Give thanks for this White House chaos

Published by The ipaper (21st August, 2017)

It seems incredible but it has only been seven months since Donald Trump became 45th president of the United States. Seven months since this bigoted braggart followed the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman into the White House. Seven months of seeing the planet’s superpower led by a preening man-child. Seven months of his boasts, his lies, his sabre-rattling, his tantrums on Twitter and his aides fighting each other rather than running the nation.

One thing is certain: these seven months have confounded his defenders who argued that while he ran as an outsider against the system he would turn out, like Ronald Reagan, to be a leader of generous spirit and great stature. Instead, as shown again last week, he has proved he is not fit for the top job, flirting with fascists after a far-right brawl led to bloodshed rather than offering soothing words of unity for his shocked nation. And now the boss has lost his consigliere.

Few here in Washington are mourning Steve Bannon’s departure, although many fear what he will do next now back in control of his media outlet. He was often seen as Trump’s controller, although wiser heads suggest the pair found a meeting of fetid minds when they met. Bannon was the strategist who helped shape populism that tapped into resentment and put a reality television star in power. Perhaps his strategy was less scattergun, his vision more complete with its crass nationalism that embraced loathing of globalisation, fear of Muslims and enmity with China.

This ousting raises two key questions. First, can such a vain and volatile character as Donald Trump ever be controlled enough to focus on doing his job? Bannon’s exit is seen as victory for John Kelly, the former marine general trying to impose order on the chaotic White House as chief of staff. Indeed, among many strange aspects of this Trump administration is how three generals are seen as moderating forces amid the madness. Yet the biggest problem is the president, not his aide.

This was seen again when Trump refused to stick to the presidential script following the Charlottesville terror attack. After provoking global outrage by blaming both sides in street brawling, he was restrained into reading a statement condemning white supremacists. Just one day later he went rogue again by drawing moral equivalence between far-right agitators and those opposing their actions, claiming neo-Nazis chanting anti-semitic slogans were just ‘protesting very quietly’ over a statue’s removal. The populist put pandering to his base before national duty, regardless of consequences.

I spent Saturday in Boston, observing an impressive response by tens of thousands of ordinary people to another fringe right event. The mood was angry but orderly, with many heartfelt homemade signs against hate. I saw an emphasis on non-violence, with muscular military veterans surrounding free speech oddballs and Trump fans to protect them. Yet the president’s first response was to tweet that it ‘looks like many anti-police agitators in Boston’. Later he rectified this, probably under pressure, by praising the stand against bigotry.

It is hard to believe someone who won power by flouting perceived wisdoms, needs his name mentioned in intelligence briefings to keep reading them and talks loosely about potentially-explosive global events is going to be corralled by convention. It is not in his character. Look at the ludicrous tweets about a general stopping ‘radical Islamic terror’ by killing people with bullets coated in pig’s blood. And while Bannon has departed the big internal policy divisions remain – and indeed, may be inflamed by Breitbart ’s informed attacks.

But give thanks for Trump’s failure. For as the New York Times said in an editorial, one measure of despair over this demeaning leader is that people can draw comfort from chaos and incompetence that would usually be cause for concern. There has been bold talk, hyperbolic tweets and appointment of a conservative Supreme Court judge – but executive orders remain largely unfulfilled, key attempts at reform such as on health care faltered and many other core pledges fallen from view.

Look even at immigration: yes, there has been a surge in arrests of illegals, but the number of border patrol officers has fallen despite Trump’s pledge on taking office to hire 5,000 new agents. Border crossings are down but so are deportations, with officials set to expel 10,000 fewer people this year than in Barack Obama’s final year in power. Trump’s contempt for voters was exposed in the leaked transcript of a phone call to Mexico’s president in which he said the infamous wall was ‘the least important thing we are talking about, but politically might be the most important.’

The second question raised by Trump’s repellent response to far-right thuggery was posed by Tom Ridge, a former Republican governor of Pennsylvania. ‘At what point does a principled party stand up for its principles?’ he asked. ‘You can’t be afraid of losing an election because you stood up for what is right.’ Ridge is correct: his party has sold its soul to push a conservative agenda that is going nowhere, tormented by fears of fissure on the right ahead of critical elections next year.

The Republicans risk deserved and long-term damage by displaying loyalty to this pathetic and useless president in search of short-term boost at the ballot box. Last week’s events underlined the party’s perception of intolerance, perhaps its biggest problem. Its leaders, fearful of the grass roots insurgency that put Trump into power, have ignored his open attacks on them. But as Martin Luther King once said: ‘There comes a time when silence is betrayal.’

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