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Jacob Heilbrunn US Politics

If you think it’s just ‘elites’ complaining about Trump, think again

January 20, 2018

10:30 AM

20 January 2018

10:30 AM

After one year in office, Donald Trump is winning bigly. The stock market is up. North Korea and South Korea are talking. Regulations are being swept away. Apple is bringing back hundreds of billions, thanks to corporate tax reform, and promising the creation of 20,000 new jobs. Conservative judges are being appointed to federal courts around the country. And the White House physician just testified that Trump passed his annual checkup with flying colours. Sure, Trump may be a little rough around the edges, but sometimes it takes a brawler to shake up an ossified political system, and that is what the president is doing.

This, more or less, is the gist of a spate of letters featured in Thursday’s New York Times, which turned over its editorial page to missives from Trump’s admirers. A less ebullient and more sophisticated version of this line of events is provided by the Financial Times’ redoubtable Edward Luce, who explained on January 17 that liberals underestimate Trump at their peril and indeed that the old boy is more powerful than ever. According to Luce, ‘The fact that Mr Trump so deserves his comeuppance too often spills into forecasts of his demise. If we switch to the ‘is’ lens for a moment, the picture looks troublingly different. The president now has a near total grip on the Republican party. Both wings — the ‘moderates’, on one side, and the pyrotechnicists, once led by the outcast Steve Bannon, on the other — have fallen into line.’

But have they? Are all the complaints about Trump emanating from the media and elsewhere simply the caterwauling of distraught elites? Not a chance.

For a start, Trump’s mercurial behaviour is not just a minor character flaw but a fundamental feature of his mental programming. One consequence is that the federal government appears headed toward a shutdown that could do severe damage to both Trump and the Republican party, given that they control all three branches of government and will struggle to blame it on the Democrats. This week, Trump implicitly denounced his own chief of staff John Kelly for stating that Trump’s earlier endorsement of a wall stretching from sea to shining sea was ‘uninformed’. He also whacked away at the congressional Republican leadership, which had been trying to use a children’s health insurance program known as CHIP as an actual bargaining chip. Trump tweeted that it should not be part of any short-term budget deal, leaving Republicans once more to think that they are dealing with someone who isn’t playing with a full deck. The New York Times put it politely: ‘By calling on CHIP to be dropped from the stopgap spending bill, Mr. Trump effectively backed the Democrats, although he may not have intended to’. At this point, however, it would probably require the divinatory powers of the Oracle of Delphi to divine Trump’s intentions.

Another reason that Trump’s footing may not be that solid is that Republicans are hardly oblivious to the threat that Trump may pose to their own political careers. A series of recent elections in Virginia, Alabama, and, now, Wisconsin have seen Republican strongholds toppled by Democratic insurgents. Now a special congressional election in Pennsylvania that will take place on March 13 has Trump and Republicans staging a full court press to try and retain the seat. If this seat, in the heart of Trump country, were to go Democratic, then lawmakers are likely to peel away from Trump in the coming months. Senator Lindsey Graham, who made a manful attempt to curry favour with Trump, including sending out tweets lauding his prowess on the links, is now openly wondering what happened to the man who only a few days ago was intent on reaching an immigration deal.

Meanwhile, the Mueller investigation, a constant source of vexation to Trump, continues to grind on. The latest titbits to emerge are that the Russians may have been illicitly doling out funds during the campaign and that Russia may have been pouring in money to the Trump campaign through the National Rifle Association. Whether or not the investigation actually takes down Trump, it is clearly hampering his ability to govern and undermining his credibility as he fires off tweets like a Gatling gun, professing his victimhood at the hands of a Deep State cabal.

Nor does it seem likely that Trump will be able to pull off a big foreign policy victory. His outreach to Russia is as dead as the Dodo bird. Trump himself complained on Wednesday that Russia was subverting his attempts to crimp North Korea’s economy. At the same time, South Korea is cozying up to the North, eager to douse Trump’s ability to launch fire and fury at its neighbour. It could even emulate West Germany’s outreach to East Germany and conclude a basic treaty with the South.

But perhaps the greatest peril Trump faces is being outwitted at his own game by the likes of a celebrity such as Oprah Winfrey, who has been flirting with a run for the presidency. When it comes to Trump, to quote Ice T, ‘he’s not your everyday-type prankster, he’s O.G. Original Gangster!’ Trump, a born entertainer, needs to get his mojo back. A new act that demonstrates an ability to govern effectively is imperative or he could find himself exiting stage right.

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