From Paris to London, it only ever gets worse with Trump

by Paul Thomas / 14 June, 2017
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Illustration/Weef

As the US President delivers jolt after jolt, Paul Thomas suggests we would all be better off listening to Ariana Grande. 

If you thought America’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change proves US President Donald Trump doesn’t give two hoots about the rest of the world or the fate of the planet, I have bad news: it’s worse than that.

It also goes to show that Trump’s support base, broadly speaking the 40% or so of the electorate who will always vote for the conservative in the race, don’t give two hoots about their non-American fellow human beings or our common habitat.

Furthermore, the Republican Party’s elected leaders cannot be relied upon to resist the glowering nationalism of Trump and the base: with the honourable exception of a few holdouts, congressional Republicans have either been cowed or have drunk the Kool-Aid. Some would prefer a leader who was less the Ugly American in excelsis, but the inescapable truth is that Trump isn’t an aberration, an accidental president who emerged through some freakish and unforeseeable convergence of events. On the contrary, the fever that seized US conservatism earlier this century and has burnt more fiercely with each passing year was always going to give rise to Trumpism or something like it.

The trauma that caused the infection to spread from the appendages, where it had long resided, to the trunk was Barack Obama’s election in 2008. In September 2010, I wrote in another publication that “Obama’s election seemed like a transformational moment in American history. Even as a stain on the national honour was being rinsed out, the inspirational narrative of log cabin to White House was reaffirmed. The ongoing fraudulent or wilfully ignorant attacks on Obama’s legitimacy suggest this assumption was premature.”

The most brazen of these attacks was Birtherism, the name given to the spurious claim that Obama wasn’t born in the US and was therefore ineligible to be president. The Birtherest-in-Chief was Donald J Trump.

Obama’s election deepened America’s liberal-conservative divide and fanned the flames of the culture wars that were all over bar the shouting in most of the Western world. To old, white America, a black man in the White House meant their worst nightmare – of losing “their” America, of being swamped by otherness as a result of changing demographics – was coming to pass. When early returns on election night 2012 indicated Obama would be re-elected, Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly declared: “Obama wins because it’s not a traditional America any more. The white Establishment is the minority.”

Ariana Grande. Photo/Getty Images

Conservative fightback

As Obama was taking the oath of office in January 2009, Republicans led by then Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell privately pledged to do everything in their power to ensure he was a one-term president. The strategy was simple: obstruct, stymie, thwart. If Obama was for it, they would be against it, regardless of its merits. Party before country.

In his 2016 memoir, The Long Game, McConnell seethes over what he regards as Obama’s intellectual pretensions: “[Obama’s] like the kid in your class who exerts a hell of a lot of effort making sure everyone thinks he’s the smartest one in the room … Almost without exception, Obama begins serious policy discussions by explaining why everyone else is wrong. After he assigns straw men to your views, he enthusiastically attempts to knock them down with a theatrically earnest relitigation of what you’ve missed about his brilliance.” The chapter is titled “Professor Obama”; a heading that better captured its tone and theme would be “Uppity Negro”.

Trump and his rumpled grey eminence Stephen Bannon recognised that the failure of John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 to capitalise on the white, right rage Obama had brought to the boil lay in their inability or unwillingness to forge an emotional connection with white working-class males. A precondition of embracing populism was abandoning traditional Republicanism – internationalist, pro-big business, paternalistic, wary of any sort of fundamentalism – hence McCain’s and Romney’s diffidence. Trump, on the other hand, a man of no fixed principles, a chancer untroubled by either legal niceties or conscience, a natural-born showman who’d honed his shtick in reality television and lived by HL Mencken’s proposition that no one ever lost money “by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people”, was the right demagogue in the right place at the right time.

Trump’s elevation formalised Republicanism’s transformation. “From an ideological standpoint,” says Tim Miller, Jeb Bush’s former communications director, “the centre of gravity is moving towards the populist right. I don’t see us swinging back.” Seeing the writing on the wall, congressional Republicans justify their surrender to Trumpism by intoning “the people have spoken” and exploiting the policy vacuum in the White House to ratchet up their assault on anything that smacks of “welfarism”.

Conservative commentator Charlie Sykes is “absolutely convinced that [Trump] remains unfit for office, but that doesn’t mean that I think anyone will take steps to do anything”. Those who believe otherwise, he says, misunderstand “the nature of the current Republican Party. With every passing day, it becomes the defining characteristic of this party that they won’t stand up to Trump.”

Communications consultant Liz Mair, another anti-Trump Republican, is blunter: “I have maintained my entire political career that the Republican Party is one of the most gutless collections of individuals on the planet.”

