Letters from America, take four: The spokes came off the wheel, then the fever broke.

datePosted on 10:52, August 28th, 2017 by Lew

Pablo is in the USA and having technical problems, so I am posting this on his behalf. -L

Donald Trump’s last two weeks could well be the turning point in his presidency. Given that I have been wrong about him before I am reluctant to call it terminal for him, but there are now unmistakable signs that his tenure in office is under threat. Allow me to explain why.

Think of the Trump presidency as a wheel with five spokes. The wheel is his administration. The spokes are his bases of support: corporate America, the congressional Republican caucus, the military-security complex, the Right-wing media and the alt-Right/Tea Party electoral support base. With his actions since the clashes in Charlottesville between Klansmen and neo-Nazis versus counter-protesters, he has broken or weakened the spokes that hold his administration together.

When he failed to denounce the Klansmen and neo-Nazis in unequivocal terms and instead drew false moral equivalence between them (“there was violence on both sides,” “there are fine people on both sides”), corporate America took leave of him. Members of his business advisory council began to quit, and when the number of them became too significant to dismiss, he abolished the council entirely. In doing so he also took Twitter pot-shots at the sole black member of the council who resigned while saying nothing about the whites who did likewise.

Corporate America supported Trump because of two things. He promised tax reform and de-regulation, particularly of the financial and energy markets. But his behaviour has become so erratic, his bluster and threats so disconnected from reality (such as saying that he would rather shut down the government if Congress does not approve his billion dollars plus taxpayer funded Mexican Wall project, a project that he repeatedly promised that Mexico would pay for), corporate leaders fear that not only will he not deliver on his promises but his actions will plunge the US back into recession. So quietly but steadily they are abandoning public support for him in favour of political hedging strategies focused on Congress and his likely successor. Mike Pence, Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush are all being courted as more rational and responsible pro-market conservatives with presidential qualifications, to the point that all three have had to do the usual disclaimers about not being interested in the job. When that happens, you know that they are. And that means that the corporate spoke supporting the Trump presidential wheel has fractured.

Corporate America’s distancing from Trump is paralleled by that of his second support spoke: Republicans in Congress. Republicans control both houses of Congress but have been unable to pass any significant legislation because of internal divisions within their ranks and Trump’s brutish interventions in their affairs. The latter includes personally attacking both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in extraordinarily personal terms, to say nothing of the torrent of vitriol he spews at those like Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake who have defied his orders to do as he commands on contentious policy issues. His attacks on Democrats are equally ferocious but are water off a duck’s back as far as the latter are concerned. After all, the Democrats are focused on winning back one or both congressional chambers in 2018 thanks to hatred for Trump and the paralysis of congressional Republicans when it comes to confronting him on even the most obvious of his mistakes. Since they only need a shift of three seats in the Senate and 35 in the House to reclaim control of Congress, Democrats wear his insults and threats as a badge of honour and in fact are using his nasty soundbites and tweets as part of their political advertising campaigns.

For Republicans, however, his slings and arrows do sting. That is because campaigning for the November 2018 midterms begins in November 2017, and they must choose whether to fish or cut bait on their support for Trump in order to save their own political careers as well as the future of the Republican Party. Trump’s attacks on the Republican congressional leadership have deepened the fractures within the party itself, to the point that some wonder if what he is doing is trying to promote an internal coup against the GOP leadership.

The Republican calculus is stark. Do they continue to ride Trump’s coattails on the way to the midterm elections or do they campaign against, or at least disavow support for him once campaign season begins? If he is doing well in the polls (which translates into a national approval average of 35 percent or more), then they will remain loyal to him. If his polling numbers continue to dip as they have been for the last few months, then they will cut bait.

The practical effect is to accentuate the alienation of the Republican congressional leadership from Trump. Although many never liked him and most understand that he is not a dye-in-the-wool conservative, the situation after his election was not supposed to be like this. Instead of a united front passing conservative legislation and rolling back Obama’s policy agenda, the Republican Party is in disarray and taking heat from its constituents. Something must give, and what has given is the support spoke that congressional Republicans provided Trump at the beginning of his reign.

Trump’s equivocating on racism and his continuing support for symbols of the Confederacy have produced a remarkable response from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense (and former Marine General) Jim Mattis. Without mentioning Trump by name, these senior military leaders have repudiated his remarks on the events in Charlottesville and instead stressed that the US military operates on principles of equality and non-discrimination (to include transgender people, who Trump and Pence have targeted). This is an extraordinary moment in US civil-military relations, where public questioning, much less criticism of the president by the uniformed corps is anathema. When we add into the mix the strained relations between Trump and the US intelligence community—who he continues to blame for leaks and who he ignores when it comes to its assessment of Russia—what results is a serious strain in the support spoke of the Trump presidency that is the US security community.

