REFLECTIONS ON PRESIDENT TRUMP SITTING IN THE DOG HOUSE
January 28, 2019
The US government shutdown is over. At long last, President Donald Trump is eating the humble pie.
As if to highlight the President’s childlike petulance, so vividly displayed in the five weeks since his government ground to a halt, the first Trump-related news story to cross the Atlantic immediately after his inevitable shutdown defeat was the announcement that sanctions had been lifted from three major Russian companies, all linked (via oligarch Oleg Deripaska) to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The timing may well be coincidental: yet it’s hard to dismiss the thought this predictably controversial move is The Donald’s way of reminding the public (and himself too?) that he can still do what he wants, when he wants to - most of the time?
Extending US largesse towards Russia’s industrial-political class when investigations into Trump’s Russian interests are approaching a climax - suspicions of Russian-aided election interference lingers in the minds of many Americans - signals Trump’s indifference to the allegations. It risks inflaming the delicate situation. Not only is it a sensitive issue, it also poses potentially damaging repercussions for Pres. Trump. Lifting the sanctions re-emphasises the reality of the peculiar relationship between Presidents Trump and Putin. It’s no small move either: one of the three companies to benefit from lifted sanctions is aluminium-manufacturer, Rusal - one of the biggest corporations ever placed on the USA’s sanctions list and the second-largest producer of the metal in the world. The company has lost $9.2 billion of its value in the last seven months, so it can be argued the sanctions have worked and the time has come to lift them. Fair play.
Sanctions notwithstanding, making a generous gesture towards Russia at this point in time - at the end of a historic week for the Mueller investigation, a week in which Roger Stone (key architect of Trump’s presidential campaign) was arrested by the FBI on several charges - takes some nerve. Stone, a former Trump aide (hired and fired), has been a subject of the investigation partly on account of his communications with a Russian hacker.
The obvious play, were the President directly implicated in an election conspiracy, would be to distance himself from the alleged co-conspirators in Mueller’s case - namely, the Russians. Giving President Putin et cie a break he (Putin) will have much desired could have been seen as a faux pas. It hasn’t been. Either way, the concessionary move underlines the healthiness of the ‘special relationship’ between Presidents Trump and Putin. Perhaps it also conveys Trump’s lack of concern, real or affected, regarding the Mueller investigation and any revelations pending as to the legal nature of the presidents’ friendship? It does appear to indicate Trump’s confidence in his own office, in spite of the vigorous cries of impeachment that have threatened to derail Trump for most of his presidency.
At least he’s not starting another Cold War.
Additionally, it has to be acknowledged that Trump remains an enigmatic figure - a leader whose next moves can’t be predicted easily, if at all. One has to credit him with remaining a Riddler. This is a man who negotiates by…non-negotiation.
His negotiating powers failed him when he made the Big Ask - for billions of taxpayer dollars to fund building of a 3,000 mile-long wall along the US-Mexico border. You’d think he’d have anticipated the resistance to his idea? The scheme is just as disputatious as the Russian election-interference allegations. It rings of outmoded thinking and anachronism to many Americans: in this matter the President seems to forget that we’re living in a virtually networked era; a digital era whose great hope is the removal of walls and barriers of all kinds…including the analogue kind. The proposition is as harebrained as can be, from a logistical point of view. Financially speaking, it’s unjustifiable. It’s a joke, even. A campaign promise one took with a pinch of salt…until now. Recent weeks have made it clear that, for Trump, the Wall is a project to be taken deadly seriously.
Aside from the primitive nature of the plan itself; besides its impracticality, and never mind the make-work involved, in constructing, maintaining and policing a Great American Wall - these and other criticisms aside, one intriguing aspect of President Trump’s die-hard approach to securing a green light and necessary capital has transpired only in the last few weeks. The deeper intrigue lies in his demonstration of a highly emotional attachment to the Big Bad Idea of the wall project - an idea that, admittedly, grabbed many a voter’s attention. Trump had been falling back in the race for the White House and around midway through, he decided to change tactics - by appealing to voters’ baser instincts.
