In American political terms, Trump is now God’s vicar on earth, says Gerard Howlin.
Donald Trump’s own landing on the Normandy beaches to commemorate D-Day will be launched from the links in Doonbeg, Co Clare. Blighted by protest, he, in fact, is the great disrupter. Trump is the most consequential US president in a generation.
No president since Ronald Reagan is likely to vie with him for ultimate significance. If he is re-elected, and his impact continues apace over eight years, he could ultimately rank with Lyndon Johnson as the most noteworthy US president in my lifetime. I was three when LBJ left the White House, and in politics that is a span of many generations.
The manner of his election, in an era when transparency is a democratic value, means that regardless of the bawdiness and political rootlessness, his fact-free careering to the most important elected office on Earth makes him one of a kind. The Mueller report, while clearly saying it could not author charges against a sitting president,
implicitly says that it is effectively up to others to pursue what Mueller himself could take no further. Constitutionally it is the responsibility of the House of Representatives to indict and the senate to try a sitting president.
Treason, and this is what collusion with Russia would be, is not simply a matter of proof. It is an issue of politics.
There may be the numbers now to indict in the House, but as Republicans learned with Bill Clinton, that could be a political cul-de-sac. There is no sign there are the votes to convict in the Senate. What a trial would require is the disclosure of much of the material available to Mueller.
That could be devastating. The woman who owns the starting pistol on this is House speaker Nancy Pelosi. She is seasoned and so far sceptical, so let’s see. But regardless of how it ultimately ends, this is an American president of unusual consequence.
In the long view of history, Trump is the decisive break with a sense of America’s place in the world enunciated by Woodrow Wilson after the Great War. It married American exceptionalism with a global mission. Regardless of multiple lapses, it had as its driver democratic values. Its ultimate triumph was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991. That was an actual moment of ‘mission accomplished’ in American history.
Unlike the cartoon version of the slogan unveiled on an aircraft carrier after the Iraq invasion by George W Bush, his father’s presidency was the high watermark of American power. It completed the campaign begun on D-Day, but which hardly progressed further than the Elbe in 1945.
The irony for Donald Trump standing on those beaches is that he is leading not just an American military retreat from Europe, he is leaving behind the values which motivated it, and the alliances that enabled it.
Our Eurocentric view clouds our vision, however. The Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 was in hindsight the moment that made the world safe for autocracy. It is the context since for Putin, Erdogan, Orban, and others.
The Chinese have a hundred-year plan. They don’t have elections. They have successfully played US presidents in a game of political reform versus economic progress. Economic progress has been delivered. The only real reform in China since Tiananmen is the elevation of President Xi Jinping, like Mao, to emperor status.
Trump is probably essentially right about China. But he doesn’t have 100 years. Nor it seems does he have the steadfastness and cunning to pursue set strategies by differing means as tactics require, over time. He is, however, a master of misrule.
Trump has de-institutionalised the US presidency. He is a bizarrely post-modern but powerful emanation of the great man theory of history. There may be nothing great about him personally, but his capacity to, Andy Warhol-like, endlessly reincarnate his own 15 minutes of fame on the most prominent stage in the world is a phenomenon.
His use of himself physically — his orange glow, his rigorously marshalled and coloured hair, his vocabulary, and pugnacity — is organised systematically into appalling attraction. Let the sense of being appalled be a warning though. If you are, then that is what he intends. His intentional audience does not include you. Therefore, you are a ‘loser’. He is the winner.
If there are good grounds for arguing that George W Bush was the first move on from the Wilsonian tradition, he kept the trimmings of alliances intact. His presidency, in reaction to Clinton, doubled down on the formality of the office.
Reputed never to have taken his jacket off in the Oval office, he reproved me for not wearing a standard-issue, plastic-Paddy, green tie when I trooped into that room to see him. What was rigorously kept intact, until Trump, was the formality of the office of president.
Johnson, foul-mouthed and scatological, favoured inflicting humiliation by having the great of his administration wait upon him as he sat on the toilet, relieving himself. Nixon made Johnson seem angelic. And Bill Clinton did of course take his jacket off in the Oval office.
But these were personal foibles. Trump has unmoored the presidency not just from decorum but from the institutional forms we understand define modern government.
His use of Twitter is the most innovative presidential use of modern communications since Roosevelt’s use of radio. His homely talks were, however, carefully scripted. Trump is script writer, actor, and director in his own
one-man show. The seat of power is not a president placed with his counsellors in the Oval office, it is himself alone in his private quarters.
That physical repositioning of himself within the White House is as important as his use of his own physical self in first taking and now enacting power. There will be books written about the aesthetics of power under Trump.
He is a populist and a demagogue. His narrative of falsehood and half-truths is conveyed with technical mastery over public emotion, with repetition of key words and command of tonal colour that few great performers acquire. The fact of his election and his dominance since testify to that.
In American political terms, he is now God’s vicar on earth. He has cornered the God market not just in evangelical American but in much of the Catholic hierarchy too. Supreme Court seats are given on the basis of ideological fealty, in return for political loyalty.
Having broken all boundaries, his politics is guerrilla warfare. If you hit him, he will hit back 10 times harder. Sometimes he will hit for no reason, because that is what you need to do. As much of the coverage of his visit attests, he is a master of distraction but a man of far greater importance than his detractors are willing to allow.