Monday 23 April 2018

Politics as unusual: why America's 'forgotten citizens' stick by their champion

Pugnacious, Twitter-mad and ­deeply ­undiplomatic, US President Donald Trump has ­alienated many in his warlike first year in office, but his core support base has remained remarkably steady, writes Dr Robert Schmuhl

Word warrior: Trump's outbursts of full-throated criticism cheer the 'forgotten citizens' that make up his support base
Word warrior: Trump's outbursts of full-throated criticism cheer the 'forgotten citizens' that make up his support base
Through thick and thin: Trump supporters in Tampa. During the 2016 election, 57pc of white Americans voted for the Republican candidate

During the dizzying first year of Donald Trump's presidency, Americans and the world at large witnessed a political personality in a state of perpetual war. To the delight of his core supporters, but to the dismay of many others, this pugnacious approach defined Trump's image. But what can we expect from the persistent battler in the future?

To win the White House, Trump attacked opponent after opponent, first during the nominating process against 16 other foes and then in the general election against Hillary Clinton. Radioactive nicknames, including the relentless repetition of 'Crooked Hillary,' became part of his arsenal of insults, and he turned Twitter into a verbal grenade launcher to assault enemies and to defend himself.

What worked for a candidate who'd never sought elective office carried over to Trump's governing. At every turn, when a challenge to his stature or power arose, he punched back with as much force as he could muster.

No matter whether it was his perception of 'fake news' (a phrase he didn't start using until after his election), the investigation of Russian involvement in the campaign (in his opinion "the single greatest witch-hunt in American history") or North Korean missile tests authorised by the country's leader Kim Jong-un (dismissed as 'Little Rocket Man'), Trump didn't turn the other cheek. No direct shot or apparent slight went unanswered.

Trump's combativeness appeals to his base of political support - generally between 38 and 40pc of US voters who approve his leadership. Though on average 55 to 57pc disapprove, the fluctuation in his core following is relatively small, given the enormous attention - both negative and positive - he's received the past year.

Winner of 45.9pc of the popular vote in 2016, his current support largely comes from a coalition of conservative Republicans and independents or former Democrats whom Trump frequently calls the "forgotten men and women" of America.

A two-pronged support base

Interestingly, the reasons of the two main groups for backing him differ. Traditional party members - and Trump's approval among just Republicans stands at over 80pc - applaud the strength of the economy, the soaring stock market, the recently enacted tax-cut legislation, the reversal of government regulations and a multitude of conservative (and lifetime) judicial appointments.

Through thick and thin: Trump supporters in Tampa. During the 2016 election, 57pc of white Americans voted for the Republican candidate
Through thick and thin: Trump supporters in Tampa. During the 2016 election, 57pc of white Americans voted for the Republican candidate

The "forgotten" citizens, mostly members of the working class and instrumental in delivering Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin to Trump's Electoral College triumph, take note of what's happening economically and governmentally, but they also enthusiastically endorse the president's social and cultural stands.

They admire that he's willing to keep attacking the traditional news media, to defend retaining controversial Civil War monuments and to denounce professional athletes who refuse to stand for the National Anthem to protest racial inequality. In their opinion, Trump is fighting for causes they embrace. He's a word warrior (if you will), and his outbursts of full-throated criticism cheer them.

That Trump took 57pc of the white vote (to Clinton's 37pc) - including a whopping 62pc of whites between the ages of 45 and 64 and the same percentage of white men - helps explain why the president targets so many messages to working-class whites. These men and women are nostalgic for an earlier time in the US.

You might even say that many committed to "Make America Great Again" - Trump's signature slogan - long for a national past markedly different from the present.

In general terms, they tend to be less multicultural, less secular, less globalised and less environmentally sensitive. Most of them, frankly, weren't offended the other day when the president referred to "shithole countries" - like Haiti, El Salvador and African nations - for sending immigrants to the US. These newcomers often compete with white working-class men and women for jobs.

To be sure, there's undeniable irony of a billionaire business mogul serving as the tribune of the struggling blue-collar class, but Trump methodically sought their votes. Other candidates, including Clinton, didn't.

US President Donald Trump. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
US President Donald Trump. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

"I have visited the laid-off factory workers and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals," Trump told the Republican National Convention in the summer of 2016. "These are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice. I am your voice."

The Twitter factor

During recent months, Trump's voice has been heard at campaign-style rallies in key states, but it's most often expressed via his thumbs through Twitter, where he currently boasts about nearly 50 million followers.

