A pos­i­tive dis­as­ter but a neg­a­tive tri­umph

The president plays a char­ac­ter sim­i­lar to Tony So­prano – one whose di­vi­sive­ness his sup­port­ers adore

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Fin­tan O’Toole

The word “char­ac­ter” has two op­po­site mean­ings. On the one hand it sug­gests the in­ner essence of a per­son, the fixed truth be­hind all sur­face im­pres­sions. On the other hand a char­ac­ter is a fic­tional cre­ation, a per­sona in­vented for pub­lic con­sump­tion, an elab­o­rate lie.

To un­der­stand why Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­dency is not yet quite the fail­ure that lib­er­als would like to think it is we have to ac­knowl­edge that he is a ter­ri­ble char­ac­ter in the first sense but a com­pelling char­ac­ter in the sec­ond.

Trump as president is every bit as rot­ten as his fiercest crit­ics feared he would be. The be­hav­iour summed up by the dis­si­dent Repub­li­can se­na­tor Jeff Flake in his dra­matic ex­co­ri­a­tion – “the per­sonal at­tacks, the threats against prin­ci­ples, free­doms, and in­sti­tu­tions, and the fla­grant dis­re­gard for truth or de­cency, the reck­less provo­ca­tions, most of­ten for the pet­ti­est and most per­sonal rea­sons” – is un­de­ni­able. But it does not make him, in the sec­ond sense, a bad char­ac­ter. On the con­trary, the ap­peal of the Trump per­sona is prov­ing to be re­mark­ably re­silient.

A year on from his stun­ning vic­tory it is a given that Trump is at his­tor­i­cally low lev­els of pub­lic ap­proval. If he were some­one else, if he were a con­ven­tional, ca­reer politi­cian, this would mat­ter much more than it ac­tu­ally does. The ba­sic aim of the con­ven­tional leader is to be ap­proved of, to be liked, to be re­spected. But Trump was not elected be­cause peo­ple ap­prove of him or like him or even re­spect him. He was the mid­dle fin­ger that one half of the United States wanted to raise to­wards the other half. You don’t need a beau­ti­fully man­i­cured hand for this ugly ges­ture – per­haps, in­deed, the cruder it looks the bet­ter.

The fact is that most Trump vot­ers prob­a­bly agree with Jeff Flake – and the other fact is that Flake is, none­the­less, be­ing forced to step down as a Repub­li­can se­na­tor while Trump has con­sol­i­dated his hold over the Repub­li­can Party. Trump has his hard- core fans who think he’s a great man, but most of his own vot­ers know very well that he’s not the kind of per­son they would nor­mally re­spect. A Pew poll in Au­gust showed that even most Repub­li­cans have neg­a­tive or mixed feel­ings about the way Trump has be­haved in of­fice. Just over a third said they like the way Don­ald Trump con­ducts him­self as president. Yet there is no good rea­son to think that most Repub­li­cans would not vote for Trump again to­mor­row.

And the rea­son why they might well con­tinue to sup­port him is that they judge not his char­ac­ter but his per­for­mance as a char­ac­ter. Think of it this way: if a poll were to ask whether you ap­prove of Drac­ula’s con­duct as a count of Tran­syl­va­nia you would prob­a­bly say that you do not. But if you were asked whether Drac­ula is a suc­cess­ful “char­ac­ter” you would surely agree that he is a pow­er­ful, en­dur­ing and dis­turbingly en­ter­tain­ing cre­ation. So i s Don­ald Trump.

Hor­ren­dous fail­ure

So by any or­di­nary politi­cal cri­te­ria Trump’s pres­i­dency has been a hor­ren­dous fail­ure. His sig­na­ture bor­der wall is no closer to be­com­ing a re­al­ity – and Mex­ico is not go­ing to pay for it. His at­tempt at a crude ban on peo­ple en­ter­ing the United States from some Mus­lim- ma­jor­ity coun­tries was blocked by the courts and had to be watered down, de­priv­ing it of much of its vis­cer­ally xeno­pho­bic ap­peal. His ef­fort to re­place Oba­macare crashed and burned – twice. His own con­duct and that of his ad­min­is­tra­tion has been chaotic, undis­ci­plined and at times al­most com­i­cally inept. Steve Ban­non, Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer, An­thony Scara­mucci and Se­bas­tian Gorka had to be ban­ished from the White House. Not a sin­gle piece of pos­i­tive leg­is­la­tion has been passed. The promised trade wars seem in­creas­ingly un­likely. The ham- fisted han­dling of al­le­ga­tions of col­lu­sion with Rus­sia has sim­ply cre­ated, in the re­lent­less spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor Robert Mueller, a neme­sis from cen­tral cast­ing.

