Matthew d’An­cona,

From the travel ban to health­care, the pres­i­dent is real­is­ing that the power of his false­hoods has lim­its

The Guardian - - NEWS -

The great philoso­pher­nov­el­ist Um­berto Eco once de­clared that we will al­ways come up against “the hard core of Be­ing” and the “lines of re­sis­tance” that tell us when we are talk­ing rub­bish, or act­ing non­sen­si­cally. There was a time when I won­dered bleakly if Don­ald Trump may be ex­empt. Dur­ing the cam­paign he piled lie upon lie, big­otry upon big­otry, slan­der upon slan­der – and still won. We were told, ab­surdly, to take him “se­ri­ously but not lit­er­ally”, as if all the talk of a Mus­lim ban, Mex­i­can rapists, and lock­ing up his op­po­nent was mere knock­about. Dur­ing the tran­si­tion, the for­mer CIA di­rec­tor James Woolsey said it was all just part of Trump’s “shtick”.

I say this with the ut­most cau­tion, but I do think that af­ter two months in of­fice the pres­i­dent is start­ing, at last, to en­counter Eco’s “lines of re­sis­tance”. Un­en­cum­bered by a sense of con­sti­tu­tional duty or a re­spon­si­bil­ity to tell the truth, he is none­the­less dis­cov­er­ing that re­al­ity can­not be shaped by mere caprice.

Take for ex­am­ple Trump’s new ex­ec­u­tive order on im­mi­gra­tion, re­framed af­ter the orig­i­nal ver­sion was struck down by the courts. The White House had high hopes for the fresh draft. But in a Hawai­ian case last week a US dis­trict judge, Der­rick Wat­son, froze the pro­posed ban on new visas for cit­i­zens of six Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­tries and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing sus­pen­sion of the ad­mis­sion of refugees.

Most strik­ing about Wat­son’s de­ci­sion is his in­sis­tence that the ban be seen in the con­text of stated in­ten­tion rather than in iso­la­tion. The judge cited the cam­paign state­ment that “Don­ald J Trump is call­ing for a to­tal and com­plete shut­down of Mus­lims en­ter­ing the United States”, and Rudy Gi­u­liani’s sub­se­quent dec­la­ra­tion in a tele­vi­sion in­ter­view that “when [Trump] first an­nounced it, he said ‘Mus­lim ban’. He called me up. He said, ‘Put a com­mis­sion to­gether. Show me the right way to do it legally.’ ” This, Wat­son con­cluded, was clear ev­i­dence of “reli­gious an­i­mus” still lurk­ing be­neath the word­ing of the re­drafted order.

What Trump now faces is a ju­di­ciary that re­fuses to play along with the con­ve­nient fic­tion that some of what he and his ad­vis­ers say is “shtick”. The courts have taken him both se­ri­ously – as pres­i­dent – and lit­er­ally – as a politi­cian who trades in venom and false­hood. The con­se­quence is that, thus far, the travel ban has been thwarted.

In his floun­der­ing health­care strat­egy, the pres­i­dent is also bash­ing his head against Eco’s “hard core of Be­ing”. On the cam­paign trail, Trump promised that no­body would lose med­i­cal cover. Ac­cord­ing to the Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice, how­ever, an es­ti­mated 24 mil­lion Amer­i­cans will do just that by 2026 as a con­se­quence of the Repub­li­can plan.

Days af­ter his elec­tion, Trump bragged on CBS’s 60 Min­utes that “it’ll be bet­ter health­care, much bet­ter, for less money”. Again, this is sim­ply not the case. If the con­gres­sional pro­pos­als en­dorsed by Trump are im­ple­mented, huge num­bers of Amer­i­cans – es­pe­cially the el­derly – will pay more.

Nowhere have the “lines of re­sis­tance” been more ap­par­ent than on the geopo­lit­i­cal stage. As Peter West­ma­cott ar­gues on these pages to­day, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has risked “gra­tu­itously dam­ag­ing” the in­dis­pens­able re­la­tion­ship be­tween the Bri­tish and Amer­i­can in­tel­li­gence agen­cies by re­peat­ing the lu­di­crous claim that GCHQ was some­how tasked by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to wire­tap Trump’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

The con­spic­u­ous re­fusal of the pres­i­dent and his of­fi­cials to apol­o­gise for this shows only how cal­low is their un­der­stand­ing of diplo­matic and supra­na­tional re­al­ity. Look, like­wise, at Trump’s tweet on Satur­day that Ger­many owed “vast sums of money to Nato” and that “the United States must be paid more for the pow­er­ful, and very ex­pen­sive de­fense it pro­vides”.

This be­trays a fun­da­men­tal mis­un­der­stand­ing of the At­lantic al­liance. As Ivo Daalder, for­mer US rep­re­sen­ta­tive to Nato, was quick to point out: “Sorry, Mr Pres­i­dent, that’s not how [it] works. The US de­cides for it­self how much it con­trib­utes to de­fend­ing Nato. This is not a fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tion, where Nato coun­tries pay the US to de­fend them.”

Pres­i­dent Trump’s de­mands for com­pen­sa­tion are the stuff of fan­tasy. Stamp his foot as he may, the “lines of re­sis­tance” that de­fine geopo­lit­i­cal re­al­ity can­not be changed at whim. Yes, they shift and shud­der un­der the sus­tained pres­sure of global forces. But in­sti­tu­tions such as Nato can­not be trans­formed on Twit­ter – not even by the US pres­i­dent.

I do not want to over­state the ex­tent of Trump’s re­cent en­coun­ters with the ir­re­duc­ible facts. He still re­sides mostly in the Mar-a-Lago of his mind, a lurid cog­ni­tive space where he per­ceives the world as he wants it to be, rather than as it is. On Fri­day a Ger­man jour­nal­ist asked him why he’s so scared of di­ver­sity in the me­dia that he speaks so of­ten about fake news, and things such as wire­tap­ping, which “in the end, can­not be proven”. Trump’s re­sponse was to scorn her as “a nice, friendly re­porter” and evade the ques­tion en­tirely by boast­ing of the US’s grow­ing strength.

My claim is only that a few chinks of light are break­ing through the cara­pace of pop­ulist delu­sion. There is noth­ing to cel­e­brate yet, no cause to re­lax, no out­come as­sured. Let us just say that this may, con­ceiv­ably, be the end of the be­gin­ning.

He may stamp his feet, but in­sti­tu­tions such as Nato can­not be trans­formed on Twit­ter – even by the US pres­i­dent

Ran­dall Hill/ Reuters

Trump called for a ‘to­tal and com­plete’ Mus­lim travel ban in 2015

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