The full bizzarerie of the impending Donald Trump presidency doesn’t hit you at once. Yesterday morning, I was crossing a bridge in Chicago, listening to the buildings and bridges groaning in the wind, gazing again at the extraordinary Marina City skyscraper pair, symbol of cool and confident modernism, from 1962, when I noticed the boxy, unremarkable building beside it, and the name emblazoned thereon: “TRUMP”, of course. Not his building, as usual, just one employing the brand. Who knows? The name may well come down. But for the moment, and into the presidency proper, there is this extraordinary situation: the leader of the country has his name prominently displayed in every major city.
The country that spent a century subverting democracy in Latin America has now applied the process to itself, become its own banana republic. In New York, Trump is running his incoming presidency from a tower that is glittering black outside, and gold-encrusted within — and has made it clear that he will be spending a lot of time there, as president. Were it that the evangelicals did not support him, they would surely recognise him as the anti-Christ they have been expecting for so long.
[Rundle: the liberal centre that destroyed the world]
Trump himself shows no indication of being shy at the perks owed to a generalissimo. In the last week, he has reportedly lobbied the Argentinian President to hurry up planning permission on a Trump building in Buenos Aires, a conversation that his daughter Ivanka, de facto Trump business head, sat in on; he has suggested that Nigel Farage would make a good UK ambassador to the US — and raised with Farage the issue of offshore wind farms near a Trump golf resort in Scotland; and his DC hotel has suggested that visiting dignitaries may want to stay there. When assailed about these conflicts of interest, he simply tweeted:
In an interview with The New York Times, he noted that there is simply no law against the president having business ventures, and no controls on conflict of interest.
None of that will worry his base, or even many of his unenthusiastic voters. It’s another case where many, accurately enough, see the punctilious legal compliance of people like the Clintons, as equally sleazy, and a measure of their contempt for the electorate’s intelligence. Everyone could see they were building influence and a client list with the Clinton Foundation, using hands-off principles (barely) to keep it legal. No one is fooled, and they prefer Trump’s brazen approach, as an honest one. They’ll be happy with a step-up in deportations, some cranes rising, and welding torches being lit in the rust-belt, and some heavy bombing of ISIS and surrounding civilians. If Trump can do that in the first six months, he can chisel his name in the Washington monument.
Indeed, the one thing that may have tarnished him so far is his recent stepping back from the commitment to prosecute Hillary Clinton (“she needs to heal”), and his renunciation of torture as an interrogation method, which he had enthusiastically backed during the primaries (“we’re going to do a lot more than waterboarding!”). Neither renunciation is a huge surprise: no one knows what Trump really believes about a whole range of things. But he has the politician’s true skill: utter shamelessness. Having initially tried to tamp down the “lock her up” cries at rallies, he enthusiastically adopted it when he was 11 points behind.
Both Trump’s extreme and moderate actions are losing him friends on the right. The conventional right has become deeply disturbed at his insouciant insistence on continuing with his business ventures, since it appears that he is not unwilling to put the republic to the service of them. They were equally alarmed at a recent meeting he had with the heads of TV networks and the press — at Trump Tower, naturally — in which he repeatedly blasted them for running “lying” stories about him.
Meanwhile, Breitbart and other hard-right/white supremacist sites, who are kinda happy about all of that, are furious that Hillary won’t end up in prison, and are already talking of betrayal, even though their man Steve Bannon is at the centre of the White House, and conventions of white supremacists (self-labelled as the ‘alt-right’) are holding sessions in which speakers cry “Heil Trump!”. Everything is normal and abnormal at the same time.
The process of transition, with its achingly slow picking of a cabinet, seems to have gone on for months. It seems impossible that Trump will actually become president — but at the same time, all processes are normalising, incessant moral condemnation becomes impossible, and the capture of the White House by a spiv with a strong white-supremacist contingent in his entourage continues.
The one glitch on the horizon is the gathering suggestion that there was widespread voter irregularity, in favour of Trump, in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. A group of election analysts is lobbying team Clinton to demand a recount, after finding that her tallies are 7% lower in any county using electronic voting machines — although this is disputed by other psephs. Should Clinton wish to do so, she’ll have to decide quickly, since the deadline for such requests in all three states fall due in the next few days.
The suggestion does raise one possibility — one intriguing possibility: that the Trump campaign began talking about the election being rigged as preparation for rigging it, through hacking machines. Questions have always hung over the Republican victory in Ohio during the 2004 election, and if anyone was going to rig something, it would be the shameless types around the Trump campaign.
Having got Clinton to reject any talk of a stolen election as an attack on the system, the Trump team may have boxed her into a corner, knowing all along that they would have a red-hot go at stealing the vote. The notion that this possibility should be rejected as a conspiracy theory is absurd; power is laced with conspiracies, and US elections being stolen is not a new thing. With Hillary now leading by 1.5 million votes in the raw total, and on her way to 2 million — but unlikely to make up the numbers in a recount — she will be damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. (Stop press: Jill Stein of the Green Party has just announced that she will use her standing to ask for a recount).
We’ll see. Anything remains possible. The election hasn’t concluded until December 19, when the electoral college meets (and some of them are being lobbied furiously to not vote for Trump, on the grounds that he did not win a majority). Trump may have put his name on the thing, but the republic is creaking and groaning beneath it.