Trump’s first six months of crisis
In July last year, less than a week after his father secured the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump jnr appeared on CNN’s State of the Union program. His interlocutor was Jake Tapper, who opened with a question on Russian influence. “Robby Mook, the campaign manager for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, I asked him about the DNC leak,” Tapper said. “And he suggested that experts are saying that Russians were behind both the leak – the hacking of the DNC emails – and their release. He seemed to be suggesting that this is part of a plot to help Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton. Your response?”
Trump jnr’s response was to affect disgust. “Well, it just goes to show you their exact moral compass,” he said. “I mean, they will say anything to be able to win this. I mean, this is time and time again, lie after lie… It’s disgusting. It’s so phoney. I watched him bumble through the interview… I mean, I can’t think of bigger lies, but that exactly goes to show you what the DNC and what the Clinton camp will do. They will lie and do anything to win.”
We now know that just four weeks before this interview, Trump jnr – along with former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and senior Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner – met with a Kremlin-linked lawyer in Trump Tower. There was no doubt about the purpose of the meeting – it’s revealed in a series of emails Trump jnr himself published last week, in a bid to pre-empt The New York Times’ imminent publication of them. Trump jnr and his father’s associates were there to receive dirt on their campaign rival, Hillary Clinton, from a hostile foreign government. It is spelt out by the unlikely intermediary for the meeting, Rob Goldstone, a former tabloid journalist and now manager of B-grade music talent.
“The crown prosecutor of Russia,” Goldstone wrote to Trump jnr, “offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father. This is obviously very high-level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump.”
To which Trump jnr replied: “If it’s what you say I love it.”
The revelation contradicts a slew of comments made by those close to the president. Here’s Trump jnr in March: “Did I meet with people that were Russian? I’m sure, I’m sure I did. But none that were set up. None that I can think of at the moment. And certainly none that I was representing the campaign in any way, shape or form.”
And here’s Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks in November last year: “It never happened. There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign.”
Trump jnr and Manafort will publicly testify before congress next week and the matter – if it wasn’t already being examined – will be referred to the five investigations exploring Trump’s links with Russia.
It is always busy in Trumpland. In the week marking six months of the Trump presidency came historically low polls; the collapse of the Republican healthcare bill; Trump’s expression of regret in hiring his attorney-general; the revelation of a second, undeclared meeting with Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit, breaching national security protocol; and the sad news that one of the president’s most credible critics, Senator John McCain, had been diagnosed with brain cancer. “I realise that I come to Australia at a time when many are questioning whether America is still committed to these values,” McCain told an audience at the State Library of NSW in May. “And you are not alone. Other American allies have similar doubts these days. And that is understandable. I realise that some of President Trump’s actions and statements have unsettled America’s friends. They have unsettled many Americans as well. There is a real debate under way now in my country about what kind of role America should play in the world. And frankly, I do not know how this debate will play out.
“What I do believe, and I do not think I am exaggerating here, is that the future of the world will turn, to a large extent, on how this debate in America is resolved.”
There were few kind editorials this week. The Wall Street Journal wrote: “Mr Trump somehow seems to believe that his outsize personality and social-media following make him larger than the Presidency. He’s wrong. He and his family seem oblivious to the brutal realities of Washington politics. Those realities will destroy Mr Trump, his family and their business reputation unless they change their strategy toward the Russia probe. They don’t have much more time to do it.”
Meanwhile, The Washington Post reflected on Trump’s ugly nonchalance following congress’s failure to pass repeal-and-replace legislation on healthcare, “Has there ever been a more cynical abdication of presidential responsibility?” the paper asked. “Mr Trump is apparently indifferent to the pain that sabotaging the individual health insurance market would cause millions of Americans. Congress must therefore act responsibly.”
It has been a depressing and scandalous six months. Trump has built nothing, alienated the world, and found scarce legislative wins. His rushed, ill-considered executive orders on immigration caused distress and disruption, and now only partially function after multiple court orders were applied. He has held only one solo press conference, grants few interviews outside of Fox News, and continues to admonish the media in a vulgar and alarming manner. He defied the G20 – and most of the world – by withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, and appears to enjoy warmer relations with Russia, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia than he does with the European Union. His administration has been self-destructive, mired in permanent crises.
To be fair, there have been successes: a strong and proportionate response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against its civilians; the relatively smooth appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court bench. But the diplomatic standing of the United States has been badly damaged. “Trump is what he is: a self-obsessed carnival barker with authoritarian instincts and little grasp of policy or history,” John Cassidy wrote this week in The New Yorker. “In the long run, his unwillingness (or inability) to change strategy means he is unlikely to go down in history as a transformative figure but, rather, one who exploited a unique set of conditions to win the Presidency.”
Shakespeare’s Lear was a king of exceptional power but no self-knowledge, who demanded love but never worked for it. Insensible with fury, Lear loses his throne, then his mind, and wanders the moors with a crown of weeds.
Trump wanders marbled halls and cyberspace, seeking love but finding offence. He admonishes aides for their incompetence and disloyalty, encouraging them to compete for his affection. He doesn’t grasp that their talents for dissembling are not equal to his destructions. His tweets, meanwhile, seem not so much intemperate but mad. “I heard poorly rating @Morning_Joe speaks badly of me (don’t watch anymore). Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came… to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year’s Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!”