We can interpret the well-heeled Republican candidate Greg Gianforte’s victory in the recent special election in Montana despite being cited to appear in court for physically assaulting a journalist on election eve as a sign of the times, but the populist right’s hatred of the media isn’t new. Before Trump’s “fake news”, there was Sarah Palin’s “lamestream media”. We can reel with disbelief when a Republican congressman advises people not to worry about climate change, because if it is a real problem, “God will take care of it”. Then we remember the 2010 Harris Poll, in which 22% of Republican-supporting respondents admitted to believing Obama is the anti-Christ.

We can be amazed by Republicans’ nonchalance over Russian meddling in the election and ties to Trump’s inner circle; then we remember that in March 2015, without reference to the White House, the GOP leadership invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to appear before a joint sitting of Congress to denounce the nuclear deal with Iran being negotiated by the Obama administration and other governments. Netanyahu predictably played the Holocaust card, accusing Obama of abandoning Israel to a “genocidal enemy”.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats’ leader in the House of Representatives, described the speech as “an insult to the intelligence of the United States” that had her on the verge of tears. Republicans gave Netanyahu 25 standing ovations. Their preference for a foreign leader over the US President, their willingness to give the floor to that foreign leader to launch an unscrupulous attack on their own Government, signalled that partisanship has supplanted patriotism as Republicanism’s bedrock principle. The foot-dragging and obstructionism in getting to the bottom of the Russian connection merely confirm it. Now Trump, with his clear preference for leaders who don’t share America’s core values over those who do, has taken this perverse mindset to the international stage.

Vladimir Putin. Photo/Getty Images

Climate change? What climate change?

For Trump, yanking America out of the Paris Agreement was a win-win. For a start, it enabled him to be “decisive” by taking an action that couldn’t be blocked in the courts and wasn’t subject to a vote in the legislature. Second, it played to a base that clings to its smokestack dreams of industries that are gone, never to return; that delights in the metropolitan elite’s impotent outrage; and revels in the validation of its own sullen ignorance. Every dimwit who reckons climate change is rubbish because it’s unseasonably cold and dismisses the scientific community’s warnings because to attach value to knowledge and scientific enquiry would be to acknowledge their own inadequacies now feels a righteous glow of vindication: the US President, the most powerful person in the world, has come down on their side of the argument.

The other big winner was Russian leader Vladimir Putin, since America’s withdrawal was an abrogation of leadership. Following Trump’s pointed refusal to commit to honouring Nato’s Article 5, which, if invoked, requires members to come to the aid of a fellow member under attack, it’s hard to resist the assumption that we are witnessing the slide into Fortress America isolationism that was promised during the campaign but which the President’s cadre of political generals had downplayed as mere rhetoric.

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel drew the obvious conclusion and told an election rally – in a Munich beer hall for those thrilled or spooked by ominous historical echoes – that “the times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over”, Putin must have pinched himself: since 1945, the Soviet Union/Russia’s key strategic aim has been the decoupling of the US and Europe. When the UK, America’s closest ally, entered the then European Economic Community in 1973, the aim expanded to include decoupling Britain and Europe. Trump and his buddy Nigel Farage, the leader of the Brexit campaign, have done their best to make Russia’s wishes come true.

The Guardian recently reported that Farage is “a person of interest” in the US counter-intelligence investigation into possible collusion between the Kremlin and Trump’s presidential campaign because of his relationship with various campaign operatives and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Within Western intelligence circles, debate is ongoing over whether WikiLeaks, which released hacked material damaging to Hillary Clinton during the presidential election campaign, is a Russian front organisation or a “useful idiot”, a person or organisation in the West who serves Soviet interests without realising it.

Julian Assange. Photo/Getty Images

International ridicule

Since Trump’s earliest forays into politics in the 1980s, his core message hasn’t changed: America is failing; the rest of the world is laughing at us and taking advantage of us; I will make America great again. In fact, the exact opposite was and is true: under Obama, America regained the respect of the international community that was squandered in Iraq; Trump’s election has placed the US in the hands of deplorables and extremists, thereby stunning and dismaying the rest of the world, with a few notable exceptions; his conduct in office has made the US an object of international ridicule and threatens to transform the world’s most powerful nation into a rogue state bereft of common decency and indifferent to our shared humanity and aspirations. America has been great for a long time, but now there’s something rotten in the District of Columbia.

If you think that’s overstating it, ask yourself this: in the wake of the terror attacks in the UK, which American touched and uplifted the British public – the 70-year-old President, who used the horror to push his Muslim travel ban and mendaciously trolled London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan, or 23-year-old pop star Ariana Grande, whose benefit concert for the victims of the Manchester bombing was a powerful and moving expression of solidarity and joyful defiance?

This article was first published in the June 17, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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