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America: Well and Truly Trumped


World, Politics

America: Well and Truly Trumped

Contemplating the astonishing victory by Donald Trump, J. BROOKS SPECTOR tries to get under the skin of that win, as well as to imagine the coming chapters – with a little help from other writers and some of his own columns on the subject.

Well, okay then. Now that virtually all the votes cast have been counted (and absent any broad national agreement with an earlier statement by Donald Trump that the whole electoral system was rigged or the unexpected discovery of a vast, successful right-wing conspiracy to defraud the nation through major voter suppression efforts across the country), Donald J Trump will step forward at noon on January 20, 2017 to take the short oath of office from the chief justice of the US Supreme Court on the west portico of the US Capitol building and become the country’s newest chief executive. That oath is, simply: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

It only takes about a minute to deliver it, if the new president speaks very slowly. And from that moment, all powers of the presidency, from authority over menu selection in the White House for state dinners to the commander-in-chief’s authority to order the Seventh Fleet into action, or even launch a pre-emptive nuclear missile strike against some bad hombres, now reside in the person of the new president.

Photo: A file photo dated 04 March 2016 shows Chairman of the Republican National Committee Reince Priebus speaking at the 43rd Annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, USA. Reports on 13 November 2016 state that President-elect Donald Trump has chosen Reince Priebus as his White House chief of staff. EPA/JIM LO SCALZO

By the time the inaugural parade is over, the previous president’s things will have been moved out of the White House, the carpets will have been cleaned and the walls will have been prepped, ready for the selection by the new president of the art work (personal stuff as well as drawn from special national collections held for this purpose) that he feels will best embody the spirit of his administration – as well as its connections to history.

Simultaneously, the president’s staff start moving into their new offices; they take up their new and potentially confusing duties; and the computers’ passwords and logons are switched over to these new denizens of those spaces. And the cycle begins again, just as it has for 44 previous individuals – regardless of civil war or national economic disaster.

This time around, unlike their crowd-sourcing votes during so many other times of great national crisis or challenge, the American people have made a very poor choice because of the skills, knowledge, temperament and proposed policies of the chosen candidate. Throughout a presidential political season that lasted more than a year-and-a-half, here at The Daily Maverick we have tried to chronicle the twists and turns of events through the primaries of both major parties and the many candidates’ debates. In addition, we offered more in-depth profiles of the major (and minor) candidates of both the Republicans and Democrats, as well as the Green Party’s Dr Jill Stein and the independent candidacy of former Arizona Governor Gary Johnson.

While we didn’t think the country was given a fine, thoughtful choice in either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, it seemed at times that Clinton would be able to rise to the challenge, even as Trump continued to descend ever deeper into a sleazy gutter world – fuelled by the alt.right, right-wing talk radio, and Breitbart News – of racial animosity, xenophobia, misogyny, borderline anti-Semitism, 100% fact-free rhetoric, science-less theorising about climate change, and frighteningly dangerous, simplistic solutions to many complex issues. Moreover, there was his troubling, even inexplicable reliance on that supposed bonhomie of a bromance with Russian leader Vladimir Putin as a prime solution to vexing global issues.

Speaking for a veritable universe of journalists, talking heads, critics, pundits and analysts, David Remnick, in The New Yorker, wrote, just after the election results were known,

On January 20, 2017, we will bid farewell to the first African-American president – a man of integrity, dignity, and generous spirit – and witness the inauguration of a con who did little to spurn endorsement by forces of xenophobia and white supremacy. It is impossible to react to this moment with anything less than revulsion and profound anxiety.”

Hillary Clinton was not a perfect candidate either, of course, what with that stubborn penumbra of those presumed ethical challenges that continued to surround her – and that were hyped at every second by her principal opponent and by a claque from the alt.right and talk radio. These ranged from the more problematic aspects of the management of the Clinton Foundation (although that foundation was never cited in violation of the law, as is the Trump Foundation, now) to her temporising (and sometimes morphing, shifting) answers to some often-ridiculous accusations and questions about her e-mail habits (as opposed to Trump’s total failure to come clean about his failed or fraudulent business ventures and his tax affairs).

But even as she was well-prepared to talk about the real (as opposed to imaginary) policy choices for the country’s future, she never quite managed to get to the heart of the economic anxieties and angst that so challenged so many voters who might otherwise had voted for a Democratic candidate. Given that question, there will forever be speculation as to whether a Bernie Sanders (her chief opponent in the primaries) or a Joe Biden (the sitting vice president who stepped aside to allow her to run) could have made that particular sale conclusively and convincingly, and thereby won the day on November 8.

