The New Abnormal: A Month in Trump

 Michael Laws' Facebook post.  For the record, I'm not aware of anyone who calls me a journalist -- I certainly don't. 

Michael Laws' Facebook post.  For the record, I'm not aware of anyone who calls me a journalist -- I certainly don't. 

My ungenerous take, published by Fairfax, on Donald Trump’s inaugural address left former MP, school fundraiser and current Otago Regional Councillor, Michael Laws, seething.  Clinical depression, he claimed in a Facebook post, lay behind my critique. What’s more, my despairing account was apparently written with the intent to infect readers with the same “malady” (a quaint term of Laws’ choosing).  

Putting aside that the president Laws seeks to defend meets the criteria for more personality disorders than psychiatry can keep up with, I am curious as to how New Zealand’s own self-styled Svengali would characterise the mental health of the array of conservative columnists who gave Trump’s first speech even lower marks than me.  

The doyen of conservative commentators, the Washington Post’s George Will, called it the most “dreadful” inaugural speech in American history, an assessment that, by Laws’ reasoning, must demand urgent institutionalisation.  Weekly Standard editor and leading neoconservative intellectual Bill Kristol called the speech “depressing and vulgar” and former Republican presidential nominee John McCain’s close adviser and ghost writer, John Weaver, called it “dark, scary, authoritarian”.  By contrast, the former Klu Klux Klan Grand Wizard, David Duke, sides with Trump and Laws: KL“Hail Prez Trump!,” Duke raved on Twitter after the speech, “America First! Save USA borders not foreign. Make nations (((Israel)))? pay own defense! NO to (((Neocon))) warmongers!”.  One feature of the current political zeitgeist is how hard it is to keep up with the crazy. (The use of triple parentheses is commonly used on the alt-right to denote “Zio” or Jewish influence).

Alternative Facts

Enough time has passed to assess whether the mean-spirited, doom-laden speech was an outlier, or whether it pointed to the way Trump intends to approach the office of president.  At this early stage, for the benefit of amateur diagnosticians like Laws, I am left feeling more aghast than depressed.  

Let’s take a quick review of the first month of Trump’s challenges and accomplishments to date.

Trump began his presidency by lying about the number of people who attended his inauguration and insisting his minions do the same.  This gave rise to the priceless emergence, via Trump’s talking head of choice, Kellyanne Conway, of the phrase “alternative facts” -- a term that will resonate in the political lexicon far beyond the president’s eventual (in order of likelihood) impeachment, defeat or retirement.  The fibbing extended to television ratings, a notorious Trump obsession: Obama’s inauguration in 2009 attracted eight million more viewers, another fact the new President cannot abide and thus discards in favour of bald, baseless assertions to the contrary.     

In between this brazen lying, Trump managed to drive a fatal stake into the barely beating heart of the Trans-Pacific Partnership; reinstitute the gag rule that prevents USAID from funding reproductive health in developing countries; and codify some vague commitments to rid America of Obamacare without the faintest hint as to what might replace it.  

By day five, Trump was fast-tracking the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines against the vocal opposition of environmental groups and in spite of the dubious cost-benefit of either in an economy that, thanks in large part to Obama’s first term stimulus package, employs more people in the production of clean energy than fossil fuels.  

Meanwhile, the Mexican president cancelled a planned trip to meet the new President after Trump issued another meaningless proclamation about building a wall along the US border, despite the fact more Mexicans are leaving than entering the US.  The wall, now estimated to cost in excess of $20 billion, will not be built.  (Congress, finely attuned to poll numbers and eager to direct funds to tax cuts, will not bankroll the vanity project of a President who enters his second month with a measly and unprecedented approval rating of 39 percent).  

Then there was the bizarrely and needlessly hostile encounter with Malcolm Turnbull over the craven Nauru refugee deal. Days later, Trump was barred from the British Parliament by Speaker John Bercow on the unambiguous grounds of racism, stemming from a spectacularly botched Muslim ban.  