His tweets report on his activities and travels, with many trumpeting economic trends for which he - as with every other president - takes credit. But the messages that take on a perceived ­opponent or a potential danger to his standing become news stories on their own, receiving enormous amplification in the media's global echo chamber.

Last month, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat, called on Trump to resign on the basis of what she said were "very credible allegations of misconduct" by more than a dozen women before he entered the Oval Office. Trump lost no time reacting.

Womens Marches Los Angeles
Womens Marches Los Angeles

"Lightweight Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a total flunky for Chuck Schumer and someone who would come to my office 'begging' for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them), is now in the ring fighting against Trump," he tweeted.

The sexually suggestive phrasing ("would do anything") raised eyebrows, while the boxing reference reinforced his self-identity as someone ready to do battle whenever confronted by man - or woman.

(By the way, Schumer, the Senate minority leader and also from New York, received $8,900 in contributions from Trump since the late 1990s and Gillibrand $5,850. Before entering politics, Trump knew it was important for his real estate livelihood to stay friendly with high-profile public figures, no matter the party.)

A new 'diplomacy'

What's simultaneously fascinating and worrying about Trump's use of Twitter is his consistency in formulating messages with haymaker impact. Potentially sensitive international matters are rarely couched in diplomatic language.

He's harshly taken on UK prime minister Theresa May for her objections to him retweeting anti-Muslim videos from the far-right organisation Britain First, and even the prospect of launching nuclear weapons can provoke a scary response.

As 2018 began, Trump tweeted: "North Korean leader Kim Jong-un just stated that the 'Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times'. Will someone from his depleted and food-starved regime please inform him that I too have a nuclear button, but it is a much bigger and more powerful one than his, and my button works!"

Weaponising Twitter, which disturbs many Americans and others as being unpresidential, is a deliberate strategy to provide continuous, direct communication with core supporters. For no cost, and without much effort, Trump can go around the traditional media and deliver his message exactly as he wants.

Twitter, in effect, becomes a stream-of-consciousness script tapped out by the narrator-protagonist occupying the most significant government office in the US, if not the world. The most fervent Trump followers - who hate politics as usual and enjoy punch-in-the-nose outbursts aimed at adversaries - take delight in the social media fisticuffs.

But it's not just Twitter. Last month, The New York Times reported that prior to "taking office, Trump told top aides to think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals. People close to him estimate that Trump spends at least four hours a day, and sometimes as much as twice that, in front of a television, sometimes with the volume muted, marinating in the no-holds-barred wars of cable news and eager to fire back."

Riding a rollercoaster

As Trump's first year in the White House ends, drama and combat have been pre-eminent hallmarks of this president. But most impartial observers wonder whether the citizenry, beyond the core voters, can stay tuned day-after-day without wanting to turn the channel? How long can any nation ride a rollercoaster?

The recent publication of Michael Wolff's tell-all-and-more portrait, Fire and Fury, lays bare an administration in disarray and an easily distracted president unwilling to tackle complex details of the office.

A flawed book, littered throughout with factual mistakes, Fire and Fury nonetheless raises serious questions about Trump's process for making judgments and decisions.

"Trump didn't read," Wolff explains at one point. "He didn't really even skim. If it was print, it might as well not exist... He was post-literate - total television."

Ironically, perhaps, Trump's name can be found on many ghostwritten bestsellers from 1987 until 2016, but his aversion to paper doesn't mean Wolff's exposé appeared without benefit of presidential surveillance and commentary.

Whether from genuine grievance or gnawing insecurity, Trump took particular umbrage that his mental fitness deserved anyone's scrutiny. Twitter became his medium of self-assessment, and he pronounced himself "a very stable genius."

Personal testimonials of intellectual acuity might seem out of place in high electoral office, but the past year has brought a succession of jaw-dropping statements and actions, which produced a large question mark that hangs over the White House.

Back in May, Trump admitted to NBC News that the investigation of possible Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign served as a principal reason for firing FBI director James Comey because "this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story."

Trump's own Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, and the Justice Department proposed the removal of Comey for other causes, but the president publicly pointed elsewhere.

After the violent demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, pitting white supremacists against groups opposed to the Neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan, the president told a news conference that "you had some very bad people in that group [the supremacists], but you also had people that were fine people on both sides."

Interestingly, Trump's approval from core supporters stayed almost exactly where it was for several days after Comey's firing and "the very fine people" comment, according to the Gallup organisation's tracking surveys of opinion. He paid no price with his backers.

