• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

How does he get away with it? 10 reasons Trump is still in the White House

Illustration/Steve Bolton

US President Donald Trump, who knows that conflict powers reality television, has weaponised political incorrectness.

After being acquitted in three major trials during the 1980s, New York-based Mafia boss John Gotti acquired the nickname “the Teflon Don”. No matter how compelling the evidence, nothing seemed to stick.

It transpired that Gotti had tilted the scales of justice in his favour through witness tampering and intimidation. In 1992, he was finally sentenced to life imprisonment for a laundry list of crimes, including murder and obstruction of justice.

There’s a new Teflon Don in town, the town in question being Washington, DC, the Don in question being President Donald Trump. In March, special counsel Robert Mueller told Attorney General William Barr that his four-page letter summarising the findings of the Russia investigation failed to “fully capture” the team’s work and threatened the public’s confidence in the results of the probe. Even if we accept Barr’s exculpatory reading of Mueller’s findings, it’s indisputable that Trump gets away with things that would catch out other politicians. His relatively brief political career is littered with examples, from the infamous “grab ’em by the pussy” boast to his refusal to release his tax returns.

How does he do it? Here are 10 interconnected and overlapping reasons, ranging from the big picture to the uniquely Trumpian.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

1. The divided states of America

The 2016 political map puts it in stark relief: broadly speaking, Hillary Clinton won the East and West coasts; Trump won everything in between. America’s polarisation goes beyond stereotypes of coastal sophisticates and flyover-state hicks and their divergent world views. The culture war may be all over bar the shouting in the rest of the West, but it’s still all-out in the US, and waged largely along party lines.

In less-divided countries with more common ground between left and right, and therefore a bigger political centre, unifiers with cross-party appeal have the advantage, since elections are won and lost on the middle ground. But in the US, politics increasingly seems like civil war by other means. Believing their values and traditional predominance to be under threat, white conservatives yearned for a militant leader. They found one in Trump, who not only relishes conflict but also sees political gain in it.

Read all about it: a copy of the Mueller report. Photo/Getty Images

2. Make America white again

From the moment Trump launched his presidential campaign with a tirade about Mexican rapists swarming across the southern border and a promise to build a wall to keep them out, it was clear that race would be a central component of his message.

Trump and his campaign manager, Steve Bannon, grasped that, for many white Americans, the most pressing issue was the demographic trend that they fear will result in “real” America being swept away by a tide of otherness. For those inclined to see the future as a demographic zero-sum game, Barack Obama’s 2008 election victory was confirmation that their nightmare was well on the way to becoming a reality.

Trump has some potent political attributes. Without them, he wouldn’t have pulled off his hostile takeover of the Republican Party and become the first non-politician to win the presidency since Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. One such attribute is his flair for galvanising slogans. “Build the wall” was both a promise of decisive action to address the hot-button issue of undocumented immigration once and for all and a resounding signal that he understood and shared the alarm it inspired. “Make America Great Again” combines archaism – nostalgia for a mythical golden age of prosperity and social cohesion – and futurism – the belief that a new golden age is imminent. For the Maga brigade, the past they wistfully look back on and the future they yearningly anticipate are a whiter shade of gold.

3. He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch

The Republican Party has been moving rightwards for years, dragged by the most ardent factions in its coalition: Tea Partiers and evangelical Christians. Trump won support from blue-collar white males with whom recent Republican presidential candidates had failed to connect, and that, in a nutshell, was the ball game.

Despite their misgivings, Republican leaders couldn’t help but be impressed. Trump had, after all, trounced an array of supposed party heavyweights to secure the nomination and gone on to defeat the heavily favoured Clinton. So what if he trashed convention and repudiated long-standing Republican orthodoxy? (We should credit Trump with inadvertently exposing the GOP as bereft of patriotism, principles, philosophy or concern for the greater good.)

Trump is far more popular with the Republican faithful than most Congressional Republicans. They know full well that to defy or criticise the President is to place yourself squarely in his Twitter crosshairs and run the risk of being “primaried” – forced into a contested process to remain the Republican candidate.

Thus, Congressional Republicans who oppose Trump’s policies or deplore his behaviour have a choice: stand up for their principles, get out of politics, or fall in line. Most have chosen the third option, hence the GOP’s Senate majority being, in effect, Trump’s firewall. The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives might impeach Trump, but there’s next to no chance of him being convicted – and therefore removed from office – by the Senate.

Trump supporters at a Wisconsin rally in April. Photo/Getty Images

4. It’s the economy, stupid

James Carville, Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist, coined the saying in 1992 to remind Democrat staffers that, although President George HW Bush was riding high in the polls following the liberation of Kuwait, in due course voters would refocus on the fact that the US was in a recession.

