Sunday 18 August 2019

Robert Schmuhl: 'Trump out to hog the Independence Day limelight while creating his own fireworks'

Making waves: US President Donald Trump has seen the general mood in his country improve during his presidency. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Reuters
Making waves: US President Donald Trump has seen the general mood in his country improve during his presidency. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Robert Schmuhl

In the stagecraft of statecraft, Donald Trump has few peers. Whether in Washington or at the Korean Demilitarised Zone, showmanship often supersedes strategy - with the optics of image-projection competing with policy-making for prominence.

Today's Independence Day extravaganza in America's capital is a case study of the US government producing - and funding - a national celebration that some observers see as closer to a performance of presidential politics.

In years past, White House occupants watched the traditional and colossal fireworks display from their residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, letting the dusk-time pyrotechnics take centre stage each July 4. Mr Trump has decided to abandon that custom and try something new.

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This year the president plans to make a formal address from the Lincoln Memorial, the place where Martin Luther King delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963.

From background information tracing the evolution of the promised spectacular, Mr Trump has been keenly interested in what's called "A Salute to America" since he began dreaming about it several months ago.

Last February, he announced on Twitter: "HOLD THE DATE!" and predicted "one of the biggest gatherings in the history of Washington, DC". The concluding portion of the tweet outlines his great expectations: "Major fireworks display, entertainment and an address by your favourite president, me!"

Mr Trump rarely hesitates to promote himself when receiving attention is possible, and his boast about being "your favourite president" took place when the Gallup polling organisation reported his approval rating at 43pc with his disapproval at 54pc - almost exactly his current measurement.

Given the public's opinion of him, Mr Trump's orchestration of the festivities could make more than half the US population worry that what is customarily a non-partisan celebration of American independence might turn into an affair resembling a re-election rally.

Can a consummate showman refrain from making himself the event's star rather than emphasising the holiday's national and historical significance? More pointedly, is it possible the "Salute to America" will become blatantly personal for its potential political impact?

Shifting gears to share the spotlight with the nation's birthday will be a true test. But this president is also faced with other challenges, as he girds for the bruising and expensive battle to remain in the White House. In 2016, he positioned himself as an outsider's outsider, someone proudly untainted by as much as a day's experience in government service. He promised to reform Washington and - in his often repeated slogan - "Make America Great Again".

For 2020, Mr Trump finds himself on trickier footing. Even though he's the most prominent elected official in the US, he'll try to have voters see him as both an outsider and an insider. To do this he'll emphasise that he's served as what you might call "disrupter-in-chief" - the fearless official manipulating the levers of government to make changes he thinks a fractious public wants enacted.

In rallies and elsewhere, he'll point to the state of the economy, the low unemployment rate, changes in the tax code, the abolishing of myriad regulations and other measures as administration accomplishments.

The general mood in America has improved during Mr Trump's presidency. When he was inaugurated, according to surveying by Gallup, just 23pc said they were satisfied with the direction of the country, while 75pc were dissatisfied. Today 36pc respond they're satisfied and 63pc are dissatisfied.

That's a noteworthy improvement, yet in both January and February this year the number of the satisfied dipped below 30pc. Dissatisfaction remains troubling, jumping beyond 70pc several times since Mr Trump took charge.

In 2016, the New York real-estate mogul and reality-television personality spent most of his campaign on the attack, first bludgeoning the 16 other Republican candidates chasing the party's presidential nomination and then training his rhetorical fire on Hillary Clinton during the fall campaign. Will a relentless, on-the-assault approach work for an incumbent officeholder or be perceived as not "presidential", particularly for swing voters in mid-western battleground states with an open mind about voting Democratic or Republican?

Much, of course, will depend on the strength of Mr Trump's Democratic opponent. Given that more than two dozen men and women are now competing with their elbows out to be the party's standard bearer, whoever might be the eventual nominee could arrive at the starting line both bloodied and weakened.

In addition, four of the last five presidents since the 1980s - Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama - all won re-election and served two full terms, a strong, bi-partisan political trend line worth considering.

But Donald J Trump doesn't conform to identifiable traditions or trends, electorally or governmentally. As he's done with this year's Independence Day celebration, he'll follow his own lights - and create his own fireworks - while Americans and people elsewhere watch and wonder.

Robert Schmuhl is professor emeritus of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame and an adjunct professor in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University

Irish Independent

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