Thus far the impact of the Wolff book - with a remarkable 1.4 million copies in print - has also been negligible among Trump's base. To be safe, however, the president on Twitter and in talking with reporters keeps defending himself in no uncertain terms.

The Fake News defence

"Michael Wolff is a total loser who made up stories in order to sell this really boring and untruthful book," Trump tapped out when Fire and Fury first appeared amid White House threats of legal action against the author and publisher.

Not long afterwards, the president took up his verbal shillelagh again to say, "I've had to put up with the Fake News from the first day I announced that I would be running for President. Now I have to put up with a Fake Book, written by a totally discredited author." A week later, he was still boiling, complaining about "the Fake Book of a mentally deranged author, who knowingly writes false information."

Back in October, Trump remarked during an interview, "one of the greatest of all terms I've come up with is 'fake'." He's certainly liberal invoking it - nearly 200 times on Twitter alone attacking 'fake news' this past 12 months - and hatred of the mainstream media is so high among his followers that repeatedly making the charge guarantees applause.

What's baffling to some White House watchers, however, is Trump's duality, if not duplicity, in his handling of the communications outlets he attacks with such abandon.

Late last March, when he decided not to put a healthcare bill up for a vote in Congress, he personally called reporters at both The New York Times and Washington Post to explain the decision. Other interviews with so-called 'fake news' sources have followed since then, including one with The New York Times this past December 28.

Down in Florida for the holidays, Trump assured reporter Michael Schmidt that "no collusion" occurred between his election campaign and the Russians. Indeed, the president repeated his two-word denial of any complicity 16 separate times in the half-hour session.

Reiterating the same phrase over and over is revealing in itself, but, then, Trump's last recorded statement in the exchange made readers wonder what he really thinks about traditional news institutions.

"We're going to win another four years for a lot of reasons, most importantly because our country is starting to do well again and we're being respected again. But another reason that I'm going to win another four years is because newspapers, television, all forms of media will tank if I'm not there because without me, their ratings are going down the tubes. Without me, The New York Times will indeed be not the failing New York Times, but the failed New York Times. So they basically have to let me win. And eventually, probably six months before the election, they'll be loving me because they're saying, 'Please, please, don't lose Donald Trump'."

Thirteen days later, Trump (again using the third person to refer to himself) repeated his puzzling prognostication in remarks to his cabinet. The official White House transcript reports the president saying that "the media will ultimately support Trump in the end, because they're going to say, if Trump doesn't win in three years, they're all out of business".

Trump's ability to joke about himself is one of his least conspicuous traits. His assurance of re-election and the media's role in it might be an attempt at humour, but even if it is, the speaker's self-regard tends to overshadow everything else.

Does he persistently assail the news media to curry favour with his core followers, or are his attacks the volleys of someone with very thin skin who wants attention and the last word? It's difficult to tell.

What's definitely known is that Trump will seek a second term in 2020. He officially filed formal papers with the Federal Election Commission on the day he was inaugurated last year, even going so far as to trademark a new slogan for his re-election bid.

Instead of "Make America Great Again," the emphasis will shift to continuity by looking ahead: "Keep America Great!" Note the exclamation mark, Trump's own flourish. Before then, though, the mid-term Congressional elections loom this November. If the Democrats win control of the House of Representatives or the Senate - or both chambers - investigations of the administration will proliferate, including almost certain consideration of presidential impeachment.

Disapproval rising

A year ago, an opinion poll conducted at Quinnipiac University reported a 36pc approval mark for Trump as president. Exactly a year later, the approval number stands again at 36pc. What's changed is the disapproval measure - jumping from 44pc last January to 59pc today.

From the first week of February in 2017 until the second week of January this year, more than 50pc registered their disapproval all 21 different times when this poll was taken. Since mid-term voting is largely a referendum on an incumbent president, a solid majority in the disapproval category could spell monumental trouble for Republicans.

But the actions and distractions, the ups and the downs, of Trump's first year have kept his core followers together in nearly unwavering fashion. His constant war against the mainstream media, the Washington establishment and globalist elites caters to his base - but doesn't expand his universe of potential voters to a coalition with broader appeal.

Will Donald Trump in Year Two change his ways and perform more deliberately, perhaps as a deal-marker rather than as a warrior? With this president - and despite his celebrated experience as a casino operator - any wagering, or even guessing, would be a perpetual fool's errand.

Robert Schmuhl is a professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame (USA) and an adjunct professor in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University.

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