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Published On: Fri, Dec 20th, 2019

Reflections on the American Presidency, populism and democracy

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By Marwan Bishara

As Congress takes on the impeachment of President Donald Trump, citing charges of obstruction of Congress and abuse of power, it is becoming clear that members of this law-making body, who are supposed to debate the issue on its legal merits, are judging Trump primarily, if not exclusively, on a political rather than legal basis.
As all Republicans have thus far voted in favour of Trump and almost all Democrats against him, the Democrat-controlled House considers him guilty as charged, and the Republican-controlled Senate is certain to consider him “100 percent” innocent.
Regardless of whether Trump abused the office of the presidency for personal political gain, or whether what he did merits congressional censure or is an impeachable offence, the bottom line is: Democrats and their associated bureaucrats, elites and media outlets hate him and want to see him removed from office one way or another, and Republicans and their associates adore him or at least embrace him and want him to stay in office at any cost.
This leaves it to the American people to decide the fate of the US president. But how will they judge him and on what basis?
Trashing Trump: The liberals double down
Liberal media elites never really accepted Trump as a legitimate candidate or president. They perceived, and repeatedly depicted, him as a racist, chauvinist, liar and a traitor – the devil incarnate.
In his book, Media Madness, seasoned US journalist Howard Kurtz labelled the unprecedented campaign of ridicule and hostility directed at the American president “Trump Trauma”. How could the media be objective, he argued, if it considers Trump to be a “demagogue” who plays to the nation’s worst racist and nationalist tendencies, a “traitor” who cosies up to anti-American dictators and a “dangerous” leader who cannot be trusted with the nuclear codes?
Hatred of Trump, rightly or wrongly, has blurred the judgement of so many news outlets and bright media professionals that they no longer seem capable of a sober or objective assessment of the president’s policies. They have become no better than the conservative media outlets they have long criticised for rejecting and vilifying the Obama presidency.

