Donald Trump revels in cult-like adoration and the prospect of four more years – Henry McLeish
British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said, “a week is a long time in politics”. In America, last week seemed like an eternity, as an unchained and unrepentant President missed the opportunity to build on some good news. Instead, he used his “State of the Union” address to put out 31 unsubstantiated claims or lies in the most divisive, poisonous and partisan event ever to take place on Capitol Hill.
At a national prayer meeting, the President then appeared to question God and Jesus Christ, and ridiculed Senator Mitt Romney’s faith. And after his impeachment acquittal, Trump turned a White House briefing into a Republican rally, going after his enemies like some mafia boss compiling a hit list. The purge of impeachment witnesses is now underway.
A week of unrelenting political savagery dominated the intensifying battle between Democrats and Republicans, as the clock ticks down to what is shaping up to be one of the most vicious presidential elections in US history.
The good news of the week was the iconic and sensational Super Bowl, the highlight of the National Football league season, which provides an uplifting insight into the other America. The Kansas City Chiefs beat the San Francisco 49ers with a TV viewing audience believed to be over 100 million people.
Humiliation of Democrats
The spectacle and fun of the Super Bowl quickly gave way to a bad week for the Democrats. The Iowa caucus meltdown revealed a seemingly endless display of incompetence and naivety in the first real test of public opinion in the run-up to selecting a candidate to contest Trump in November. The process was a humiliation for the Democrats and sent out the wrong message in a week when Trump was gaining more traction in opinion polls.
For the candidates nearly four days elapsed before final results were posted. Even then the Democratic National Committee remained unsure of the accuracy of the figures.
Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and Bernie Sanders topped the poll, with Elizabeth Warren doing well. But the surprise was the poor showing of Joe Biden whose campaign didn’t really take off. The poll was dominated by the generational divide, the battle between the left and centrists and the increasingly important concern about candidate electability. Buttigieg’s performance was the highlight of this chaotic caucus.
Although it’s early days, Biden’s lacklustre performance has raised the prospect of an unlikely path to victory for billionaire Michael Bloomberg. The narrative looks like this. Democrat supporters are anxious about electability. Biden’s performance is worrying centrists and, as confidence in his prospects diminishes, campaign finance may dry up.
Michael Bloomberg’s stock rising
Unless there is a significant improvement in his performance in New Hampshire, where the primary takes place today, and in South Carolina and Nevada, a new centrist candidate may need to emerge. Could that be ‘Mayor Pete’ or Amy Klobuchar? A victory for Sanders or Warren, both of the left, holds out the prospect that neither might be considered electable, and this could lead to both of them being demonised and dismissed by Trump, as socialists, communists or worse.
This line of thinking leads to Bloomberg, with his vast fortune and political experience as mayor of New York, potentially emerging as the favoured centrist candidate.
Much of this is speculative so early in the primary season. But there is no doubt this has been a bad few days for the Democrats. Acrimonious and protracted soul-searching may only help Trump.
His “State of the Union” address was the ugly part of last week. A joint session of Congress had to endure a “State of his Base” rant, which was triumphal, deliberately divisive and at times vindictive and poisonous. After his impeachment acquittal, Trump offered no remorse for his behaviour but merely gave notice he would be taking revenge on those who had crossed him.
It opened up a new chapter in which a terrifying and tyrannical President offered an insight into what his second term might mean.
At the start, Trump refused to shake hands with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who ignored addressing him in the time-honoured way. When the President had finished, she ripped up a copy of the speech. Other Democrats stayed away, many walked out, and there was little applause for anything he said. In sharp contrast, the Republicans chanted “four more years” and rose 115 times in 80 minutes to applaud! Sitting on campus in San Antonio, Texas, it was hard to believe what was happening.
Humourless, tedious monotone
This was probably Trump’s most disciplined speech, delivered in a tedious monotone, free of humour, humanity, humility or even much in the way of truth, but laced with moments of reality TV, unusually for him focused on human interest stories courting black people. The President seemed more comfortable when he was hurling abuse at the Democrats.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that US politics is being dragged into an even darker and dangerous pre-election period where a near-cult atmosphere is being created by Trump, his base and Republican legislators imprisoned by fear of their leader.
The tragedy is that he didn’t need to create such a poisonous atmosphere. He could have argued that there was a “blue collar boom” and “market might” and that there was a “great American come back”, reinforced by the latest polling. His Presidential approval rating has climbed to 49 per cent, the highest of his Presidency, 94 per cent of Republicans still support him and 64 per cent of Americans approve of his handling of the economy.
Trump had also been acquitted on the two charges of impeachment and the Democrats were struggling to contain the embarrassing fallout from the Iowa debacle. This could have been an opportunity for Trump to prove his critics wrong, but he proved incapable of rising above his vindictive and troubled self.
The national prayer meeting, where the tenets of Christianity were attacked, only served to illustrate that presidential governance is now one continuous rally, pitting one half of the country against the other with no thought being given to unifying or healing a bitterly divided population.
After a week of chilling and destructive politics, Trump could still win another four years. Up to now, the Democratic Party appears to have ignored the depth of Trump’s resilience, the party’s deepening divisions at a time of national peril, and the conspicuous ambivalence of tens of millions of Americans to democracy, the rule of law and the abuse of power. Only 266 days to election day. What will next week look like?