For Donald Trump, loyalty flows in one direction only.
Time passed and the shocks just kept coming. Eventually, the penny dropped: it doesn’t actually matter if I miss the odd daily update or even go on holiday without cellphone reception. Trumpism is like European public transport: if you miss one, don’t worry; there’ll be another one along any minute.
It may seem like a contradiction in terms, but chaos, so we’re told, is the normal state of affairs in the Trump White House. The behaviours that place this Administration outside precedent, protocol and tradition – Trump’s seven fatal flaws, if you will – are on permanent display.
While toying with a range of policy positions on gun control in the wake of the February 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Trump urged police to “take the guns first, go through due process later” when an individual was deemed to be potentially dangerous. Even those driven to despair by America’s refusal to address its gun carnage haven’t countenanced the notion that the solution lies in giving police carte blanche to operate outside the law on the basis of what may be no more than vague suspicion.
At a closed-door fundraiser in Florida, Trump enthusiastically approved of the Chinese Communist Party’s changing the rules so Xi Jinping could remain President indefinitely: “[Xi’s] now president for life – he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.” (A 1951 constitutional amendment limited American presidents to two four-year terms.)
Having branded the sheriff’s deputy who didn’t enter the Parkland high school building when the shooting started “disgusting” and “a coward”, Trump told a meeting of state governors, “I really believe I’d run in, even if I didn’t have a weapon.” This shows that Trump – a Vietnam War draft-dodger, who has reached the age of 71 without evincing the slightest capacity for self-sacrifice and probably couldn’t run around the Oval Office without calling for a golf buggy – is capable of self-worship on a heroic scale and perhaps unable to distinguish Hollywood star vehicles from real life.
Trump’s initial response to the Parkland shooting was to call for schoolteachers to be armed. His zigzagging thereafter, which included accusing lawmakers drafting gun-control legislation of being “afraid of the NRA” – the National Rifle Association, the hard-line gun-owners’ lobby group – prompted a Republican senator to point out that “strong leaders do not automatically agree with the last thing that was said to them”. He talked of stepping up background checks on “crazy people”, even though one of his first acts as President was to approve the rescinding of an Obama-era regulation that would have prevented, via enhanced background checks and information-sharing, an estimated 75,000 people with mental disorders from accessing firearms. At last report, Trump had broken off his flirtation with those seeking a circuit-breaker and melted back into the NRA’s arms.
Jeff Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump. However, since Sessions, now US Attorney General, recused himself from the Department of Justice’s oversight of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, Trump has bombarded him with insults (“very weak”, “beleaguered”, “disgraceful”), mused publicly about sacking him and dubbed him “Mister Magoo” after the elderly, sawn-off, myopic cartoon character who blunders through life leaving havoc in his wake. Meanwhile, according to the Washington Post, Trump is telling his friends he doesn’t know whom, among his staff and advisers, he can trust. For Trump, loyalty flows in one direction only, essentially means subservience and is measured by the willingness of underlings to compromise, if not incriminate, themselves to protect him.
Emboldened by the disastrous combination of arrogance and ignorance, Trump governs like a bull in a china shop, revelling in the damage and consternation he causes. Out of the blue and with minimal analysis and consultation, he slapped tariffs on steel and aluminium. The supposed target is China, but the measures apply equally to the US’s European allies. When they complained, Trump threatened to target European cars and tweeted, with an otherworldly nonchalance that understandably spooked the financial markets, “trade wars are easy to win”. The generally supportive, Rupert Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal commented: “Protectionism may be [Trump’s] only real policy conviction, and his tweet confirms he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
As always seemed likely, Trump’s banana-republic nepotism is coming back to haunt him and its foremost beneficiaries, daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner. Schadenfreude is unbecoming, but it’s hard to suppress a twinge of glee as the golden couple tarnish, given the staggering sense of entitlement and presumption with which they glided into their tailor-made but ill-defined roles at the seat of power. The entitlement and presumption explain why Kushner thought he could be an influential figure in the Administration without his financial dealings, particularly his indebtedness, piquing the interest of foreign governments and therefore US intelligence. The chequered business careers of his father, who spent 14 months in a federal prison for tax evasion and witness tampering, and father-in-law may explain his propensity for sailing close to the wind.
No doubt there were those who admired Ivanka’s response when asked by a TV interviewer if she believed the numerous women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct: “I think it’s a pretty inappropriate question to ask a daughter if she believes the accusers of her father when he’s affirmatively stated there’s no truth to it.” Leaving aside the small matter that Trump has long since squandered the right to be taken at his word on any subject whatsoever, this is simply an expression of Ivanka’s desire to have it both ways: to flit, Clark Kent-style, between personas, from dutiful daughter to Administration official, champion of women’s empowerment and #metoo fellow traveller, whenever it suits her or circumstances require.
A year on, Trump is still directing juvenile twitter tirades at those who mock or defy him, such as actor Alec Baldwin. One would say such behaviour is beneath the dignity of the US President, but in Trump’s case, there’s no dignity to sacrifice. Now he’s taken to televising “policy” discussions at which he prattles like an airhead, blurting out idiocies such as “arm the teachers”, then calls for a show of hands for and against. This was predictable: deep-down, the former reality-show star must sense he’s just a pretend President and that being the real thing is utterly beyond him.
This article was first published in the March 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.