This week in the US, a grand jury was subpoened to inquire into clandestine meetings members of the Trump team had with Russian officials and agents, Trump fired his communications director, a radical immigration bill was published, the Statue of Liberty’s legitimacy was questioned by a Trump spokesman, and the Attorney General of the US announced a plan to end discrimination against whites in universities (i.e. an anti-affirmative action policy). This is why they say a week is a long time in politics! Where to start?
But, out of all the hubbub, perhaps the most significant event of the week was a speech Trump gave in West Virginia on Thursday. After all that has gone on (and has gone wrong), we saw Trump – for one of the few times since becoming President – acting, well, Presidential. Trump gave a nuanced dialogue where (1) he steered away from directly criticizing the investigation into Russian collusion, (2) didn’t dive into any rash statements, and (3) invoked (as he has done many times) the spectre of an out-of-touch Washington elite cheating the ‘people’ out of their crust.
Why was this speech significant? Taken together with the other key events of the week, such as Jeff Sessions anti-affirmative action program, we now have an inkling of how the next few years of US politics is likely to play out. On one side, opponents of Trump are going to do everything by the book. They are going to dig and scour for information, call witnesses, uncover evidence, pine over public statements, and refine every utterance. Trump, on the other hand, is going to play the populist card. He is going to stir up the hard-core racists in the South, the unemployed miners in the rust-belt, the conspiracy theorists in Texas, the do-or-die libertarians in the Great Plains. Trump’s legal hand is weak; at best he can slow the advances of Robert Mueller and his team by constant appeals and objections. But where there is a will there is a way. Engaging with the base is the optimal method for Trump to overcome the storm that is threatening to wash him away, and this is exactly what he is doing.
Trump’s enemies are hoping he will go quietly (bar a few bizarre tweets) into the night. His more luke-warm hangers-on will hope he sees sense if the war with Mueller looks perilous. I suspect both will be disappointed, Furthermore, Washington is grossly underestimating Trump, confusing his lack of sophistication with a lack of street-smarts. Trump can’t speak English, can’t hold a coherent thought together, is clueless about the intricacies of many political details, and lacks any sense of diplomacy. But he is an outstanding communicator and has used the modern technology of Twitter in an alarmingly successful manner.
The dedication of his base shouldn’t be derided either. Liberals in the US (and much of the world) have largely ignored a sizeable minority, perhaps 25-35% of the country who have licked their wounds after Barry Goldwater’s defeat in 1964. The anti-liberal US has had to make do with scraps from the likes of Nixon or Reagan, and has waited for a leader like Trump, biding their time amidst momentous social change, seismic demographic shifts, and globalization. This anti-liberal US sees the last century as a constant litany of betrayals; the setting up of the Federal Reserve and institution of Income tax, Wilson’s universal approach to foreign relations, the entry into WWII, the Civil Rights movement, the Immigration Act of 1965, the Sixties, NAFTA, the Obama presidency. At this stage, the anti-liberal US sees itself as having its backs to the wall, and at a point where it has nothing to lose.
Stephen Miller’s comments about the Statue of Liberty (he basically said its message was a betrayal) would have only been found on the forums of alt-right groups last year. This year, they are the established wisdom of a US administration. Expect plenty more of these nuggets. Trump is now ready to unleash a whirlwind that is becoming energized and conscious that this opportunity may not come again if they let it slip. The Pat Buchanans and Kevin MacDonalds have their fingers at the ready. Conversations that have been buried in alt-right forums are now going to surface. The anti-liberal US – the ugly side of America, as progressives see it – is either going to have its last hurrah or its El-Alamein victory.
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