “You are being disenfranchised; this is a de facto coup to remove your champion; lose this battle and your America will disappear forever.”
I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 2, 2017
Now that Michael Flynn, a prominent Trump surrogate during the campaign and briefly his National Security Adviser, has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is co-operating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, Trump must be tempted to test whether there’s a limit to what he can get away with. It’s hard to imagine him sitting on his hands if his nearest and dearest are in the cross-hairs. Daughter Ivanka appears to be the main beneficiary of what love Trump has left once he’s lavished it on himself; she and husband Jared Kushner followed him to Washington, where their “untouchable” status is reportedly resented by White House staff.
In the wake of the Flynn bombshell, there’s intense speculation that Kushner is the “senior Trump campaign official” who directed Flynn to have the questionable conversations with then Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak, which he concealed from the FBI. Team Trump’s concern was that Russian retaliation against sanctions imposed by the outgoing Obama Administration might thwart the incoming President’s desire for better relations. As Flynn’s then deputy KT McFarland put it in an email, “If there is a tit-for-tat escalation, Trump will have difficulty improving relations with Russia, which has just thrown USA election to him.”
Given that Flynn led “lock her up” chants at Trump’s campaign rallies, it would be an exquisite irony if his co-operation prompts Clinton to lead crowds in chants of “lock him up” during next year’s mid-term elections campaign.
Trump’s Twitter claim last weekend that he fired Flynn for lying to the FBI – at the time the reason given was that he’d lied to Vice President Mike Pence – raises an intriguing question: did Trump know his National Security Adviser had lied to the bureau when he allegedly asked then FBI director James Comey to lay off Flynn? If so, it would seem to be the case that both the request and Trump’s subsequent firing of Comey amount to obstruction of justice. Trump, of course, famously told Kislyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office that he’d sacked “nut job” Comey because “I faced great pressure over Russia. That’s taken off.”
If Kushner is brought down by the Russia scandal, it would be a karmic consequence of Trump’s hubris in installing his inexperienced and unqualified daughter and son-in-law in positions of power and influence and their hubris in occupying them. Kushner’s extensive portfolio includes resolving the Arab-Israel conflict, a challenge that has proved far too much for many of America’s best and brightest for more than half a century.
The couple had no compunction about capitalising on their access. The very April weekend Chinese President Xi Jinping dined with Trump and family at his Mar-A-Lago estate in Florida, Xi’s Government approved Ivanka’s application for three new trademarks, thereby gifting her company monopoly rights to sell its products and services in China. The following month, Kushner’s sister was in Beijing, emphasising her brother’s proximity to the US President while seeking to entice wealthy Chinese to invest in luxury developments with the prospect of getting green cards in return.
Assuming Trump sacked Mueller and the media and public reaction diverged on partisan lines, it would fall to Congressional Republicans to stop Trump getting away with what would be brazen obstruction of justice. Recent history suggests it is the height of optimism to assume a decisive majority of Republicans would rise to the occasion.
We should beware of rushing to judgment. Definitive statements containing words such as “never” and “forever” are best left to historians. Still, it’s hard to escape the feeling that it will be a while before the US recovers from Trump and the world recovers from Trump’s America.
On the international stage, Trump is a walking, talking abrogation of American leadership and commitment to freedom, democracy and human rights, as hypocritical as that has sometimes been. China will look to fill and Russia to exploit the vacuum created by his indifference to the concepts of a community of nations and a shared humanity. His readiness to take Putin’s word for it and disparage his own intelligence agencies with regard to Russia’s election meddling brings to mind the dictum that empires fall when they lose the will to defend themselves.
Trump campaign officials Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie have produced Let Trump be Trump, an account of his rise from joke candidate to president. Although apparently largely laudatory, a published excerpt includes this extraordinary line: “Sooner or later, everybody who works for Donald Trump will see a side of him that makes you wonder why you took a job with him in the first place.” I say “extraordinary” because Trump’s odious side is on virtually permanent public display. Indeed, it’s reasonable to wonder if there’s a side to Trump that isn’t odious.
Obligation to all
There has always been something slightly risible about America’s heroic self-image and the US tendency to believe that crossing the Electoral College threshold confers dignity, gravitas and the ability to show grace under pressure on someone who up until that moment was just another ambitious politician. The hagiography around JFK and assiduous cultivation of the Camelot myth is perhaps the most glaring example.
But most Oval Office occupants understood that they led and represented all Americans, not just the ones who voted for them. They accepted that the position of the presidency atop the US system created an expectation of personal standards, demeanour and self-discipline. They recognised that leading the most powerful nation on Earth and being the leader of the free world imposed an awesome obligation to the human race.
Barack Obama understood those expectations and accepted those responsibilities. Trump does not; Trump cannot. Even if he could, it would defeat his purpose to do so since his presidency is, at bottom, a repudiation of Obama, the worst fears of white, entitled, paranoid America made flesh.
When that America looked at Obama, they didn’t see someone who lived up to the historic expectations of a president; they saw their demographic nightmare coming true. They cling to Trump because he understands and shares their fears; he clings to them because they are his last, best defence.
This article was first published in the December 9, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.