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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - WORLDWIDE -

‘AHOUSE 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 Five Thirty Eight 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.

‘The Amer­ica Don­ald Trump comes back to is far dif­fer­ent to the Amer­ica he left...’

Photo: Jorge Silva/AP

CRI­SIS LOOMS: US pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and Rus­sia’s pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin talk dur­ing the APEC Sum­mit in Danang, Viet­nam, yes­ter­day.

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