Donald Trump’s presidency is finished, we’re hearing, as his tragic bungling of the COVID-19 pandemic has given way to his tragic bungling of the protests against police murders of African Americans.
Trump’s presidency is over, declared Robert Reich. Trump was the new Jimmy Carter (ouch) without the latter’s patriotism, wrote Matt Bai for the The Washington Post. Trump has a failed presidency wrote Vanity Fair, echoing a recent Brookings Institution op-ed.
Except, commentators have routinely called time on Trump — so often that it’s even been the subject of other commentary.
Measured by the normal standards of presidents, Trump is indeed a spectacular failure, one to make even James Buchanan look competent, so awful even that reliable sycophant of duds and despots Greg “George W. Bush is one of the great presidents” Sheridan has been moved to find fault with him.
But to conclude that 110,000 dead and counting, a wrecked economy, the worst civil unrest since the 1960s, a plague of white supremacist and incel terrorism, a rebuke by his own military leaders and the erosion of the international standing of the US among enemies and allies alike represents failure is to apply entirely the wrong standard.
As a project, the Trump presidency welds two disparate aims: the profound, tribal sense of loathing of many low and middle-income white males toward 21st century America, and an extreme, plutocratic form of neoliberalism devoted to serving the interests of US corporations and its wealthiest elite.
To achieve this, Trump — a wholly establishment figure, albeit more arriviste and gauche than traditional East Coast Republicans — has posed as an anti-establishment outsider determined to impose change. As it turns out, that change has not been an overturning, but a confirmation, of key elements of the US model of neoliberalism that has immiserated so many blue-collar Americans.
But Trump can successfully pull this off because he understands the intersection of these two divergent interests — their hostility to government.
It’s a longstanding trope of US politics that corporate interests have used racism to distract white working class voters from voting in their economic interests. Trump’s presidency dramatically scales this up: he doesn’t just use race, he uses the full spectrum of identity politics.
For many white American males, particularly working class white males, government has become a hated entity, one that has retreated from supporting American communities and white male jobs while — in their eyes — providing unmerited support to African-American and Hispanic communities, women, LGBTIQ people and other minorities. Government has, in their eyes, abandoned them while backing those they have traditionally regarded as their inferiors.
For corporate plutocrats, of course, government is a tax and regulatory burden that must be curbed or even removed altogether to maximise corporate profits and shareholder returns.
As m’colleague Guy Rundle has perspicaciously noted, this leads to a form of “wrecking crew” politics, in which the purpose of the incumbent is not to achieve policy goals or deliver a certain philosophy of government, but to simply destroy the capacity of government to achieve anything positive and, ultimately, even the faith of the governed in the capacity of government to effect worthwhile change.
Until this year, Trump painted with a somewhat limited palette in that task: important administration positions were left unfilled, or filled with utter incompetents; the US budget deficit was exploded with a company tax cut that funnelled tens of billions to US shareholders; officeholders who displayed a reality-based approach to their jobs, or who took oversight roles seriously, were dumped; entire functions, such as preparing for pandemics, were shuttered; blatant corruption became an acceptable standard for public office.
But COVID-19 has presented the opportunity for implementing this strategy on a far broader scale. Through a combination of denialism, partisanship, refusal to take action, incitement of armed white supremacists to break lockdown laws and promotion of deadly “cures”, Trump added the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans to his resumé of governmental incapacitation.
The eruption of protests over police murders was a kind of contorni to that rich meal; even conservatives were appalled that Trump’s instinct was to inflame the protests and divide Americans, as if anything in his presidency had suggested he might do otherwise.
With these actions, Trump has come significantly closer to the ultimate goal of disabling, if not permanently then long-term, the capacity of the US federal government to govern effectively, and the belief of Americans in its potential to govern effectively for them.
If that’s the strategy, Trump’s tactics are also noteworthy. Trump is a troll. His real political slogan isn’t “Make America Great Again”. That was only ever a reference to a kind of pre-modern America, where women, and blacks, and other minorities knew their place and never challenged the right of heterosexual white males to social, political and economic dominance. His true slogan is “U Mad Bro?”, that smirking declaration of triumph by the internet troll to anyone who takes their abuse, derision, pranking or transgressive mockery seriously.
Trump’s lies aren’t the LBJ-style self-convinced declarations of a president who, famously, was the first victim of his own whoppers, but the goadings of a troll, someone who doesn’t care about the truth or otherwise of their statements, only that they enrage opponents and amuse supporters.
Trump himself is notoriously racist, but his own personal prejudices are less relevant than his self-appointed role of premier Twitter flamebaiter. His statements are, like those of an internet bulletin board troll, intended to amuse and enrage, not be taken seriously; he would find it bemusing that even many Trump supporters have killed themselves with poison or died from COVID infection — U Dead Bro? — based on his advice, given his statements were acts of trolling, not statements of fact or even personal belief.
To accuse a troll of failing to unite is thus absurd, akin to lamenting a vampire’s pale complexion. Their very existence is dedicated to dividing, enraging, alienating, infuriating, with a gloating delight at causing offence with ever more absurd, transgressive statements.
So Trump’s presidency, far from being over, is at its zenith, even if it has come at the cost of the president having to flee in terror to the White House bunker as protesters raged outside.
Far more than George W. Bush — a former contender for worst ever president, who now looks comparatively benign and moderate — Trump deserves a “Mission Accomplished” moment. If not a fighter jet to an aircraft carrier, then perhaps a triumphant emergence from a White House bunker “inspection” to walk over the bodies of protestors, spent teargas canisters and tattered Black Lives Matter placards, and stand in front of a desecrated church to hold aloft some Trump merchandise, proudly surveying the wreckage of a failed state.