Evidence of his concern with maintaining their contingent support (since allegiance is given to the Constitution, not him) is seen in Trump’s agreeing to the military request for a troop increase in Afghanistan after he campaigned on withdrawing the US from that country and repeatedly claimed that he “knew more” than the generals when it comes to warfare (which is a bit rich for a draft-dodging playboy, but there you go). He may have had to choke on his ego to do so, but he and his advisors know that fracturing the support spoke provided by the security community could well be his political Waterloo. Hence the acquiescence on the Afghan troop surge. As a result, the security spoke may be strained to the point of cracking, but it is not yet fractured.

All of this has been watched with interest by the Right-wing media. Most of this media has been supportive of Trump, but here too cracks have appeared because of the racism row and his firing of Steve Bannon, the nationalist-populist strategist and former Brietbart publisher who commanded his ear for the first six months of his presidency. It was Bannon who urged the president to embrace the Alt-Right, and who crafted the anti-trade, anti-Muslim, anti-Chinese and false moral equivalence memes that found their way onto Trump’s twitter feed. But when Bannon’s pretence exceeded his grasp of political realities, the new presidential Chief of Staff, Jim Kelley (another retired Marine general and former Secretary of Homeland Security), gave Trump a “he or me” ultimatum. And like that, Bannon was gone from the West Wing.

But he did not go far. Instead, he resumed his leadership of Brietbart and immediately began attacking Trump for caving in to the Washington establishment on Afghanistan and other issues. The Alt-Right responded accordingly, and now Trump cannot be assured that he has its undivided support. Meanwhile, other Right media figures criticized, however reluctantly, Trump’s comments on Charlottesville and the historical record regarding the civil war, thereby driving a wedge into what until recently was monolithic Right-wing media support spoke for him. With Right-wing media now splintered between those who attack him for not fulfilling his campaign promises and those criticizing his more egregious rhetorical and practical excesses, his media support spoke is becoming increasingly wobbly.

Which leaves his base. Those that flock to his campaign rallies remain unwavering in their support for him (and yes, he is still holding rallies six months into his presidency and three years before his run for re-election, using insignificant “official” appearances as an excuse to use taxpayer funded transportation and lodging for what otherwise should be private campaign expenses). But however solid their support, their numbers are dwindling. Rallies that used to bring in tens of thousands now barely reach 10,000. His national poll numbers are hovering below 35 percent, and most importantly, in some die-hard Red states that he won overwhelmingly, his approval ratings are starting to slide below the 75 percent incumbent party support threshold common for presidents this early in their first term. Thus, while the base support spoke remains solid it is also smaller than it used to be, thereby increasing the rickety strength of the presidential wheel.

The sum effect is an exercise in political unsustainability. The presidential wheel cannot continue to sustain its increasingly wobbly roll unless drastic repairs are made to its support infrastructure. That does not appear likely to happen.

All of this occurs against the backdrop of a collective fever breaking. From the moment Trump came on the political scene, the response of the political class has been akin to a feverish dream. First, they believed that he could not win the Republican primaries. Then they believed that he could not win the general election. Then they believed that he would “grow” into the presidential role. Then they hoped that he would be forced to wear the institutional straight jacket of the presidency whether he wanted to or not. Then they expected that he would moderate his language and behaviour once he saw the effect they had on markets and diplomatic relations. Then they believed that his staff or family would reign him in and save him from his own impulses. Then they looked to Congress and the Judiciary to restrain him, and that is when the fever broke.

The US political class now realizes that there is no changing Trump and that he is a danger to the nation. His recklessness is now openly acknowledged and his mental stability repeatedly questioned by politicians, businesspeople and media commentators alike. Courts have challenged his executive orders and Congress has by veto-proof majorities imposed over his objections sanctions on Russia and prevented him from making recess appointments or dismissals. He may not want like it, but now that the feverish delusion that he would somehow exhibit the restraint, reason, decorum and willingness to compromise that are considered essential traits of presidential leadership has been once and for all dispelled, the institutional straight jacket is being forced onto him. And with the spokes coming off his presidential wheel, he may not be wearing it for very long.

Or so we can hope.

4 Responses to “Letters from America, take four: The spokes came off the wheel, then the fever broke.”

  1. James Green on August 29th, 2017 at 11:42

    I’m still not convinced that it is enough for the Dems to even win back control of Congress at the next mid-terms. They will have to get around 57% of the vote for House seats to overcome the severe gerrymandering, while the third of Senate seats up for re-election are really unfavourable.

    That said, they so monumentally screwed up in organising their House seats campaign last year that just by chance alone they will probably do better.

