Nothing US President Donald Trump does or says, no matter how ludicrous, offensive or reckless, seems to give his base pause for thought. But he might be vulnerable if the economy loses steam.
Quite. And by that yardstick, the subsequent diplomatic spat wasn’t crazy either.
“Greenland is not for sale,” said Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen. “I strongly hope this is not meant seriously.” To talk about buying and selling Greenland, an autonomous territory, she added, would be an “absurd discussion”.
Trump, who combines an utter disregard for civility with a gossamer-thin skin, wasn’t going to stand for having his absurdity identified as such: he cancelled an upcoming state visit to Denmark, for which preparations were at an advanced stage.
“I thought that the Prime Minister’s statement that it was ‘absurd’ … was nasty,” he said. “All she had to do is say, ‘No, we wouldn’t be interested.’” Or, as Frederiksen did say, “Greenland is not Danish. Greenland belongs to Greenland.”
However, even by Trump’s debased standards, some of the stuff he has come out with lately prompts the thought, “If that’s not crazy, what is?” He said liberal Jewish Americans are bad Jews because good Jews would support only a political party that gives Israel a blank cheque in its dealings with the Palestinians and the Arab world. He described himself as “the chosen one” and retweeted cultists’ claims that he’s the “king of the Jews” and “loved like the second coming of God”. When he visited survivors of mass shootings, he said, “the love for me was unparalleled”. He threatened to turn thousands of captured Isis fighters loose on the streets of France and Germany.
The shadow of Obama
There was a suggestion that Trump’s cancellation of his state visit to Denmark was more about ego maintenance than petulance: his predecessor, Barack Obama, is planning a trip to Denmark at the end of the month and Trump supposedly feared he’d be on the wrong side of an invidious comparison.
“Trump was scared of the likely contrast,” said David Frum, an anti-Trump conservative who served in George W Bush’s White House. “Trump knows Obama is bigger than he is, around the world as well as in the United States. That knowledge tortures Trump.”
As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent put it, “It’s a measure of how low we’ve all sunk that, in trying to explain why the President of the United States is making a consequential decision involving an official state visit, we’re forced to choose between two competing rationales that have nothing whatsoever to do with international diplomatic considerations or our national interest. The official reason for the cancellation is nearly as saturated in narcissism and megalomania as the ‘less’ flattering Obama-oriented explanation is.”
Not surprisingly, Trump’s propensity for channelling a medieval child monarch has revived speculation about his mental and emotional state and fitness for the highest of offices.
“All narcissists believe they are at the centre of the universe,” wrote the New York Times’ Michael Gerson, who, like Frum, is a former speech-writer for Bush Jr. “But what happens when a narcissist is actually placed at the centre of the universe?”
In light of recent developments, it’s worth recalling Republican Senator Ted Cruz’s barb during the 2106 primary season: “We’re liable to wake up one morning and Donald, if he were president, would’ve nuked Denmark.”
Citing public companies, airlines, hospitals and the military as examples, The Atlantic’s James Fallows wrote that if Trump “were in virtually any other position of responsibility, action would already be under way to remove him from that role”. The exceptions, he added, were “a purely family-run business, like the firm in which Trump spent his entire previous career” – and the presidency.
We are forced to hope that Trump overstated his political strength when he claimed he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters”, but it does appear that nothing he says, no matter how ludicrous, offensive or reckless, gives his base pause for thought.
Arguably, his worst recent utterance was the casual suggestion that former president Bill Clinton and wife Hillary, a former first lady, secretary of state and presidential candidate, were behind the death in custody of paedophile financier Jeffrey Epstein (the medical examiner determined that Epstein committed suicide).
Trump’s tweet referenced a long-standing alt-right conspiracy that the Clintons have bumped off a bunch of people who stood in the way of their ascent from Little Rock, Arkansas, to the White House. Strangely enough, none of the women who actually threatened to bring Bill Clinton down – Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky and Kathleen Willey, among others – seems to have been targeted by the Clintons’ hitmen.
There was also the unsubtle implication that Bill Clinton, who palled around with Epstein, had reason to fear what would have emerged if the case had gone to trial. But if you’re going to play that game, the same could apply to Trump, who also palled around with Epstein. In 2002, he told New York magazine that Epstein was “a terrific guy, a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”
The point here is that the furore generated by Trump’s vile and baseless smear lasted only a few days before it was overtaken by fresh lunacy or outrage. Frum again: “If any other president had done such a thing, it would have convulsed the United States and the world.” For this president, it’s business as usual.
