Trump, the Teflon president

The upcoming US election will be a referendum on America and its standing in the world.

US President Donald Trump speaks to reporters during a news conference inside the James S Brady Briefing Room at the White House on September 27, 2020 in Washington, US [Reuters/Ken Cedeno]

Watching the United States election season from across the Atlantic, I am reminded of the story of the 19th-century French writer Guy de Maupassant, who hated the Eiffel Tower but had lunch at its restaurant because it was the one place in Paris where he could not see it.

Indeed, Americans are increasingly losing sight of America, of the big picture, as they turn inward and against each other with such venom, blinded by racial hatred, religious bigotry and the cult of personality.

Watching the “quantum of solace” drop fast, as political incitement diminishes tolerance, promotes violence and spreads panic, one wonders if the country will descend into civil strife if incumbent President Donald Trump loses the upcoming election.

In many ways, the presidential vote is not only a referendum on his character and leadership, but also a referendum on the character of the country and its standing in the world.

The moral argument

Predictably, liberals and Democrats blame Trump and his Republican enablers for all that is ailing America today, though, as the president himself puts it, he would not be in power in the first place if it were not for their failings and follies.

They see him as a mean, vulgar, cheating, lying character, who either practises or embraces racism, chauvinism and bigotry.

They see him as an immoral, divisive and dangerous leader who has torn the country apart to stay on top, serving the narrow interests of one group over another.

They argue that he is an incompetent and lazy commander-in-chief, unfit to serve the common good of the country, as he has demonstrated during the pandemic.

They believe, as president, he is more interested in the trappings of the office than the workings of the presidency; that he prefers talking about himself over working for the country; that he is obsessed with his image but indifferent to America’s standing.

Now, a sceptic might question such damning criticism by the opposition party in the heat of battle, even though much of it is collaborated by media reports, including this week’s damning revelations about his taxes.

And that is not all.

Democrats are not alone in their criticism of Trump. Republicans have also harboured similar and no less damning sentiments.

Leading Republican senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Susan Collins as well as former Republican governors like Nikki Haley and Rick Perry, and the likes of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, who cheer Trump today, have all severely criticised, if not condemned him in the past.

They took turns calling him a liar, narcissist, authoritarian, ignorant, demagogue, bully, crook, crazy, delusional, a racist bigot and unfit for office.

In other words, there is a consensus of sorts across the political spectrum over Trump’s defects and derelictions.

All of this begs the question: why, despite their low opinion of the president, do an overwhelming majority of conservatives and Evangelicals, as well as, a majority of white and male Americans continue to support Trump?

The ‘pragmatic’ argument

Alas, most Republicans seem unmoved by their own “moral judgement”, arguing that Americans propelled Trump to victory in 2016 despite his multiple personal scandals.

Indeed, their response to the moral argument is straightforward, self-serving and rather cynical. They believe, to paraphrase one of their favourite philosophers, Adam Smith, that it is not from the benevolence of the baker that you get bread for dinner.

In this way, whatever Trump is losing among liberal Republicans who see him as anathema to their traditional Republican values, he is making up by gaining the support of certain independents. Those who think Trump has done well on the economy are more likely to vote for him – as many as 82 percent of them, according to the latest polls.

In other words, as long as Trump implements the conservative agenda by cutting taxes, lifting regulations, appointing conservative judges etc, Republicans will stand behind him, regardless of his lies, transgressions and divisiveness.

As long as the president uses his popularity among the hardcore right-wing voters to boost Republicans’ own chances for re-election, they will return the favour, come what may.

All of this has made Trump into Teflon president par excellence. No scandal, no matter how great or grave, can damage his popularity. Indeed, any of his political, financial or sexual scandals could have utterly diminished another candidate, but not Trump.

It is political cynicism at its worst.

All of this makes one wonder if this week’s damning revelations about his tax avoidance or potentially tax evasion will hurt him “bigly”, as he might say… or be treated like any other scandal.

But that is not all.

Many Republicans seem to support Trump for his traits, not despite them.

Some may support him because he knows how to pay very little or no taxes to stiff the “welfare state”. Others may back him because he is aggressive and tenacious, willing to do all to win.

Once they realised they could not beat him, Republican leaders joined him unconditionally, some grudgingly, others happily.

Either way, they have supported his nationalist policies and xenophobic, populist and chauvinist rhetoric which are tearing the country apart, viewing him as the white male antidote to establishment liberals like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

And they support him despite his rhetoric undermining the electoral process and rejecting the peaceful transfer of power, especially when he insists he is destined to win unless the Democrats cheat, which threatens to pave the way for a prolonged political battle that may spill over onto the streets.

To be sure, a constitutional crisis or an electoral implosion at a federal level will trickle down to all levels of US society and polity, where confidence in the ballot box is indispensable to the stability and wellbeing of states, cities, counties and boroughs that regularly elect over half a million officials.

And that is not all, either.

A Machiavellian leadership

In fewer than four years, Trump has been able to take full control of the Republican party, bullying its traditional leaders and demolishing its liberal wing.

Despite being a political novice with no articulated vision, Trump has managed to dictate the party agenda, message and policies to his favour through stick – blackmail and coercion – and the occasional carrot in the form of budget allocations and government appointments.

Nowhere has his grip on the party been more obvious than in its last convention, which for the first time lacked any written platform, and instead was fully dedicated to honour Trump and his family.

It is indeed mind-boggling how this intellectually challenged, politically inexperienced real estate developer has been able to mount a hostile takeover of a major political party, brand it like he brands his towers, and begin to transform the world’s leading democracy.

An untold number of those who could speak out are afraid of doing so because they would be ruthlessly labelled and tweeted into infamy by the “brother leader”.

If re-elected, Trump will come back next year with greater vigour and vengeance, and there may be little to stop him from ruling like an autocrat, ala Vladimir Putin.

This may seem like an exaggeration, but it is useful to make this comparison to point to where the problem with the Republican Party really lies today.

Many Americans, especially Republicans, believe that the end justifies the means, ie, that using any and all means possible, even undemocratic and illiberal, is justified to maintain power.

So eager to defeat the Democrats, Republicans are slowly but surely turning undemocratic. They are willing to support the president if he cuts their taxes, echoes their religious beliefs and satisfies their sense of importance.

The rest is history.

But in a liberal democracy, the means are just as important as the end. In fact, to a large extent, the means are the end. Justice, liberty, equality and the rule of law are neither abstract nor expendable; indeed, they are indispensable for the long-term prosperity, security and survival of any democracy.

Populist authoritarian means may be attractive for some in the short term, but make no mistake – they are detrimental to any democracy.

And that is what ails America.

On the brink

A majority of Americans may be increasingly aware of the danger facing their country, which could explain why Trump is trailing Biden in the polls.

But here on the other side of the Atlantic and across the Mediterranean, Europeans and Middle Easterners have a long and painful history with populist-nationalist leaders exploiting the political process to take over and impose their will on their nations.

It looks all too familiar and utterly disturbing to watch Trump borrow a page or more from infamous populist hyper-nationalist European leaders who brought their nations, and indeed the continent, to their knees.

If the election produces a more insular, authoritarian and aggressive American leadership, the implications for the world’s leading liberal democracy will be catastrophic and perhaps irreversible.

It will also trigger a dramatic domino effect in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere, where populist leaders, far-right demagogues, and dictators look to Trump for inspiration and momentum.

Alternatively, a Biden win may have different implications, but I will leave this for another time.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with a more accurate description of Mr Trump’s tax practices.