Saturday 25 January 2020

President splits his opponents in war of words

As chaos continues at the White House, Donald Trump's critics should stop squabbling over each other's moral superiority

'In response to the counter-protests against the white supremacists' protests about the removal of statues, Trump claimed these were the ''violent alt-left''.' Photo: Reuters
'In response to the counter-protests against the white supremacists' protests about the removal of statues, Trump claimed these were the ''violent alt-left''.' Photo: Reuters

Eoin O'Malley

So it's now abundantly clear, as if there had been any doubt, that Donald Trump is mad, bad and dangerous. He's confirmed he's a racist, to add to his earlier admission of being a sexual predator, and a crook. He's brought the prospect of nuclear war closer than any time since the 1960s, though not without the help of others.

Trump is also inept, failing to deliver anything meaningful in his first six months in office. He can't even get his bad laws passed. Leaders of the Republican party have openly criticised his ambivalent comments on white supremacists, and if we're to look at the covers of magazines such as The New Yorker and Time, the media is now actively against him. Almost no one in western Europe is supportive, and any that were must have given up hope.

What appears puzzling, however, is why Trump says and does the things he does, which appear to alienate ever greater numbers of voters. Most would think the idea of siding with gun-toting racists who romanticise a time before the US Civil War is hardly consistent with anyone who would want to win re-election. It's not an issue you'd go out on a limb for unless you really believed in it.

And all this failure is reflected in his approval ratings, which are lower than that of any modern president.

But before we celebrate Trump's demise, consider that his approval ratings among Republicans are over 80pc, higher than for either of the George Bushes or Ronald Reagan at the same stage. He may be losing approval, but much of it is the approval of people who wouldn't vote for him anyway.

So we could be wrong to assume he's a certainty to lose an election in 2020, just as we were wrong to assume that he was going to lose the last one. And in that struggle to win the election, his opponents appear to be playing straight into his hands.

One of the first tactics of an authoritarian is to split the opposition: to pick off groups and pit them against each other. In response to the counter-protests against the white supremacists' protests about the removal of statues, Trump claimed these were the ''violent alt-left''. Some were violent and many were left leaning, but there were also church leaders in those counter protests.

Opposition to Nazism, white supremacism, or whatever you want to call it, was never an activity that lent itself to being labelled left or right. Terms like left and right become meaningless when discussing the Nazis (or the equally destructive Soviets), who were violent ethnic nationalists, and saw a big role for the state in every aspect of people's lives. Winston Churchill was hardly a lily-livered liberal, yet he teamed up with Stalin, leading an authoritarian and barbaric Soviet Union, and a liberal, globalist in FDR of the US to defeat Nazi Germany.

The left, however, seem to claim that they have some special role in opposing the violent ethnic nationalists who support Trump. In doing so, they excoriate ''centrists'' and ''liberals'', which have become terms of abuse on the left. Trump is succeeding in splitting his opposition.

He's also benefitting from how quick people were to label him as a fascist. On both left and right, people have become so quick to claim the end of civilisation, that when a genuine threat emerges, there's no way to turn up the rhetoric. The left in Ireland treated the election of Leo Varadkar as if he were Attila the Hun, just as the right claimed Karl Marx had moved into the White House when the liberal centrist Barack Obama was elected.

In the aftermath of the US election, the Democrats in the US - who can hardly be regarded as left-wing - were meant to consider the mistakes they made that allowed Trump to gain support in the communities they traditionally represented.

They were going to figure out what the working class cared about. Instead, they are stuck in serial reruns of the election campaign, even reissuing speeches from Hillary Clinton warning us of how awful Trump would be. Immediately on his election, they blasted Trump - alienating those whose vote they should have been trying to regain and leaving no room to raise the rhetoric.

Most of us in Ireland, and seemingly many in the US, probably don't understand the US. I don't claim to. But Joan Williams in a great little book, White Working Class, argues that free health care, or good unemployment benefits, are not consistent with the values that group respect. They value work, she claims. So fights about the antebellum flags and statues of the Confederates are not going to move many voters, even if they abhor the racism of the white supremacists.

In an interview with the magazine American Prospect, Trump's former chief strategist Steve Bannon, who was ousted last week, admitted as much: "The longer they talk about identity politics, I got 'em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats."

Meanwhile Trump talks about jobs and China - something the white working class can relate to. He's no free market capitalist, he's an authoritarian capitalist. He blamed Amazon for eroding the tax base, and for damage to bricks-and-mortar retailers. The implicit threats wiped billions off the value of Amazon.

But even his failures can be turned to success. He will blame others, Congress, the Democrats, the courts. Last Friday he tweeted: "The Obstructionist Democrats make Security for our country very difficult. They use the courts and associated delay at all times. Must stop!"

It's straight from the tyrant's playbook; he's now threatening the suspension of the rule of law. If his opponents end up fighting with each other about who is morally superior, they just help him along.

Sunday Independent

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