Luke chapter two, verse 14 says, “on earth, peace, and goodwill to all men”. These enduring and uplifting sentiments will be absent from a politically crazed Washington DC this Christmas. The gospel according to President Trump has set new lows in political discourse, respect, tolerance and moral values. The remarkable has become unremarkable, the extraordinary has become ordinary, the abnormal has become normal. A bitterly divided America is now being tested by a President the founding fathers feared, with a cowardly and complicit Republican leadership and a less-than-confident Democratic Party, unsure of its message and lacking a compelling alternative.
But has Trump merely opened another chapter in the long-term decline of US politics? Precisely 21 years ago, one day short of Trump’s impeachment, President Clinton suffered the same fate in time for Christmas. Speaking at the White House he said, “We must stop the politics of personal destruction. We must get rid of the poisonous venom of excessive partisanship, obsessive animosity and uncontrolled anger. This is not what America deserves.”
But this is America today.
Trump’s impeachment on two articles – abuse of power and obstruction of Congress – has only extended and deepened America’s political and cultural wars.
The President’s health is even more at risk. Despite his upbeat rhetoric, comparing his fate to being worse than the Salem witches, his increasingly hysterical outbursts at last week’s Michigan rally, and the six pages of pure vitriol he wrote in a letter to House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, all show Trump is consumed with anger and rage, and, consistent with his narcissism and deep insecurity, is likely to become even more destructive and personal as November 2020 approaches.
A Republican House Representative in the impeachment debate said that, “Pontius Pilate had given Jesus more rights than the Democrats have afforded the President”.
Political fallout of impeachment
Trump’s trial in the Senate is likely to lead to acquittal on both charges. His legacy, however, will forever be defined by impeachment, an indelible mark on the history of his Presidency. In the short run, he will claim a famous victory.
Trump is only the third President in US history to face a trial in the Senate and his behaviour is likely to become much worse in the months ahead; the reason is simple, the struggle to win in 2020 is all about him. The more his re-election is threatened, the more his behaviour will deteriorate. He can’t help himself. Setting aside the personal impact on Trump, issues of politics and principles are important, but less clear.
On impeachment, the political fallout has been limited with a narrow majority of the public in favour of his removal from office, Nearly 90 per cent of Republican supporters are against and, more significantly for Trump, his base has been energised to the point that his low presidential approval rating has seen a slight increase. So far impeachment hasn’t harmed his prospects.
For most progressives in the US, there is the important issue of principle. For many critics, the die was cast early on when the President refused to provide his tax returns and used his own properties for making private gain from public business. There was little political or public outcry. Opportunities to act were lost. Trump’s tactics are to keep pushing the boundaries. On too many occasions, having no public or private moral compass, he has shamelessly defied the law or ignored time-served conventions and White House rules. Low levels of Justice Department skulduggery ensured the Mueller inquiry did not present an earlier opportunity to impeach Trump.
As a matter of principle, the Democratic Party in Congress had no alternative other than to go for impeachment. Trump has tried to place himself beyond the reach of the law and any measures of accountability. He has been successful and become more emboldened in ignoring the constraints on his presidency. In time, he is likely to grow more dangerous and ultimately become uncontrollable, although some medics believe that “we have entered that phase” during the impeachment process, with 350 health professionals signing a letter to Congress claiming Trump’s mental health is “deteriorating dangerously”.
Booming Wall St and tax cuts
Christmas will see Trump’s mood darken as he “rests” at his winter White House, Mar-a-Lago in Florida. Trump often sees his presidency through a prism of rant and rancour and his own insecurity. But his angry mind appears to have obscured the fact that the past few weeks have been good for the Trump presidency. Ignoring the positive, he remains hooked upon the negative.
The economy added over 250,000 jobs in November. Nationwide polling shows that nearly 60 per cent of Americans think they are better off financially since Trump took office. The bipartisan agreement on the US-Mexico-Canada Trade deal (the old Nafta treaty) is also of significance. A trade deal with China, with the postponing of new tariffs on Chinese goods, has been completed. Trump has agreed a deal with the Democrats, avoiding a government shutdown. A booming Wall Street and his massive tax cuts are also impacting on the hearts and minds of voters, despite most of them receiving no obvious benefit in their pocket. And, of course, his base still thinks a wall is being built.
Trump has also seen one of his populist nationalists and prodigy, Boris Johnson, become UK Prime Minister, by effectively following the President’s script of appealing to working people by exploiting issues of identity.
Of more immediate satisfaction for a President obsessed with winning in 2020 is the news that the Republican Party, based on the latest reporting figures, has raised over $63 million against $8.3 million for the Democratic Party. Trump’s “dark state” colleagues are delivering spectacular amounts of money for what could be the most financially corrupt US election ever. Russia’s Putin, as ever, sits on the sidelines ready to help.
Trump’s achievements are real. The economy is doing well. Impeachment could backfire or be neutral in its impact. A recent article in the Washington Post suggests the run-up to Christmas has been “the best weeks of Trump’s presidency”. The President is not known for his book reading, but he could take some solace from the opening words of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
But, beyond himself, has Trump ever understood what his job is actually about?