Tuesday 13 November 2018

Praise-junkie Trump is the leader who perfectly embodies a nation divided

President Donald Trump walks across the South Lawn before boarding Marine One to spend the Christmas holiday at his Mar-a-lago Estate in Palm Beach, Florida. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
President Donald Trump walks across the South Lawn before boarding Marine One to spend the Christmas holiday at his Mar-a-lago Estate in Palm Beach, Florida. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Ishaan Tharoor

The leader of the United States likes to be praised. Close to the end of his first year in power, the presidential office circulated a memo that featured Cabinet ministers congratulating him on his efforts so far.

The foreign minister, who once allegedly called the leader a "moron", now said he was taking the world into a new era of "strategic and economic cooperation".

The defence minister, who had struggled to check some of the leader's rash decisions, gave him "high marks" for fighting terrorists.

The finance minister, mocked by the opposition as a consigliere (a member of a Mafia family who serves as an adviser to the leader and resolves disputes within the family) for oligarchic power, applauded the leader for pushing through economic reforms that mostly line the pockets of the oligarchs.

US Vice President Mike Pence. Photo: Reuters
US Vice President Mike Pence. Photo: Reuters

It was the leader's deputy, Mike Pence though, who was most effusive with his praise.

"Thank you for seeing, through the course of this year, an agenda that truly is restoring this country," he said. "I'm deeply humbled, as your vice president, to be able to be here."

The leader probably needed this. He has had a tough year.

He was spoiling for a fight on the day of his inauguration, delivering a short, dark address that warned of "carnage".

His war with the media escalated that very day, as the leader smarted over reports that crowds cheering his ascension were smaller than those that greeted his predecessor, an ethnic minority politician whom the leader loathed and had tried to smear as someone not truly from the country.

The leader was probably sensitive about the fact that he had come to power despite the majority of the population having voted against him.

Thanks to a political system codified hundreds of years ago, when some men in this country still owned others as property on the basis of their skin colour, it all made sense.

The leader somehow insisted (and keeps insisting) that the vote gave him a popular mandate that his predecessors, with far larger vote shares, never had.

Ironically, though, his signature political achievement this year was a mammoth tax overhaul that gives huge rewards to the corporate firms and financial elites the leader once decried when seeking election.

In reality, they represent another base of support for the leader, who, well before entering politics, was a scion of metropolitan privilege, the name behind a real estate empire and a television celebrity.

There's still an ongoing investigation into connections his camp had with a foreign power, one that is thought to have meddled in his favour during the election.

The leader profoundly resents this probe, especially as it rounded up some of his aides, and lashes out far more at his opponents at home than his counterpart overseas who apparently authorised the interference. Indeed, the leader has spent the past year being rather cozy with a series of strongmen abroad, while largely eschewing the traditional - if, at times, hypocritical - rhetoric of democracy and human rights invoked by his predecessors.

His die-hard supporters, meanwhile, want to see a genuine purge of their supposed enemies in the civil bureaucracy, or what they call the "deep state".

Now, the leader has moved the presidential court to a winter residence far south of the capital that happens to be his own property.

Known to bear grudges and bridle at criticism, he surrounds himself with his family.

His daughter is a prominent adviser and spokeswoman for the regime; his son-in-law, a tycoon princeling who once mismanaged a small media house, serves as an envoy to kingdoms and republics elsewhere. His other children, when not seeking to expand the family's private estates on the back of their father's clout, launch public attacks on his opponents, questioning their patriotism.

The leader's loyalists have dabbled in some opportunistic schemes.

At one stage this year, the brother of the education minister was promoting a surreal plan to outsource a war in a faraway land to mercenary companies under his watch.

He hoped to pique the leader's interest by promising him access to vast mineral deposits beneath that nation's soil.

More gravely, unearthed financial documents revealed the means by which a number of prominent advisers to the regime have avoided paying taxes on their vast wealth through offshore schemes.

Although such revelations generated more outrage in other countries where such behaviour is considered unpatriotic and unfair, few people batted an eyelid in the leader's country.

It's a nation, after all, where many admire the gilded fortunes of people such as the leader, and shrug their shoulders at the widening inequality reshaping their society.

Critics of the leader therefore see his "populism" largely as a sham, distinguished primarily by divisive rhetoric and policies.

Even before entering office, the leader often signalled his antipathy for minority groups on the campaign trail.

When a group of fringe neo-Nazis marched in a university town, his tepid response outraged many people, including some leading figures in his ruling party.

His ubiquitous slogan - hailing nation "first" - taps into an earlier moment in the country's history when influential fascist sympathisers mobilised under the exact same banner.

His supporters lambaste the phenomenon of "identity politics" in the country. But the most homogeneous group of voters in the country is that which supports the leader.

The leader says these people in the country's hinterlands were once "forgotten," but no longer are.

He is fixated on "restoring" his country to a mythic past, although it's unclear what that means for the future.

Not long ago in the country, after all, most minority groups didn't have equal rights.

He is obsessed about getting the rest of the world to "respect" his country's primacy again, but after a year of lashing out at allies and offering up churlish threats, he has presided over a marked slump in global attitudes toward his own nation.

Undeterred, the leader wants to block immigration and build a vast wall along the country's southern border, though very few serious people believe it will make much of a difference.

The leader's many opponents have wrung their hands over what to do about his time in power.

Some are pushing for impeachment, shocked at how the leader has so brazenly attacked the norms of the republic and even now seems to be inching his country toward new, needless wars abroad.

Others, gesturing to a phantom "resistance" movement, believe they can sweep out the leader's allies in upcoming legislative elections.

They say the leader does not represent the nation's values, and is not "who we are".

But the leader still can count on significant, entrenched support.

In his own party, there were quite a few figures who initially baulked at his rise to power.

But the vast majority are now sheltering beneath his banner.

And so, as a divided nation heads toward a new year, both sides may have to accept that the tensions of the moment are no aberration but exactly a reflection of "who we are".

[With apologies to Slate's Joshua Keating, who popularised this genre of online commentary quite some time ago.] (© Washington Post Syndication)

Irish Independent

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