Rhetoric Meets Reality

The regime’s rushed, hamfisted approach to border security has turned one of Trump’s most powerful campaign issues into a scrap over the respective roles of the co-equal branches of the US government, as well as an indictment on the new administration’s capacity to translate campaign trail rhetoric -- memorably described by immigration expert Mark Krikorian as “Archie Bunkerisms” -- into governing reality.  The initial executive order to ban nationals from seven Muslim majority countries from entering the US has been held up on constitutional grounds by a succession of federal judges, causing Trump to launch unprecedented Twitter attacks on the America’s ferociously independent judicial branch. Presidents have quarrelled with court rulings in the past -- including Obama, on guns and campaign finance -- but you have to reach back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s efforts to stack the Supreme Court bench to find a president willing to impugn the integrity and political motives of judges. Trump’s outbursts even caused his Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, to describe the president’s outbursts “disheartening and demoralising”.  

Efforts to protect national security abroad have also failed to inspire confidence in the basic competency of the Trump White House: their first counterterrorism effort was such a debacle, leaving a US serviceman and a civilian child dead, that the government in Yemen temporarily banned the US military from conducting operations from their territory.  

Scandals Pile Up

Then there’s Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education secretary, who received more “nay” votes from senators than every past nominee for that position combined. Her confirmation required the casting vote of Vice President Trump as moderate Republicans joined Democrats in opposition.  Similarly, far-right Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions at Justice, Exxon Mobil’s Rex Tillerson at State and Goldman Sachs’ old boy Steven Mnunchin at Treasury got a much harder time than most cabinet nominees at this stage of a new administration.  The nominee to head the Labor Department, Andrew Puzder, withdrew altogether, due in part to revelations of spousal abuse courtesy of no less than Oprah Winfrey, who released a damning 1998 interview with his ex wife.  Puzder, a fast-food billionaire whose restaurants employ thousands of undocumented workers, was also seen as insufficiently tough on immigration by Republican hardliners, and by Democrats as a scourge of low-paid workers.  Puzder’s sudden return to the private sector was greeted warmly across the spectrum.  

Then came Day 15, when Kellyanne Conway scolded the media for its failure to adequately cover the Bowling Green Massacre, a terrorist attack that never took place. A day or so later came Conway’s public and repeated promotion of Ivanka Trump’s line of clothes and accessories, earning a rebuke from the government ethics watchdog.  Conway can be forgiven for thinking she was on safe ground since her boss used the White House Twitter account 24 hours earlier to berate Nordstrom, the upmarket retail chain which decided on the grounds of precipitously declining sales to drop Ivanka’s apparel line.

Out Like Flynn

Not all ethics violations are created equal, and none to date come close to Michael Flynn, the erratic national security advisor, who resigned after it turned out he had been lying about premature conversations with the Russian Ambassador on the subject of sanctions Obama put in place during the campaign as evidence mounted of nefarious activity by Russia-backed hackers in cahoots with Wikileaks.  

While lying itself is far from a sacking offence in this Administration (all available evidence suggests it is actively encouraged), even Trump couldn’t abide Flynn co-opting Vice President Pence to repeat these falsehoods during multiple television appearances.  Little surprise, then,  the man-tapped to replace Flynn, retired vice-admiral Bob Harward, declined the offer, opting to — repeat after me — spend more time with his family. Reports soon emerged that Harward’s decision stemmed from the White House’s refusal to keep political staff cordoned off from national security deliberations. Veteran neoconservative, John Bolton, who served as George W Bush’s United Nations Ambassador, is widely tipped to inherit the role — an appointment bound to exacerbate mistrust between the White House and the intelligence community who consider Bolton a dangerous zealot. (UPDATE: H.R. McMaster, a well-respected Lt. General, was ultimately shoulder-tapped for the role). 

The Russia issue threatens to consume several months’, if not years’, worth of political oxygen as the House and Senate Intelligence Committees commence parallel investigations, alongside the FBI’s, to verify increasingly plausible evidence that Trump officials were indeed collaborating with Russian intelligence officials to derail Hillary Clinton’s campaign.  Add to that the increasingly plausible-seeming dossier on Trump and his Russia ties, compiled by a well known and widely respected former British intelligence officer.  U.S. intelligence sources have already been able to verify calls listed in the report between key players in the brewing scandal, even if the more salacious aspects of the dossier (not suitable for a family publication) may never extend beyond urban myth. In any event, Trump’s hotel room proclivities are far less consequential than the broader question: did the Russians interfere in the US election on Trump’s behalf, and did members of his team help them do it?  If so, it would relegate Watergate to Tuku Morgan’s underpants by comparison.  