The construction of a fortified wall presented them with an a solid and unforgettable - an aspirational - image of American might and power. It was accompanied by vulgar and highly un-presidential outbursts of racism, along with a series of insults directed towards the Mexican people. The thinking went like this: If we strike fear into Americans’ hearts; if we provide them with a clear and present danger to fear, and then point to a scapegoat upon which they may project their own fears (by blaming another country for whatever’s gone wrong in America); if we can sufficiently sensationalise otherwise-normal fears for the future, then we can leverage these exaggerated fears into votes for the Republican Party. It was (sadly) a successful example of aggressive propaganda by symbolic means.
The fearful symbol was Mexico, all of a sudden - and the solution to this so-called ‘problem’ was the construction of a wall. The ploy worked, as the symbolic wall consolidated numerous domestic resentments into a single-minded hostility towards Mexico and the would-be threat it posed to America. An absurd threat of being overrun by Mexican immigrants...when the USA’s Hispanic and Latin-American percentage of the population (around 18%) already constitutes the largest ethnic minority in the States. Despite this and a thousand other credible critiques of the project one can make, Pres. Trump’s personal belief in this high-profile plan evidently remains undaunted. The level of his attachment to it was reflected by his - by most standards, desperate - strategy of holding the government hostage, so as to demonstrate his determination to have his way. Above all, on this item of his agenda.
He never ceases to amaze. Could there be an ulterior, undisclosed motive - or does Trump really, truly, favour the idea of a Great American Wall…in the spirit of the demolished Berlin Wall? His actions suggest the Berlin model. The wall, in theory, perfectly symbolises his exclusive vision of the American Dream, wherein the USA is an economically self-sufficient superpower and its best response to global competition is...starting a trade war. Welcome to Fortress America.
The bigger surprise lies in his one-man demonstration, in recent weeks, which suggest Trump’s wall is not a merely psychological lever; instead, it’s a genuine plan of action. A course he’s prepared to pursue single-mindedly...as he has recently shown.
Promising to build this wall helped get Trump elected. It’s natural that he would identify in a particular way with the ugly but effective promise he made. What alarms one now is the President’s apparent fidelity to his vision - a vision of conquest by division. No one would have thought twice if he’d bailed on the campaign promise in the spirit of renouncing a louche but successful electioneering slogan - once it has performed its task as a voter mobilisation device. Once the race has finished, that is; once the sober reality of running a superpower has set in. There would likely not have been riots across the nation had Trump failed to follow up on the idea so promptly. Promising is one thing; making it happen is another...and some things are better in theory than in practice. America has domestic issues, too; immigration from the south isn’t the highest priority of all, is it?
One might erroneously have assumed his promise was empty because it would be true to character if it were? Or would it?
How much do we actually know about the man in the White House? How much can and how much will we ever know? How well does Pres. Trump know himself, even? Since he entered the Oval Office he has proven his constancy in behaving as unpredictably as possible - now more than ever. Generating uncertainty is more a defect in a leader than it is a virtue, isn’t it? Unpredictability can be deemed a character defect; the people will swallow it if they have no choice. However, what happens when capricious improvisation reveals itself to be an authentic modus operandi? If this M.O. has in fact been more carefully thought out than it first seemed, what’s the real endgame? Can we take Trump’s word after all?
Who knows what he’s thinking? It is hard to tell...because he has truly succeeded in isolating himself from the press. Despite this, he attempts to control it in the same way dictators run propaganda through television channels they own by proxy. Thanks to Twitter, his punchy efforts to manipulate or override the national conversation frequently do hit home. Lack of media ownership hasn’t restrained Trump’s penchant for broadcasting - nor his ability. His reign is one of confusion; he rules largely thanks to the confusion he creates by overindulging his impulsive nature to the extent he becomes all but impossible to deal with.
If such a border wall were ever to be built, permission to build would hardly be granted without endless due diligence, in addition to a solid resistance he must have anticipated... Given that America’s Great Wall will strike many patriots, as well as hipsters, as a fabulous waste of money and a historic step backwards, too. It would appear, at least to the liberal elite Trump so despises, like a giant step back towards the darker ages. One step closer to a medieval United States. A nation remade in the image of the dystopian movie, Children of Men.
