Wednesday 17 October 2018

As Trump goes to Vietnam, is his grip on the US slipping?

Off-year elections in the US suggest voters may turn from Trumpism, writes Shona Murray

US president Donald Trump and Russia's president Vladimir Putin talk during the APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam, yesterday. Photo: Jorge Silva/AP
US president Donald Trump and Russia's president Vladimir Putin talk during the APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam, yesterday. Photo: Jorge Silva/AP

Shona Murray

'A house divided against itself cannot stand," said Abraham Lincoln. Sidney Blumenthal, the former Bill Clinton aide, is fond of quoting Lincoln. He has thought "long and hard" about the Lincoln presidency and American government system, having just completed his fourth book of a multi-volume series on the subject. He's written about other presidents too, including George Bush.

"America is in a social and political crisis", and likely soon a "constitutional crisis" depending on the outcome of the Russia investigation. "It's worse or just about as bad as I thought it would be," one year on from Donald Trump's election, he tells the Sunday Independent.

"I see there being more indictments and I have no doubt that Robert Mueller is looking into Trump's obstruction of the Russia probe for his firing of James Comey."

That could easily lead to impeachment. In the meantime, President Trump's approval rating is 36pc - the lowest of any president during this time in just under one year in office. At this stage, both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had similar approval ratings of around 51pc, and George Bush was at a massive rating of more than 80pc, according to FiveThirtyEight polling. In comparison to other leaders, Angela Merkel having been re-elected for the fourth time has an approval rating of 57pc; which is even low for her.

Last Tuesday, off-year elections took place across the US and although he was not up for re-election, it appears that Trump or 'Trumpism' was at the fore of voters' minds. While the president was on his official Asian trip, Democrats won big; albeit in some traditionally blue states.

"The America Donald Trump comes back to is far different to the America he left," said Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Convention.

But it wasn't just a Blue/Red divide. Americans returned to the value of diversity. In Virginia alone, Democrats elected the first openly transgender candidate to be elected as a state legislator in US history, its first two Latinas and Asian women to the House of Delegates and three months after Charlottesville, elected a black governor.

"Thank you to those who thought we had to go down a dark political road to provide an answer," said newly-elected Lt Gov Justin Fairfax. "We can always rise to the better angels of our nature," he told his crowd of supporters.

"Virginia stood up for the nation. It raised the American flag over Trumpism," said Sidney Blumenthal, also a close friend of Hillary Clinton.

There were other remarkable firsts. In Minneapolis, the city council elected its first transgender person of colour, and while in New Jersey a Democrat became the governor and the mayor; the latter is the first Sikh elected to that position. There was the first lesbian mayor of Seattle, and the first black mayor of Montana who is also a refugee from Liberia. After a year of sabre-rattling with America's allies and enemies - Germany, NATO, North Korea, rolling back on women's access to free birth control, an attempt to ban transgender people from the army, the Muslim ban, and vow to take 20m people off life-saving health insurance - it appears as if Americans are fighting back.

However, Trump's base remains strong. And the US economy is steady with a growth of 3.2pc expected in the final quarter. But it's even more interesting that the economy is doing well.

His base feels that he is "delivering for him even though he has had not one single accomplishment and passed no major legislation", said Mr Blumenthal.

"They think he is delivering for them when he attacks black football players for kneeling during the national anthem, and when he says that there were some fine people defending confederate monuments Charlottesville when it was a Neo-Nazi rally."

He is "delivering for them vicarious emotional benefits" and that appears to be "enough" for that constituency, he says.

He's "thin-skinned and a bully" and we don't know what's going to happen next, said Professor Bruce Jenthleson, former adviser to Barack Obama. "Rather than trying to be the president who rises above the differences of the people, he foments them - like he did with Charlottesville and Las Vegas.

"These are core values for society and important for the socialisation of kids. That really bothers me." But Trump is effect, not cause.

"We had these things brewing; but instead of dealing with these issues he's exacerbating them, and that's not good leadership."

Trump needs to keep his base intact, so it's likely he will continue to sow division and ratchet up racial tensions. Few in the GOP are rallying around 'moderate' Republicans such as John McCain, Jeff Flake and Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, who occasionally speaks out against his churlishness.

"They're being punished for it," said Blumenthal. "Any Republican who tries to distance themselves from Trump will find themselves in a primary campaign against a pro-Trump candidate designed by Steve Bannon."

That Trump base will abandon them and Trump will "attack them sadistically", he says.

It's what happened to "Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, who can't stand for re-election now", and "look at how they speak about John McCain" - a war hero with serious brain cancer "who has around a year left to live". "He blithely attacks his character."

Working his black magic on the outside, Steve Bannon told the New York Times during the week that "Mitch McConnell has to go". His crime; he "showed his contempt for the grass roots". "I have an objective that Mitch McConnell will not be majority leader before this time next year," he openly declared.

It's well known that McConnell's relationship with Trump has gone "cold", and it's possible both of them won't be in situ next year; it's just not clear which one.

Sunday Independent

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