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Old 05-01-2017, 10:39 AM
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Default Trump’s first 100 days: ignorant, thuggish, insecure, a president as would-be oligarc

Trump’s first 100 days: ignorant, thuggish, insecure - a president as would-be oligarch

His vanity and neediness show a man more concerned with promoting his own brand than helping his country.....

By Hari Kunzru
29 April 2017

Photograph: UPI / Barcroft Images

One could find 100 symbols for President Trump’s first 100 days in office, 100 different entrance points to the chaos, but for simplicity’s sake, I’ll go with Nikki Haley’s facial muscles. At a White House lunch on 24 April, Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, sat next to the most powerful man in the world as he greeted a group of ambassadors from countries that have seats on the UN security council. In an administration of absentees, golfers, feuders and wreckers, Haley has turned up for work and doesn’t seem to be an agent of a foreign power, which is enough to mark her as a rising star. At times, she has appeared to be making policy rather than following Trump’s own wandering line. “He has given me a lot of leeway to just say what I think and interpret what he thinks,” she boasted in an interview with CNN. Trump opened his address with a compliment. “You’re a really important and powerful group of people,” he said. Important is good for Trump. Powerful is good. After a drift through some stuff about “the spouses”, how “they were going to leave out the spouses”, but he, Trump, told them not to leave out the spouses because otherwise there would be a lot of angry spouses, he used the phrase “it’s a great honour”, which usually indicates that the speaker is about to be humble.

It turns up a lot on Trump’s lips, speechwriter boilerplate that ought to end in “for me” or “for us” and sometimes does. In this case, Trump turned it round. “It’s a great honour for those of you that brought your wife, it’s beautiful,” he said, his sentence trailing away as if he knew he’d gone off script. He had inadvertently returned to the topic uppermost in his mind: the number of covers. He was the one with the power and the nice dining room and the ambassadors owed him for getting them a plus one for lunch. By his side, Haley carved out an enormous orthodontically perfect grin. Her eyes were hyper-vigilant, like a soldier on foot patrol in a hostile city. Then Trump started talking about Haley. First, he helped himself to a little credit for her performance. “She’s acting as my personal envoy on the security council.” Personal is good for Trump. Personal means he owns something and you ought to admire it. It was not technically true, because as permanent resident, Haley is charged with representing her nation rather than her boss, but we have learned not to expect mastery of diplomatic protocol from an elderly man who is, we are told, a “visual learner” and appears to have problems concentrating and organizing his thoughts.

“She’s doing a good job,” he said. Haley dug deeper into her grin, the scaffolding of muscle on her face holding firm, pulling back the lips securely over the teeth. When Trump likes something, it’s a “great job”. A “good job” is, well, not so good. Then came the threat. A former reality TV host knows about audience participation. “Does everybody like Nikki?” he asked. Nervous laughter from the diplomats. Haley’s eyes began to roll like marbles in their sockets, but still the muscles held firm. “Because if you don’t like Nikki…” He pointed and winked at someone across the table, “she can easily be replaced”. Haley convulsed with mock hilarity, but behind her rictus, she must have been experiencing the same queasy blend of disorientation, precariousness and fear that has become the signature Trump effect, the feeling he has induced in much of the world for the last 100 days. Trump is a destabilizing force, one that could be tipped in various directions. He is courted by several factions, all of whom believe they can own him, but his very inconsistency has so far protected him from full co-option by any one of them.

The Bannon-Miller white nationalist axis is one of the more frightening and, in the first few weeks, it seemed to be in the ascendant, until the fiasco of the “Muslim ban” and Trump’s irritation at Saturday Night Live’s portrayal of him as Bannon’s puppet slowed their progress. Establishment conservatives (the Ryan-Priebus faction) seem caught in a cycle of hubris and chastisement, as the White House swings in and out of alignment with them. In the weeks after the inauguration, a point of view took hold among the more supine kind of establishment centrist that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump would be a “moderating force”, sprinkling a little sparkly social liberalism (don’t worry so much about bathrooms!) on to the chaotic whirling blades of the machine. This was based, as far as I could see, on the reasoning that they collected art and probably wanted to be able to eat out in New York without the waiter spitting in their food. They have subsequently shown no inclination towards moderating anything at all, taking major but obscure roles inside the black box that is the administration’s decision-making.

There are several other groups or tendencies, including the Silicon Valley interests orbiting around the libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel (note the president’s recent woolly imaginings of a human mission to Mars), the energy interests around Rex Tillerson and east coast finance capital. Goldman Sachs alumni are now in various prominent positions in the administration, which is anathema to the far righters and “don’t tread on me” populists who lapped up Trump’s antisemitic campaign dog-whistles. A man whose interest in policy could charitably be described as intermittent, Trump’s main concern appears to be burnishing his personal brand. Staff loyalty is important. It’s equally important not to overshadow the star, as Nikki Haley found to her cost. The president is known to spend much of his working day watching cable news and had surely noticed Haley’s rise. The United Nations lunch was an exercise in public humiliation, a crude warning of what would happen if she failed to toe the line. What could she do but grin?

The last 100 days have exposed many of Trump’s election promises as bluster and silenced the more paranoid of his liberal critics who saw a Svengali-like master psychologist at work behind the storm of lies and inconsistencies. We now know that he is what he appears to be – a vain and needy old man who leans on his daughter and resents the world for not loving him as he thinks it should. His ignorance, thuggishness and insecurity are weaknesses, in that they have damaged his country and the integrity of the office he holds, but they are also part of what makes him a successful politician. He has a nose for the raw dynamics of power. His capriciousness puts his opponents off balance and he re-frames debates around his own simple binaries: great/not so great, beautiful/terrible. He has reset the bar to an absurdly low level and as other politicians hop back and forth over it like performing dogs, they are stripped of dignity. The news media offer an almost daily spectacle of officials contorting themselves to cover for his latest incoherent pronouncement. Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, is a spectacle in abjection, squirming as he lies to a scornful press corps.

If Trumpism means anything, it is as an ideological prelude to oligarchy. The president has demonstrated that he intends to use his office to enrich himself and Congress appears to be resigned to letting him do it. The judiciary has emerged as the only serious check on an executive branch that is at best erratic, at worst actively corrupt. The Russia inquiry, which various Republican-run committees are currently trying to lose in the weeds, is gradually exposing a network of connection to Russian state interests within Trump’s inner circle. If it ever touches on the president’s personal financial obligations, the picture could get much uglier. But Russia has distracted a lot of the “resistance”’, who are busy researching conspiracies in the hope that this will be a short cut to the president’s impeachment and removal. The unpalatable truth is that their elected representatives are unlikely to move for impeachment in the near future. Establishment Democrats have revealed their own corruption, the shameful fact that for all their talk, they are more invested in the maintenance of order than in opposing a presidency whose only saving grace is the incompetence and confusion that prevents it rolling out its pernicious agenda with greater efficiency.
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