Letter from America: The Donald as a two-term president
9 Oct 2017|

Americans do one great favour to sitting presidents—they re-elect ’em.

Landing the top job is extraordinarily tough. Doing it is nigh impossible. Getting re-elected is the oft-recurring gift.

Dating the modern superpower presidency from Franklin D. Roosevelt, the re-election prize has been granted to FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama.

The oncers are Kennedy (denied by a bullet, not the voters), Ford (never elected in the first place), Carter and George H.W. Bush.

Carter and George H.W. were beaten in their second-term quest by the US economy and better political campaigners.

More than three years out from the next election, Trump’s qualities as a politician, plus the healthy economy, have him well placed to be a twicer. Sorry about that. Prepare for seven more years, not just three.

The economic part of the equation looks good for Trump because it’s so positive for America. The recovery has entered its ninth year and is no longer limping; humming can be heard. Unemployment is below 4.5% and labour shortages mean that after decades of wage stagnation, workers’ median earnings have been rising for a couple of years.

With more than two million jobs a year being created, the optimistic view is that America’s workers are coming into a ‘new golden age’. And presidents presiding over strong growth get re-elected. Imagine what the Trump megaphone could do with a golden age: a perfect period of platinum perfection, perhaps?

The scariness of Trump as a leader shouldn’t obscure his qualities as a politician. As he was beginning that extraordinary run, back in January 2016, Trump boasted: ‘I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.’ Turns out, for some Americans, that’s true.

Indeed, if two-thirds of the electorate hate him, that passion reinforces Trump’s electoral base. As long as one-third of voters stay solid as Trump’s core support, he can build to repeat the electoral performance in November 2020. Constant taunting of myriad enemies is Trump’s pleasure, doing dual duty as political strategy.

Trump doesn’t have a political agenda that normal politicians recognise. The agenda is the glory of The Donald. Trump has done more than make a hostile takeover of the Republican Party—he aims to turn the base hostile to the Republicans, plus gather a lot of equally disgruntled Democrat voters.

The Republicans created the conditions for Trump’s rise—nativist, even nilhistic—and now the president uses those conditions against his party. This is not so much reap what you sow as ride your own whirlwind.

The Trump disruption will be significant, but he hasn’t yet touched America’s vitals. While Trump will do lots of structural damage, the hard grind of new foundations and systemic shift doesn’t interest this president.

One of the strange safety valves of the Trump style is that none of his courtiers are yet able to do much of the deep stuff either. To survive in the Trump court, the courtiers must court the king. Lots of key middle- and upper-level jobs in the administration are still vacant. Running the White House as reality soap opera takes a lot of time and energy. If you spend most of the day just handling the king, what else can you handle?

The only steady vision Trump has is reserved for the mirror.

Railing against ‘the system’—the promise to drain the Washington swamp—got him elected. Now he can’t give up the habit. Consider the strange sight of a president ranting against his own powers and berating his own party. Trump will happily wreck a lot of stuff in Washington—what I call structural damage—but he shows little ability to build much new.

Well into the first year in office, we have plenty of episodes to understand the stock scripts of this reality show. Trump’s actions can be nasty and dangerously random, yet the drama is delivered via an established behaviour pattern. Trump’s temperament tics are becoming wearily familiar. We don’t know what the 45th president will do—but we do know how he does it.

The narcissist loves himself by loving an argument with anybody. The volume is set to maximum—to argue with North Korea about nuclear war or NFL footballers going to the knee in protest during the national anthem.

Nuclear annihilation or NFL knees: in Trumpland, the tone and temper are the same. Maximum Donald. Always. It’s dark and mordant stuff, as bizarre comedy dances on the edge of apocalyptic tragedy.

The world is a giant TV, and Trump sits in front of the screen, zipping through channels, yelling his responses at the shifting images.

The political mantra about letting the candidate be genuine, to be a true expression of their own personality—rendered in the stock line, ‘Let Donald be Donald’—has reached a weird epiphany. The Donald being Donald is about little else but Donald; the limits of the personality offer some hope about limiting the damage. Trump is better at invective than invention. He does chaos, not creation.

America is set to lose much under Trump—not least, a lot of its standing as an international leader. The US, though, is a diverse and dynamic nation. The economic and legal foundations are deep and strong, even as the society and the politics morph and mutate and shift and sizzle. The US is so robust it can even survive Donald Trump at the helm. God bless America—because, by God, it’s going to need all the strength it can muster.