Most puz­zlingly, Trump has not even man­aged to cast him­self in the eas­i­est and most ob­vi­ous role: Don the Builder. Given his life­long as­so­ci­a­tion with prop­erty devel­op­ment and his cam­paign rhetoric about the shame­ful state of ba­sic in­fra­struc­ture in the world’s largest econ­omy it should have been sim­ple enough for him to roll out a ma­jor project in every state and boast of Amer­i­can jobs for Amer­i­can blue-col­lar work­ers.

The Democrats would have been forced to sup­port him, and if fis­cally con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­cans had op­posed him so much the bet­ter: Trump could have pre­sented him­self as a doer who tran­scends petty par­ti­san pol­i­tics. Yet he has been too lazy, too feck­less and too dis­tracted to un­der­take even a project with such clear politi­cal ad­van­tages.

Ap­proval rat­ings

Yet, given all of this, what is re­mark­able is not that Trump’s net ap­proval rat­ings are lower than those of any other president at this point in his term, or that they have fallen in every sin­gle state of the US, or that among the ru­ral vot­ers who turned out so solidly for him they have fallen from a net 17 per cent pos­i­tive in Jan­uary to a net zero now.

It is that, de­pend­ing on the poll, some­where be­tween 33 and 44 per cent still ap­prove of Trump’s pres­i­dency. He re­tains a very real base, one that still gives him ef­fec­tive con­trol of the Repub­li­can Party. And this base be­longs not so much to Don­ald Trump the bum­bling president as to the fic­tional char­ac­ter cre­ated and honed long be­fore Trump be­came a se­ri­ous politi­cal player.

One thing to re­mem­ber about the Trump char­ac­ter as Amer­i­cans have known it for at least a quar­ter of a cen­tury is that fail­ure is part of it. While crit­ics of Trump point to his six bank­rupt­cies as ev­i­dence that he is a sham and a cheat, his fans see the op­po­site. His fail­ures make him re­lat­able. They dis­guise the re­al­ity that he was born into ex­treme priv­i­lege and has re­peat­edly spent – and lost – other peo­ple’s money.

The mythic hero must over­come great set­backs, must rise again and again from seem­ingly ter­mi­nal ad­ver­sity. Trump’s gi­gan­tic screw- ups have been part of his heroic per­sona for a long time. His 1997 fol­low-up to the best­selling The Art of the Deal is called The Art of the Come­back. To come back, of course, he had to be gone. The voiceover for the pi­lot episode of the US ver­sion of The Ap­pren­tice, in 2004, has Trump boast­ing of how he turned his dis­as­ters into tri­umphs: “I fought back and won – big league. I used my brain. I used my ne­go­ti­at­ing skills.”

Trump fans are there­fore see­ing a dif­fer­ent story from the rest of the world. Other peo­ple see a tale of rise and fall: the as­ton­ish­ing tri­umph of Novem­ber 2016 fol­lowed by de­scent ever lower into an abyss of in­ep­ti­tude, tantrums and pos­si­ble crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion. But they see a tale of fall and rise. The Trump plot they are pre­pared for is crash and burn fol­lowed by the great come­back and ul­ti­mate tri­umph. In WWE wrestling ( in which Trump fea- tured heav­ily as a char­ac­ter) it is no fun if the guy who wins just flat­tens his op­po­nent. He has to be down on the can­vas a few times and nearly counted out be­fore he turns it around. He has to fight back be­fore he can win big league. This begs the ques­tion of whether Trump can or will mirac­u­lously res­ur­rect his pres­i­dency. But what mat­ters for now is that it buys him a lot of time with his fans. They’re primed to wait for the come­back.

Equally, lib­er­als see Trump’s hor­ren­dous di­vi­sive­ness as a fail­ure. Es­tab­lished politi­cal wis­dom as­sumes that some­one like Trump, who was elected with­out a ma­jor­ity, has to use the pow­ers of of­fice to con­struct one, to win over at least some of those who didn’t vote for him. But to his fans Trump’s di­vi­sive­ness is not a prob­lem. It is the great­est sat­is­fac­tion he de­liv­ers them. They know his es­tab­lished per­sona is no more in­clined to rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and per­sua­sion than Tony So­prano’s is. That’s pre­cisely what makes him a vivid and com­pelling char­ac­ter.