In the meantime, the televised vision of the American Dream innocuously resembles the Thunderbirds TV series popular with children of the 1980s… And a vision Trump clearly admires. One he tries hard to mimic by coercing the telegenic First Lady to join him in sporting red baseball caps and flying alongside him in the blue presidential helicopter, so that he can maximise the paparazzo impact by providing them with a spectacle in the tried-and-tested style of Team America - swooping down from the skies to rescue the Rest of the World from itself. It’s an easily digested, easily manufactured image; and it’s a dependable marketing routine. It’s also an illusion. It jars with his fascistic fantasy of a Closed America. The latter fantasy jars with just about every value associated with the United States - including its identity as an open society.
It’s as unrealistic and non-viable a project as it is an unlikely one. Another president might have backed away from extremist campaign promises in light of the last point - but not Trump. The worry, therefore, is that the US President is lacking in realism and objectivity. He may well be a full-bore fantasist. It’s not the wall as much as it’s his reaction to resistance against the wall - that’s what makes one wonder about his sanity. It questions his fitness to lead at all.
The American President can’t much enjoy the problem that is the democratic process itself. He can’t have liked not getting what he wanted when he wanted it...especially after such an imperious stand-off as a government shutdown. One wouldn’t want to have seen his grumpy, morning face last Sunday - the day his shutdown surrender was announced.
He’s no oil painting on a good day, of course. Trump’s range of facial expression isn’t wide; one can’t easily recall a moment his expression wasn’t sour. The pasty-white skin: like a chicken’s, with a gizzard to match; perma-pursed, bloodless lips communicating the dismay of a spoiled kid sulking; the downturned smile; tobacco-stained wig. His expression must have been sourer than ever on January 27th.
The word from a source inside Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s home-from-home in Palm Beach, Florida, has a delectably ominous register. The word is that “change is coming” - a phrase frequently repeated by Mar-a-Lago regulars in the last month. Translated, this means something like ‘a game-changer is pending; it’s imminent’. Trump has surely trodden on the toes of the wrong people at times; people who have held their tongues while Trump wagged his own [tongue] incessantly, without forethought or afterthought. Something sure is about to give… Someone’s vendetta against the King of Vendettas now sitting* inside the Oval Office must be in the offing. No doubt about it. It’s America: there’s never going to be a hegemony, nor a heavyweight boxing champion, for long. One suspects the “change…coming” may have much to do with the Mueller probe, which by now must have accrued endless amounts of evidence? Having Roger Stone charged with various crimes could also constitute the pivotal change they whisper about in and around Mar-a-Lago?
Surely Trump’s surly obstinacy in regard to claiming his presidential prize when he decrees it (the Border Wall) has been felt - painfully - by just about every political cohort? At what point does Trump’s karma return to haunt him? This is the question.
Trump’s challenge - or one of them - being: his and his proxies’ shoddy deal-making diligence. They exhibited a naivete which suggests a limited intelligence. Yet who needs intelligence when your name is Baron Munchhausen but you’re more of a ‘fairground baron’ than the descendant of great warriors. More a huckster than a leader upon noble paths. Ignorant and not afraid to show it, either. - That’s the essence of Trump’s political brand: the authenticity garnered by gleefully displaying improper or graceless behaviour (or worse).
Don’t count him out completely. Who knows what is coming down the line when you have a US President who gets on with few people, even on his own team - in addition to disregarding most advisers or, if not, switching human resources so fast and furiously, there’s little point seeking counsel amongst available experts unless you establish a rapport.
It’s not a new story. The kings or emperors who refused, point-blank, to listen to the reasoning of others…and kept their own counsel in most or all matters. The change comes fast, when it comes to these types. Having run out friends, typically, said rulers have no inkling of what’s coming for them. And, of course, when the change does arrive, there’s no one around to warn them it’s coming.
Will Trump need forcible eviction from the premise of the White House when the time comes?
It’s a lovely image. It’s how Nixon went down, and his former aide Roger Stone was last seen being escorted from a building by the boys in blue. However and whenever and why ever Trump leaves the White House, it should be a spectacle - one way or another.
I wonder if anyone in the Trump Era still doubts the adage that “all publicity is good publicity”? - You have to credit him with proving that point - well beyond most expectations.