  2. Redbaiter on August 29th, 2017 at 12:22

    Sad really to see what is a moderately admirable intellect so mislead by corrupt mainstream media sources.

    This is wrong on so many levels its impossible to respond to with reason. Unravelling the misinformation would take thousands of words.

    Just one example, the Charlottesville riots were the result of Antifa thugs without any licence to protest attacking a peaceful licensed protest.

    The licensed protesters were not white supremacists but mainly a collection of Libertarians and Conservatives and other fans of small weak govt and low taxes. No one who yearns for small weak govt can be a fascist.

    The guy carrying the one and only Nazi flag was of course given maximum exposure by the MSM. There is some doubt as to whether he is even a legitimate protester, given the same guy with the same flag has been photographed at many different protest locations, and has apparently been doxed back to an address care of the FBI.

    The likely explanation for the current unstable political scenario in the US is subversive operations directed covertly by Hillary Clinton and or Barack Obama by means of leftover Democrat agents throughout the administration, including the security services.

    There is no real crisis, there are no right wing extremists, its all an operation by Democrat subversives who have even directed Police to stand down so that their violent foot soldiers can take over and control the streets.

    Try some other sources Pablo. Are you on Twitter? That’s where the real news is today. People themselves are doing what the media used to do, before it was infiltrated, destroyed and perverted by left wing political operatives.

  3. Pablo on August 31st, 2017 at 06:36

    Well, I am pleased to say that after a week struggling to get a full internet connection in Boston, the problem has been solved. So I am back up and running.

    James: I am inclined to share your pessimism about the Dems, but also think that the train wreck may have such momentum that they will pick up congressional seats in spite of themselves. In the next installment of this series I will outline what I see as Trump’s strategy for the midterm election campaign–ugly and evil but possibly effective as a way of rallying the GOP.

    Red: Thanks for coming over and giving me your opinion. I think that we look at the world from oppositive sides of the telescope. But it is interesting to read your thoughts. The Vice News short doco on the events in Charlottesville gives the lie to your claims that it was a gathering of nice people and it was the antifa crowd who were at fault: https://news.vice.com/story/vice-news-tonight-full-episode-charlottesville-race-and-terror

    I am not on Twitter as an individual, although my company has an account. Given my past troubles with emails I thought it wise not to adopt the 140 character format.

  4. Redbaiter on August 31st, 2017 at 13:13

    I had heard about that video Pablo. I read about how the maker was a virulent anti-Trump propagandists. So I looked at her twitter account and found that accusation was true.

    I had also heard about plans the left had in place to subvert the rally, but when I delved into this the murk became so deep and dark as to be impenetrable.

    However one of the primary messages was that the left had decided long ago to use these gatherings as a means to discredit the growing Conservative/ Libertarian movement that is actually far more of a threat to them than the Nazis etc who gate crashed the event.

    Its more of a threat because that movement has appeal to the moderates. What’s the best way to drive moderates away? Associate the crazies with their group.

    So I put all of the claims that the leaders of the crazies were alt-leftists working towards the above objectives aside, as the proof for this is not entirely convincing. I put aside all I had read about the phoney Nazi flag and the guy carrying it.

    I put aside all that I had read about the connections of other “leaders” to liberal groups, to previously radical liberal events, and even to working for CNN. It looks like they’re double agents, but how the hell are we ever to know?

    I put aside all of the tweets I had read from other attendees at the rally who had not seen any violence, or any Nazis or even any Nazi flags. This could be right or wrong, or just confusion, as there seems to have been a number of rallies and its not clear who was at what.

    I put all that aside and tried to watch the doco with an open mind. I felt it deserved a watch at least because it was so widely revered by leftists, and had been so widely distributed on the basis that it discredited Trump’s comments that both sides were to blame.

    In fact I saw a documentary that didn’t prove much, except that perhaps the claims about the left trying to discredit the right were true and that even when the right were prepared, the violence had actually been started by the left.

    It even showed the so called organiser (an ex CNN employee with a seriously liberal past) trying to explain to the opposing protesters what had happened and getting driven from the microphones and seriously assaulted for his trouble. Why the desperate need to silence his explanation?

    It did very little to dispel the main claims of the Conservative/ Libertarian faction that this was a a set up, especially with the violence of Antifa being connived at or even encouraged by the Mayor and Governor and Police management.

    So all I got from that video was more confusion, and I had to wonder just what there was about it that the left thought it supported their cause.

    As you say, it must be something to do with looking through the right/wrong end of the telescope.

    I am pleased to read that mainstream leftists have now, finally, been embarrassed into criticising Antifa for their violence. Even that despicable old commie Pelosi has had to make a statement.

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