The art of the distraction

Unflattering media reports surrounding the circumstances of Flynn’s departure -- much of it based on leaks from within intelligence agencies -- led Trump to take the bully pulpit in hand and front a press conference for more than an hour on Day 25.  It was surrealist theatre, horrifying and hugely entertaining at once.  John Dean, Richard Nixon’s former White House counsel who also served as an advisor to Dwight Eisenhower, told MSNBC the performance as the most “classless” he has witnessed from any president over his long career. Conservative New York Times columnist, David Brooks, called it “mildly deranged” which strikes me as one adverb too many.  Dire reviews like these prompted Trump, as is his wont, to double down on his now familiar attacks on “fake news”, singling out the New York Times, CNN, NBC News as “enemies of the American people”.  Presidential historians have searched in vain for any such chilling public pronouncement from Trump’s predecessors.  Sure, Nixon berated the press mercilessly (caught doing so by his own surveillance tapes), but at least he did so while drunk and in private. What’s Trump’s excuse?

One of the more benign theories surrounding Trump’s rocky first month is that the extraordinary amount of leaking and counter-leaking from inside the Oval Office reflects a strategy of creative destruction, and that the President has deliberately surrounded himself with contestable centres of influence: chief of staff, Reince Preibus, a creature of mainstream Republicanism in one corner; ultranationalists Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller in the other. It’s no secret which side is winning the president’s ear. Rumours are rife that Preibus’ days are numbered, and that the search for his replacement is underway.  Populist hardliners, driven, above all, by antipathy to mainstream Republicans, are holding ever greater sway, making a mockery of claims Trump would discard the radically anti-establishment tone of his campaign and pivot to the centre once installed in the Oval Office.  

Matt K. Lewis, a conservative columnist at The Daily Beast, told me Republican lawmakers are obliged to challenge Trump’s extreme actions to preserve their party’s brand and protect their own careers, but are holding fire over fears of a backlash from the president’s riled-up base, if not direct personal assaults from the @POTUS Twitter account.  Few have the gravitas or reserves of courage John McCain displayed at the Munich Security Conference two weeks back when he told the global foreign policy elite that the White House is in “disarray”, a self-evident observation beyond his more timorous colleagues.  For other Republican leaders, accommodation with Trump is motivated less by fear than self-interest (the only horse trying, as Paul Keating liked to say).  By turning a blind eye to Trump’s more egregious acts, they can reliably expect in return a presidential signature on their major policy initiatives: repealing and replacing Obamacare, tax cuts for the rich, Medicare privatisation and rolling back environmental, banking and labour regulations. Matt Lewis explained that Trump’s relationships within his own party are purely transactional : as long as he signs off on Speaker Ryan’s reform agenda, no outrage emanating from the White House is great enough to earn their public disavowal.  

Quid Pro Quo

For the moment at least, Ryan’s accommodationist strategy is paying dividends. Trump has signed off on a raft of executive orders designed to restore the supremacy of America’s financial institutions, the titans of which stalk the Trump White House like a Lehman Bros cover band.  Consumer protection measures: ditched.  Limits on CEO pay: gone. Tax cuts for the super-rich can’t be far behind, eagerly nudged along by House Speaker Paul Ryan, the Philippe Pétain of Vichy Republicans.  So much for the economic populism we were promised.  Devoid of any real economic ideas beyond monosyllabic slogans, Trump has succumbed to the same old Republican trickle-down nonsense that created both the last and the inevitable next Global Financial Crisis.  

Trump is proving himself equally willing to follow Republican orthodoxy on guns, happily signing off on Republican moves to rescind Obama rules that required a background check for the mentally ill prior to acquiring firearms. (This, I guess, would include me in the unlikely event I took up weapons-stockpiling as a hobby).

Four weeks in, almost exactly the same number of Americans want Trump impeached (46%) as voted for him, even in the absence of any obviously impeachable offence.  Perhaps Laws would put this down to a mass outbreak of mood disorders, although more might be inclined to ponder the state of Trump’s mental faculties than bother worrying about mine.