This year, the US gross domestic product grew 3.2% in the first quarter. Unemployment is low; the stock market is at a record high. As the US media site Politico put it: “On an issue that voters reliably say they care deeply about, Trump’s otherwise dismal public approval ratings are holding above 50%.”

5. Onward Christian soldiers

A glaring anomaly in contemporary US politics is that evangelical Christians give Trump a pass on behaviour they should abhor: adultery, hush-money payments, lies, denigration of critics and opponents, boastfulness, profanity and so on.

Reverend Adam Taylor, executive director of the progressive Christian group Sojourners, says these evangelical leaders have struck a “Faustian bargain” with the President. As long as Trump continues to support their political agenda, Taylor says, they will turn a blind eye to the “many other ways in which his immoral statements, behaviours and policies contradict the gospel and should assault Christian conscience”.

It’s perhaps not a coincidence that Trump bears more than a passing resemblance to the big-haired, bombastic televangelists who’ve made fortunes through performative hot-gospelling and, in several cases, been exposed as enthusiastic practitioners of behaviour they condemned in their preaching.

6. The media is the menace

America’s polarisation has encouraged media segmentation and the adoption of partisanship over objectivity, thereby enabling consumers to exist in an information bubble in which their convictions are constantly reinforced. And although Trump’s critics see his tweets as daily reminders that he’s not fit to be president, Twitter gives him unfiltered access to his base for whom the tweets are daily reminders of why they supported him in the first place.

Trump’s attacks on the traditional, mainstream media, particularly the great metropolitan newspapers, create a self-affirming loop: the base sees those outlets as the house organs of the secular coastal elite operating from an assumption of intellectual superiority; by attacking them, Trump is speaking his supporters’ language; that Trump’s trolling and media-bashing cause his targets consternation is grist to the mill.

7. Deplorable in Chief

Much to the delight of the section of the community who see political correctness as a device to advance multiculturalism and diversity and suppress discussion of developments they abhor, Trump has, in effect, weaponised political incorrectness.

He knows exactly what he’s doing when he ventures where other politicians fear to tread, particularly in matters of race. For Americans discomfited by the increasing assertiveness of women, the LGBT community and racial minorities, Trump’s willingness to confront these groups is cheering and exhilarating.

Trump at a Celebrity Apprentice event in 2015. Photo/Getty Images

8. I’m a celebrity, put me in the White House

The reality-TV show The Apprentice made Trump a star, gave him a far higher profile than he could have acquired as a businessman and created a persona of masterful chief executive that was far removed from the oft-bankrupted, seat-of-the-pants operator of real life.

We might dismiss reality television as lowest-common-denominator dross, but the drive for ratings has implications for electoral politics that weren’t lost on Trump.

“The engine that powers reality television is conflict,” says reality-show creator Tom Forman. “I think Trump just knows that in his DNA and reframes the conversation in those terms. The entire narrative of [reality] shows is the argument over what happened and how it’s going to be perceived. The person who can make their point of view the point of view wins and becomes the star of the show. [Trump] is doing that on the largest scale imaginable.”

For celebrities and tabloid fixtures, there’s no such thing as a private life. Many Americans had already factored in Trump’s character when scandals such as his adulterous affair with a porn star came to light.

9. Break every rule

From the start of his business career, Trump understood that polite society’s notions of what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour and what you can and can’t get away with are based on assumptions, principally that people caught breaking the rules will be ashamed, punished or both. (When the history of these times is written, Trump will be identified as having been heavily implicated in, and a prime beneficiary of, the death of shame.)

He further grasped that if you don’t give a damn about convention, protocol and the law, if you’re prepared to deny what to the objective observer is the obvious truth, prepared to lie and keep on lying, prepared to use litigation as the rich man’s get-out-of-jail-free card, prepared to be sufficiently ruthless and indifferent to the big picture and the damage done, you can get away with an awful lot. (The fact that the media has often determined what politicians can and can’t get away with is another driver of Trump’s “fake news” propaganda.)

10. I’m President and they’re not

Being president gives Trump the means to shape public opinion, thwart officialdom and generally get away with it that aren’t available to other Americans. These range from invoking executive privilege to sacking troublesome officials, and from accessing the airwaves whenever he chooses to the Department of Justice policy that a sitting president can’t be indicted.

“If Donald Trump were not now President,” wrote two former prosecutors on the Daily Beast website recently, “he would’ve been indicted on multiple counts of obstruction of justice. And that case would be as strong, if not stronger, than many we saw.”

Trump, accordingly, has no desire to become “Donald Trump, private citizen” any time soon, hence he’s already running for re-election.

Conservative lawyer George Conway, one of Trump’s strongest critics, despite being married to presidential aide Kellyanne Conway, recently offered this re-election campaign slogan via Twitter: “Vote for ME and keep ME free!”

This article was first published in the May 11, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.