This is why, when they publish or broadcast extraordinary investigations and revelations about the Trump presidency, they are usually met with scepticism or indifference.
Indeed, it is unclear whether the major media organisations advocating rather convincingly in favour of Trump’s impeachment will be effective in changing public opinion or whether they will find themselves merely shouting at the rain.
Like their media counterparts, the liberal elites who are part of the establishment, including those in the FBI, the CIA and the State Department, have taken a cynical view of Trump. Weary of this disruptive outsider bent on undermining them, they expressed their discontent and resistance in a manner that can only be described as a bureaucratic rebellion against an elected president.
They first pinned their hopes for the early demise of the Trump administration to the FBI’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. When that probe failed to unearth anything that could bring him down, they focused their efforts on impeaching the president over the rather flimsy allegations that he improperly sought help from Ukraine to boost his chances of re-election.
Likewise, the establishment liberal (and some conservative) elites in think tanks and universities, who have long-designated themselves guardians of the US as a benevolent empire, have resisted the hyper nationalist president, deeming him disruptive to the US-led liberal order. They have attacked him relentlessly when he has expressed reservations or even opposition to America’s traditional role as the global policeman. And although he has injected many billions of extra tax dollars to further build up the US military, they still consider him a reckless isolationist for questioning NATO and criticising burdensome alliances with the likes of Japan and Korea.
Indeed, many of the public intellectuals who supported and defended George W Bush’s wars have been criticising Trump for “weaponising the dollar” or relying mainly on sanctions, tariffs and currency fluctuations to contain Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela and a host of other countries, despite this strategy proving, as a matter of fact, less costly and more effective than open-ended military interventions and war.
Embracing Trump: Republicans double down
For all his faults, faux pas and follies and despite his relentless attacks on some of their elders like the late senator John McCain and former president George Bush, Republican establishment figures who were suspicious and resentful of Trump at first, have coalesced solidly behind him since his election. Even those who, like Senator Ted Cruz, refused to endorse him at the 2016 Republican Convention, and those who, like former House Speaker Paul Ryan, trashed him up until his election, ended up embracing him unequivocally.
The liberal-moderate and the conservative wings of the party, or the so-called Rockefeller and Reagan Republicans, and most of their associated elites rallied along with the ultra conservative Tea Party movement in support of him.
Republicans decided early on that Trump would implement much of their agenda, and that by itself outweighs any personal faults he may have. The philanderer who had sex with porn stars and paid them for their silencebecame the guru of the party of family values.
Hypocritical? Perhaps. But they were proven right.
Among other things, Trump cut corporate and wealth taxes for the rich, imposed strict limits on immigration and refugees, appointed conservative judges to the supreme and federal courts, relaxed and removed regulations to further liberalise the economy, and supported conservative evangelical agendas domestically and internationally, notably concerning unequivocal support for Israel’s settlements and recognition of Jerusalem as its capital.
In sum, Trump has promoted and empowered the conservative and ultra conservative Republican agenda with unmatched success. He championed national security conservatism, social conservatism and, to some degree, fiscal conservatism, making this populist pragmatist entrepreneur, “the conservative of the conservatives”.
Unlike many other Republican leaders, he also delivered on his campaign promises; fulfilling those many thought were empty, such as building the wall on the border with Mexico and moving the US embassy to Jerusalem.
Trump packs football stadiums, where he preaches economic protectionism, nativist nationalism and foreign policy isolationism through entertaining theatrics, derisions and mockery.
He became the Republicans’ Obama, but whiter and more effective. If Obama killed Osama bin Laden, saved General Motors and stimulated the economy in his first term, Trump has already killed Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, slashed Obama-era unemployment rates by half, and grown the economy while cutting taxes “bigly”. He has also undone most if not all-things Obama and declared war on big government programmes like Obamacare and the Green New Deal – all of which makes for a Republican dream come true.
That is why hardly a single Republican congressperson wishes or dares to side against Trump in the impeachment trial, even if they believe he is guilty. Not only will that lead to their isolation in Congress, it will endanger their chances for re-election as Trump’s approval rating among Republicans remains strong, hovering around 90 percent.
In fact, since taking office three years ago, Trump has managed a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. Instead of the party absorbing the president, as many moderates hoped, Trump has so far absorbed and begun to restructure the party and shape it around his image.
If it works, why fix it?
Trump doubles down
Trump is a prototype populist and he is proud of it. He is arrogant, “charismatic”, divisive, disruptive, rude, politically incorrect, an instigator, anti-intellectual, and yes, macho and sexist. He is also a “political animal” with Machiavellian and populist reflexes. He uses provocation and confrontation in order to dictate, divert and shape the news agenda. What he lacks in intellect and oratory, he makes up for in stamina and shrewdness.
Trump also has a unique gift for detecting and exploiting the two fundamental pillars of power politics: “what hurts whom” and “who hates whom”.
He is clearly a brilliant sensor and exploiter of people’s vulnerabilities and insecurities. The best testament to this are the nicknames he made up and successfully used against his rivals such as “Little Marco”, “Low-energy Jeb”, “Sleepy Joe” and “Crooked Hillary”, which have proved dispiriting to their supporters and uplifting to his. Mention “Pocahontas” and most Americans know it’s the senator from Massachusetts.
Whether it is racial, gender, class, cultural or ideological divides, Trump has a talent for exploiting hatred, differences or conflict to his advantage. Although a billionaire with intimate relationships with powerful people in politics and business, he has successfully branded himself as a Washington outsider who speaks for the “common man” against the corrupt establishment, and who fights for the real (read white) patriotic Americans against the cosmopolitan, globalised elites.
Trump has mastered the art of provocation to distract gullible ratings-seeking newsmakers. As soon as the media pays some attention to one “scandal”, he provokes another distraction, all the while using the smokescreen to quietly implement his more consequential agendas.
A TV and social media consummate, populist Trump not only uses the media’s obsession with him to his advantage, but also clearly enjoys the adrenalin rush that comes with being in the limelight. He revels in clashing with the media and even targets the conservative media at times. He is thrilled by the commotion, even if it is negative, as long as he dominates the news cycle. As a branding tycoon, he understands all publicity is good publicity, and aspires to be infamous where he cannot be famous in order to stay relevant.
Always on the offensive, he has badgered media owners and star journalists, and vilified the liberal media outlets as “fake news” and the “enemy of the people”. He has even managed to undermine the mainstream media’s usually unchallenged claim to independent journalism by portraying them as lackeys of the Democratic Party.
Kehinde Oluwatosin Babatunde is a public speaker, prolific writer and a finance expert

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