In the end, Clinton and her support team, comprising an army of campaign consultants, strategists, pollsters and fundraisers, fatally misread elements of the national mood. They failed to come to terms with the anger and frustration over the national economic circumstances of too many who were – or felt they were – being left behind in the nation’s movement towards the new economy of the cities and 21st century technological change. If, for example, the Clinton organisation had cottoned on to this during the campaign, they might well have been able to recalibrate their message – or at least its delivery – for the voters in the three states that turned out to be the crux of her disaster: Wisconsin; Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

As one analyst put it succinctly (and we’re slightly paraphrasing here): Trump’s supporters listened with their hearts and ignored the facts in their heads, while Clinton’s backers only heard the facts while they ignored their hearts’ call. In fact, enough of the voters in the so-called Clinton “blue wall” of usually Democratic states, stretching in wide arc from the eastern big city of Philadelphia to the small towns of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, switched their understanding of things to support the eventual winner – or just to stay home on Election Day – such that Clinton’s last-minute campaigning in those states remained insufficient to carry the day.

Still, given the fact that she actually won the national popular vote, if a few dozen more Clinton voters had come on board on her behalf in each precinct in those three states, she would have won all three of them. That would have given her their total of 46 electoral votes (and subtracted them from the Trump column) and thus the election as well.

In fact, from those three states taken together, she needed fewer than 214,000 votes – far less than her nearly three-million-vote victor’s margin in California, or her million-and-a-half margin in New York. But, of course, a US presidential election is won state by state, and it requires a candidate to gain the electoral votes (based on population) of each state until the 270 out of 538 total is reached rather than a lump-sum popular vote nationally. And he did the necessary, and she did not.

Those who cannot bring themselves to accept this result now march daily in demonstrations in many cities. One wonders how or if this will keep going, in the face of the inevitable reality of a Trump presidency, once the actual inauguration happens. But the reality of anger over the results and fears of what will come next may well keep the momentum going on such protests.

Despite his extraordinary feat of becoming the first American – ever – to win a presidential election without having ever served in national, state or local government or having been a popular and triumphant general in battle, Donald Trump remains a poor choice whose policy predilections seem hopelessly untethered to the realities of the nation and the world. Accordingly, we can associate ourselves completely with the lead article in the current Economist in describing the terra incognita of this Trumpian ascendency.

That article noted,

The hope is that this election will prove cathartic. Perhaps, in office, Mr Trump will be pragmatic and magnanimous – as he was in his acceptance speech. Perhaps he will be King Donald, a figurehead and tweeter-in-chief who presides over an executive vice-president and a cabinet of competent, reasonable people. When he decides against building a wall against Mexico after all or concludes that a trade war with China is not a wise idea, his voters may not mind too much – because they only expected him to make them feel proud and to put conservative justices in the Supreme Court. Indeed, you can just about imagine a future in which extra infrastructure spending, combined with deregulation, tax cuts, a stronger dollar and the repatriation of corporate profits, boosts the American economy for long enough to pacify the anger. This more emollient Trump might even model himself on Ronald Reagan, a conservative hero who was mocked and underestimated, too.

Nothing would make us happier than to see Mr Trump succeed in this way. But whereas Reagan was an optimist, Mr Trump rails against the loss of an imagined past. We are deeply sceptical that he will make a good president – because of his policies, his temperament and the demands of political office.

Take his policies first. After the sugar rush, populist policies eventually collapse under their own contradictions. Mr Trump has pledged to scrap the hated Obamacare. But that threatens to deprive over 20-million hard-up Americans of health insurance. His tax cuts would chiefly benefit the rich and they would be financed by deficits that would increase debt-to-GDP by 25 percentage points by 2026. Even if he does not actually deport illegal immigrants, he will foment the divisive politics of race. Mr Trump has demanded trade concessions from China, Mexico and Canada on threat of tariffs and the scrapping of the North American Free Trade Agreement. His protectionism would further impoverish poor Americans, who gain more as consumers from cheap imports than they would as producers from suppressed competition. If he caused a trade war, the fragile global economy could tip into a recession. With interest rates near zero, policy-makers would struggle to respond.

Abroad Mr Trump says he hates the deal freezing Iran’s nuclear programme. If it fails, he would have to choose between attacking Iran’s nuclear sites and seeing nuclear proliferation in the Middle East (see article). He wants to reverse the Paris agreement on climate change. Apart from harming the planet, that would undermine America as a negotiating partner. Above all, he would erode America’s alliances – its greatest strength. Mr Trump has demanded that other countries pay more towards their security or he will walk away. His bargaining would weaken Nato, leaving frontline eastern European states vulnerable to Russia. It would encourage Chinese expansion in the South China Sea. Japan and South Korea may be tempted to arm themselves with nuclear weapons.”