Vi­cious world

Trump un­der­stands the raw thrill of pit­ting peo­ple and groups against each other. As Emily Nuss­baum re­ported in the New Yorker, one of his big ideas for boost­ing flag­ging rat­ings for The Ap­pren­tice was to pit a team of white con­tes­tants against a black team: “Whether peo­ple like that idea or not,” he mused, “it is some­what re­flec­tive of our very vi­cious world.” An idea that was ac­tu­ally im­ple­mented on the show was to pit the Haves against the Have-Nots: in the sixth sea­son the win­ning team, the Haves, got to live in a man­sion in Los An­ge­les while the losers, the Have- Nots, lived in a “tent city”. Trump is a char­ac­ter in a bi­nary uni­verse where there is only Them and Us.

The Trump char­ac­ter has never been about reach­ing out to his en­e­mies and heal­ing di­vi­sions. It thrives on ha­tred. In the fifth sea­son of The Ap­pren­tice, when Ivanka Trump chas­tises a con­tes­tant for bear­ing grudges, her fa­ther in­ter­rupts: “Who doesn’t? I do. No­body takes things more per­son­ally than me. When some­body says some­thing per­sonal about me I hate them for the rest of my life. It’s prob­a­bly wrong, but I hate peo­ple.”

And Trump’s hard- core fans hate peo­ple too. Racism, Is­lam­o­pho­bia, anti- im­mi­grant sen­ti­ment and para­noia about the out­side world are the pun­gent in­gre­di­ents in the Trump stew. So is a vis­ceral, tribal loathing of lib­er­als. Bear­ing grudges is what Trump’s peo­ple do best. They don’t want to foll ow a c har­ac­ter who melts i nto touchy- feely love of all mankind. They want a tale of re­sent­ment and re­venge. Even if Trump is achiev­ing noth­ing pos­i­tive it is a mis­take to un­der­es­ti­mate the power of this pure neg­a­tiv­ity. The re­lent­less as­sault on ev­ery­thing Barack Obama achieved – from the Paris cli­mate-change deal to the Iran nu­clear ac­cord, from health­care to en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion – gen­er­ates, for Trump’s hard-core fans, a van­dal­is­tic thrill.

Howl of pain

In WWE wrestling (in which Trump fea­tured heav­ily as a char­ac­ter) it is no fun if the guy who wins just flat­tens his op­po­nent. He has to be down on the can­vas a few times

In this re­gard the worse Trump gets, the more out­rage he pro­vokes, the more his fans will con­clude that he must be get­ting some­thing right. Trump’s as­sault on the idea of ob­jec­tive jour­nal­ism has been his big­gest suc­cess: 46 per cent of vot­ers and 76 per cent of Repub­li­cans be­lieve that main­stream me­dia make up neg­a­tive sto­ries about Trump. And in this world view, where ev­ery­thing is fake news, the one thing you can re­ally be­lieve to be true is the howl of pain and hurt from lib­er­als, Democrats, mi­nori­ties, un- Amer­i­can cos­mopoli­tans. If it takes a boor to in­flict this tor­ment on the en­emy, let’s hear it for the boor.

This is where Trump’s pres­i­dency lies a year af­ter it be­came a re­al­ity: a pos­i­tive dis­as­ter but a neg­a­tive tri­umph. It is a shadow pres­i­dency, the evil twin of a great demo­cratic of­fice. It is not about do­ing. It is about un­do­ing. It ex­ists not to cre­ate but to de­stroy. Trump’s rhetor­i­cal prom­ises of pro­tec­tion for his peo­ple have been be­trayed, as they were al­ways go­ing to be. But they have, for now at least, a suf­fi­cient sub­sti­tute in the plea­sures of rage and the fren­zied dance on the grave of lib­er­al­ism.

The prob­lem is that grave dancers, for all their mad mo­tion, are rooted to a sin­gle spot. There is no for­ward mo­men­tum i n mere de­struc­tive­ness. The Trump char­ac­ter has a dra­matic arc he is sup­posed to fol­low: from the bankruptcy of his pres­i­dency there is sup­posed to arise a tri­umph of power. Trump’s story is sup­posed to mir­ror the United States’ un­der his mes­sianic lead­er­ship: a tale of woe that be­comes a nar­ra­tive of great­ness. His fans abide the cur­rent woe be­cause they think it is the pre­lude to a res­ur­rec­tion.

The ques­tion that arose a year ago is all the more in­sis­tent now: what will they do when they re­alise that this plot has al­ready been lost?

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