That is one of the difficulties facing the 20-odd Democrats seeking their party’s nomination: they are held to completely different – and much higher – standards than Trump. As the New York Times’ Frank Bruni put it, “The truth is that any given week – maybe even any day – of the Trump presidency contains enough gaffes, crassness and fiction to sink any of the Democratic candidates. And those candidates suffer for their worst moments in a way he doesn’t for much worse ones … Whether by design or lucky accident, he has given himself a singular armour, a special inoculation, which is that no one expects more from him.”
But that’s only half the story. The other half is that a lot of Americans – perhaps significantly more than are prepared to admit as much to pollsters – aren’t offended by Trump’s behaviour. Indeed, it appeals to them enormously because it validates their views, behaviour, lifestyle and notion of what it means to be an American.
“Ronald Reagan once took working-class votes away from the Democrats by offering permission to be proud of the flag,” wrote Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone. “Trump offers permission to occupy the statistical American mean: out of shape, suffering from gas, poorly read, anti-intellectual, treasuring things above meaning and hiding an awful credit history.”
These are Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables”. A liberal version of Trump would have called them “assholes”. And, as I wrote in another publication when Trump was seeking the Republican nomination, they’re thick on the American ground: “Even if the asshole ratio is much the same as in other countries – and it’s fair to say the global consensus is that America, being the spiritual home of the asshole, has a higher ratio than anywhere else – that’s an awful lot of assholes. Trump is the candidate the assholes of America have been hanging out for. He’s the assholes’ asshole.”
(The immediate problem for the Democratic aspirants is that, for the time being, they’re running against each other rather than Trump. Hence the stupefying spectacle of them queuing up to disparage Obama during the last round of debates. Front runner Joe Biden’s greatest political asset is his eight years as Obama’s highly visible and – by historical standards – activist vice president, so undermining Biden necessitates portraying the Obama administration as, if not quite a failure, then certainly a disappointment.)
There’s also the possibility that Trump’s recent intemperance stems from a growing concern that his greatest political asset – the economy – may be depreciating. His recent targets include Jerome Powell, his handpicked chair of the Federal Reserve, who was labelled an “enemy” because of his reluctance to cut interest rates again.
The NYT’s Maggie Haberman reported that “some former Trump Administration officials said they were increasingly worried about the President’s behaviour, suggesting it stems from increasing pressure on Mr Trump as the economy seems more worrisome and next year’s election approaches.”
The stock market has got the wobbles, the media is awash with speculation that the economy is losing steam and may be heading into recession and the US business establishment is bewildered and apprehensive over the apparently escalating trade war with China. That’s hardly surprisingly given that Trump’s public comments suggest he doesn’t understand how tariffs actually work.
Much of the chatter has centred on the inverted yield curve. This occurs when interest rates on short-term bonds are higher than those on long-term bonds as investor nervousness over immediate economic prospects drives a flight to the safety of long-term investments. In March, the yield on US 10-year Treasury notes dropped below the yield on three-month paper for the first time since mid-2007.
And we all know what happened in 2008. The inverted yield curve has foreshadowed every recession in the past 50 years and only once signalled a slump that didn’t eventuate.
Vulnerable on the economy
Recent polling highlights Trump’s vulnerability in the event of an economic downtown. Respondents were asked whether they approved or disapproved of his handling of the following: the economy, immigration, taxes, healthcare, women’s issues, abortion, gun violence, foreign policy and climate change. The only one for which he got a tick was economic stewardship. A separate Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found 62% disapproval of Trump’s job performance, compared with 36% approval.
Trump will pull every lever at his disposal and some that aren’t – witness his “ordering” US companies to cut ties with China – to keep the economy in positive territory. But just as Trump has been the story in American politics these past few years, one senses he will be the issue in 2020.
Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review, founded in 1955 by William F Buckley Jr, America’s pre-eminent post-war conservative public intellectual. Lowry has transitioned from a “never Trumper” to a “Never Say Never Trumper”, but it’s hard to disagree with his assessment that “the backdrop to it all [in 2020] will be the level of public tolerance for, or exhaustion with, Trump’s antics and provocations. In other words, can Americans bear for the show to go on?”
One thing we may be sure of is that Trump won’t abide by the show-business adage, “Always leave them wanting more.”
This article was first published in the September 7, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.