No slight is too trivial to correct. No retort too vulgar to publicise. Trump’s staff are yet to wean their king from his great addiction: himself. It’s an addiction found in his compulsive viewing of cable news. He can’t stop watching himself, nor reacting to interpretations of himself. It’s a wasteful and slimy circle. Each of us has but fleeting time in this life, and we might expect the person who has assumed leadership of the free world to better spend his. Trump does not. He is offensively frivolous with time.
Barack Obama’s legacy is rightly contested, but he at least respected the office. Self-assured, he could still be humbled. He did his homework. He studied his predecessors. He meditated constantly on his responsibility. Most nights, he observed hours of quiet reflection in a private study away from the Oval Office.
Obama knew his power was significant, but contingent. He was aware of the hourglass. Time was always passing. Trump has no such respect for the office, for history, or time. A vacant solipsist, Trump orbits his own moon.
There were always questions about Trump’s mental acuity. The larger question regards its health. Trump’s ego is so self-contained that it seems to exist within a spooky vacuum. Six months into his presidency, he does not appear humbled by the office. In fact, he doesn’t appear changed by it at all. “In our 100 days report card back in April,” Axios journalist Mike Allen wrote this week, “Jim VandeHei and I noted that one of Trump’s ‘misses’ was: ‘Little personal growth in office’ – a loose style and resistance to structure that leaves White House aides insecure, and created internal inefficiencies and blind spots. As Trump approaches the six-month mark on Thursday ... that factor is still hampering his presidency, one-eighth of the way into this term.”
Trump remains lazy, capricious, thin-skinned and effortlessly deceitful.
Days before his inauguration, Trump paid televised tribute before the Lincoln monument – an homage he extended by employing for his oath the same Bible the 16th president used for his. It invited objectionable comparison. We may think that Americans sentimentally exaggerate Lincoln’s virtues, which would be true, but to read Lincoln’s private correspondence is to marvel at a rare wisdom, modesty and clarity of thought. For one, Lincoln was aware of his ambition, and he sought to prevent it from eclipsing his sense of justice. “Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others … Is it unreasonable then to expect that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.”
Trump is no towering genius, but his ambition and self-regard would have given Lincoln pause. Here’s Trump addressing a rally in Fort Dodge, Iowa, in late 2015: “I’m good at war. I’ve had a lot of wars of my own. I’m really good at war. I love war in a certain way, but only when we win.”
Lincoln borrowed copies of Shakespeare from the Library of Congress, and would recite lines from the histories and tragedies to friends. He had little time for the comedies. He read King Lear many times, but one of his favourite passages was Claudius’s confessional, guilt-stained soliloquy in Hamlet. “Oh, my offence is rank it smells to heaven.”
Of Shakespeare, Lincoln was attracted to the plays about the intoxication of ambition and the loss of moral imagination. Lincoln was no saint, but he had the virtue of knowing it.
Six months into Trump’s presidency, we have fresh polls. They are historically bad – just 36 per cent of Americans approved of Trump’s performance, the lowest number at this mark of a presidency in 70 years. Even Gerald Ford, widely loathed for pardoning Richard Nixon, had much lower disapproval ratings. “The ABC/Washington Post Poll, even though almost 40% is not bad at this time, was just about the most inaccurate poll around election time!” Trump tweeted. He was wrong on both counts.
Trump’s numbers are remarkably low, but his polls are not without a proud, seemingly immovable base. According to the same poll, 82 per cent of Republicans approve of the Trump presidency.
Last year Trump reflected on the extraordinary resilience of his popularity, saying to an adoring crowd: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” It was perhaps the most honest thing he said in the campaign. The penny had dropped: Trump could be a brash and nihilistic dissembler, and not suffer. Popular contempt for the empty and hypocritical poses of “Washington elites” was sufficient to tip a presidency.
The latest polls suggest confirmation bias. News that Trump’s closest advisers, including his unctuous son, cheerfully conspired with a hostile foreign government to win office is still not enough to dent “the base’s” faith. Perhaps it is too soon, and too painful, to question their leap of faith. But they remain obstinate in the face of nihilism and likely treason.
The confirmation bias works like this: All bad news is fake news. All criticism is ideological warfare. Any repudiation of Trump – however dispassionate or persuasive – is proof of malicious conspiracy. The internet provides infinite reinforcement. There is no getting around this reflex. It’s bedrock. Each patient exposure of Trump’s lies is immediately translated, by millions of Americans, as lies.
So we may still find in the historically low approval ratings of Trump millions of people native to the country that gave us jazz and the skyscraper who still believe that Obama was born in Kenya and that Trump is a noble leader undermined by a corrupt press.
The Republican Party, smug and unpersuasive, were mugged by a conman of infinite chutzpah. The Democratic Party, smug and unpersuasive, never realised how unlikeable they were. But it is the GOP, which holds both houses and the presidency, that is now asked to moderate this brutal emptiness. So far they have been disinclined. It may be that, come midterm elections, and if Trump’s polls remain in the basement, Republicans will abandon their sycophancy. It will likely be too late for them, though. History will not be kind.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 22, 2017 as "Trump and grind". Subscribe here.