Then, of course, there are those niggling problems with his extraordinary temperament and his studious refusal to learn or to study much about the fiendishly complicated problems confronting the nation. But his policy choices should have been sufficient to disqualify him from election. But, not.

In thinking about the future of a Trump presidency, one of The New York Times’ resident conservative columnists, Ross Douthat, presuming to look back from the vantage point of 2020, with the best of all possible hopes for a successful Trumpian era, wrote,

Finally, in foreign policy, Trump has delivered what he promised: A brutal realpolitik, built around détente with Russia and China (the promised trade war turned out to be mostly rhetoric) and a ruthless focus on counterterrorism. Crimea has been ceded to Russia and Ukraine left to fend for itself, US rhetoric about democracy promotion has all but disappeared, and a concert of American-backed strongmen are grinding away at Islamists from North Africa to Iraq. Since the fall of Raqqa and the capture of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS has become a stateless terror group, claiming credit for a series of small-scale attacks but nothing at a 9/11 level, which has enabled Trump to declare constantly that he has radical Islam ‘on the run’.”

But even Douthat doubted it would all come out so well.

This writer had twice tried to imagine a Trumpian future. In columns both 24 April 24 and then September 19, we tried to describe the international and domestic tumult that would be the face of Douthat’s dystopia. In addition, more recently, we also tried to suss out the likely foreign policy landscape for a Trump presidency, on 10 November 10, just after his actual win at the polls.

Well before a Trump electoral triumph, we had written of this future universe,

Thus it came as a tremendous global surprise when Trump, sitting alone with Putin and only one interpreter, offered the Russians a grand bargain: the withdrawal of economic sanctions against Russia, acquiescence over the quasi-annexation of the Crimea in exchange for an end to support for rebels in the eastern marches of Ukraine, and increasing joint pressure against the Chinese economic juggernaut. For the Chinese, in his meeting with Xi Jinping, Trump had agreed to reach an amicable arrangement over the sea-lanes through the waters around the Spratlys and Paracels in exchange for cutting off trade and aid to North Korea (until such time as that country wound down its missile and nuclear weapons programmes). For Trump, that would be the set-up to reach further on trade issues once the time was ripe.

Pleased with himself, President Trump prepared to go on national television to explain how his unparalleled understanding of the art of the deal had gotten him where he was today. The Mexicans and the Muslim world were another set of problems, of course, but he would deal with them once he had tidied up these first two negotiations as tribute to his superior intellect and skill as a global dealmaker extraordinaire. (The howls of protest from long-time allies and partners, from Japan to Australia and from every Nato ally, would just have to be roadkill on the way to a new Trumpian global architecture.)”

We didn’t get everything right in predictions about the run-up to the election, but we think we caught much of it – as well as the electoral mood and the cynical nature of the Trumpian campaign – pretty much on the nose. Going forward, we hope we will be wrong about the events leading into the inauguration and thereafter, but we worry that the nation is now so divided we might be right here too. We also hope there is a gradual softening of some of Trump’s more outlandish ideas and fictional cures, and that he reaches out beyond his fellow Kool-Aid imbibers, as some of his early statements on Obamacare and that wall might be suggesting.

But we worry that the kinds of people he is likely to appoint to his administration (especially in light of those who are being brought in to staff the transition team) will only feed his fantasies about his great populist wave of making America great again. Or, alternatively, such appointments will signal a hard right turn, thereby feeding the frenzies of the various starkly conservative factions of the GOP – personified by Vice President-elect Mike Pence and advisors Steve Bannon, Newt Gingrich, and Rudi Giuliani – that exist in an uneasy coalition with the Trumpian nationalist-populist ideology of its leader. Pray the new president’s inaugural address does not echo the words we gave him in his would-be speech that read:

My administration will defend our nation against all those drug-dealing rapists and muggers moving north from ‘el Mexico’. You can bet your life savings I am going to build that wall and those stubborn Mexicans are going to pay for it. Promise. One hundred percent. The deportations will commence just as soon as I get into the Oval Office and can sign the papers.

We will bring back our jobs from China. We will send all those illegal immigrants back to wherever they came from; and we will crush those violent Muslim terrorists who are hell-bent on destroying our nation – wherever those awful cowards are hiding. And I will use whatever weapons I need to use to do just that with that big, beautiful, strong, very strong, very powerful, army I am going to build. And that’s a promise.”

If that is where we are headed, the weather report will not be a good one. DM

Photo: President-elect Donald Trump delivers remarks to members of the news media during a meeting with US President Barack Obama (not pictured) in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 10 November 2016. President-elect Donald Trump and future First Lady Melania Trump are meeting with President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House and are expected to discuss efforts toward a smooth transition of power. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS


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